Arms control scores a victory, but a massive agenda lies ahead


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

This past week a significant event occurred which, in less bellicose times, would have received a lot more attention. The United States announced that it had destroyed the remaining stocks of its chemical weapons. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997, is the closest we have come to a universal disarmament treaty. Its 193 signatory states pledged to go beyond the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons, and commit also to eliminating their chemical weapons research and production facilities and destroying their stocks. The CWC included stringent verification procedures and a specialised agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), was established by the United Nations in The Hague to monitor the implementation of the treaty and investigate instances or allegations of violations. Syria, where the Assad regime and its jihadist opponents have accused each other of using chemical weapons, and the actual use of such weapons on many occasions has been reliably verified, is a case in point.

On the day that the US signed the CWC, it possessed 30,620 tonnes of chemical weapons, whether sarin, mustard gas and blister agent or VX and GB nerve agents. Thus, it has taken the US almost 30 years to come up with safe but effective methods to destroy its stocks and to minimise risks from leakage, contamination and environmental damage. Yet by destroying all its stocks by the 30 September deadline, the US is in compliance with the treaty and has set a good example for others to follow.

Washington employed two destruction facilities to complete the task, one at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Kentucky and the other at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado. During the Cold War, 800,000 missiles armed with mustard agent were stored at Pueblo and its final task was to destroy 2,600 tonnes of mustard blister agent by 22 June. For its part, the Blue Grass Army Depot completed its work by destroying 51,000 M55 rockets filled with GB nerve agent, which had been stored there since the 1940s. The chemical agents were broken down by being mixed with hot water and caustic solution and then burned at a temperature of 1,000°F (or 538°C). As the Blue Grass facility is close to a residential area in Richmond, and the larger city of Lexington is nearby, most of the US stocks of chemical weapons were destroyed in more remote areas, such as the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and the middle of Utah. The introduction of robotic technology, which made the handling of highly toxic chemical agents much safer by removing fuses and bursters, allowed the US to considerably speed up its pace of destruction after 2016 and ultimately meet the treaty deadline with no major incidents.

For the first time since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the allies appeared to disagree on which weapons they were legally permitted to give to the Ukrainians

Industrially manufactured chemical weapons were first used in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front in 1915 during the First World War. They caused the deaths of around 100,000 soldiers during the war and severe injury to thousands more who had to live with the physical and mental consequences for the rest of their lives. Hence the ban agreed in the 1920s and the taboo against their use on the battlefield which, as with nuclear weapons, has lasted ever since. Unsurprisingly, the OPCW was delighted that the US, which is – along with Russia – the largest possessor of chemical weapons and also a frequent sceptic of the utility of arms control agreements, had respected to the full its obligations, thereby demonstrating that it is possible to achieve a global ban on weapons of mass destruction. The OPCW Director General, Fernando Arias, hailed “a historic success of multilateralism”, although he also warned against the reemergence of chemical weapons in the future given that these weapons are easy to manufacture and to hide. A number of industrial chemicals and precursors, easily and cheaply accessible in the civilian marketplace, can be used and the technical expertise required is not demanding. 

Moreover, the CWC is not quite universal. Egypt, North Korea and Sudan have not yet signed up to the treaty. Israel has but has not yet ratified. Russia and Syria are both suspected to be operating undisclosed chemical weapons facilities. There are still old stocks of ageing chemical weapons scattered around the globe, which need to be located, recovered and destroyed, for instance, in Libya and potentially northern Iraq. The OPCW still has work to do and the box indicating chemical weapons cannot be ticked off just yet. Substances such as white phosphorus, which Russia and Israel have both used in recent times, could also usefully be brought within the parameters of the treaty.

The US public diplomacy triumph was short-lived, however, as just two days after announcing the destruction of all its chemical weapons the US was embroiled in a new controversy regarding prohibited weapons, this time regarding cluster bombs. Washington announced that it was acceding to a request from Ukraine to supply that country with these munitions that are the object of an international convention signed in Oslo in 2008 and banning their possession and use. So far 123 countries, including two-thirds of the NATO member states, have joined the convention. The US decision cast a pall over the NATO summit in Vilnius due to open a few days later as, for the first time since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the allies appeared to disagree on which weapons they were legally permitted to give to the Ukrainians. Several major allies of the US and suppliers of weapons to Kyiv, such as the UK, Canada and Spain, were obliged to publicly state their differences with Washington on the issue of cluster bombs, while Germany said that it understood the reasons for the US decision. The US, however, and allies such as Poland, Romania, Latvia and Estonia have not signed the convention. Neither has Ukraine.

Ukraine is the demandeur and has to assume the consequences of its own choices

This said, the US was aware of the sensitivities that it would provoke by transferring cluster munitions to Ukraine. Cluster bombs have been the object of an international ban because they drop up to 60 individual bomblets that spread destruction over wide areas. Many of these bomblets fail to detonate, killing civilians and especially children who are attracted by the bright colours of the bomblets years after conflicts have come to an end. Some of the NGOs campaigning to ban cluster bombs claim that the failure rate is as high as 40%, leaving hundreds of square kilometres contaminated and lengthy and expensive cleanup operations that can go on for decades. Some NGOs have even argued that this effort in a war zone as extensively contaminated by unexploded ordnance, polluting chemicals and land mines such as Ukraine could last up to 750 years. This is undoubtedly an exaggeration but the clean-up will take a generation, holding back agricultural production and transport, water and energy infrastructure. The US has previously used cluster bombs in Bosnia and Kosovo as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-personnel land mines have also become a long-term hazard to human security and economic recovery and were subject to a UN-led ban driven by Norway and Canada some years before the convention on cluster munitions came into force.

Due to these constraints, the decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions lay on US President Biden’s desk for some months before he accepted the Pentagon’s advice and made his decision. The reason is the slow pace of Ukraine’s spring offensive and the difficulty that the Ukrainian army has had in breaking through the heavily fortified Russian lines. The US is concerned that Ukraine is running out of conventional artillery shells but its own dwindling stocks of 155mm ammunition or HIMARS long-range rockets means that it cannot keep up the momentum of supplies. Thus, cluster bombs are seen as a bridging solution until the US defence industry has been able to ramp up ammunition production. The EU has also allocated €2bn from its European Peace Facility to buy one million 155mm shells for Ukraine but many of these will also need to be manufactured given the difficulties in locating available supplies at volume on the open market. Yet the Pentagon does have over 100,000 cluster munitions in its stocks, so these can be delivered quite rapidly. The cluster munitions also have a military rationale of their own. They can help the Ukrainians to break through the Russian minefields and fortified positions and disrupt the Russian logistics lines and military airfields.

The US has also received written guarantees from Ukraine that it will only employ the cluster munitions in combat zones – something which is largely self-evident as Kyiv will hardly want to endanger its own civilian population by using them in urban areas. The US will also supply its most modern cluster munitions, which the Pentagon claims have a failure rate of only 3.25% or as low as 1.5% for one particular version. This is in contrast to the cluster bombs that Russia has been using in Ukraine consistently since the start of Putin’s invasion. The Russian weapons are far less reliable than the US models and have a failure rate of between 30 to 40%. So, the vast bulk of the discharge bomblets that Ukraine will need to clean up after the war will be Russian. At the same time, Ukraine has guaranteed the US that it will record the details of the use of cluster bombs to facilitate their post-war location and clean-up.

The Pentagon has argued too that, as it is frequently criticised for not responding quickly enough to Ukraine’s request for certain types of weapons – as with tanks, long-range artillery and fighter jets – it can hardly be blamed for now supplying a weapon that is at the top of Kyiv’s list of priorities. Ukraine is the demandeur and has to assume the consequences of its own choices.

No doubt when the war in Ukraine is over the debate over the utility versus the cost of cluster munitions will resonate

War is not easy, neither for the attacker nor the defender. It involves many difficult and finely balanced choices where just one or two factors at any given time can tip the balance among a host of competing arguments. Many wartime decisions are unpleasant and controversial, and decades later historians continue to passionately debate whether they were justified or just plain wrong. There is rarely a definitive conclusion. Take, for instance, the Second World War. In 1940, learning of the surrender of France to Nazi Germany, then-prime minister Winston Churchill ordered the Royal Air Force to bomb the French fleet anchored at Mers El Kebir in Algeria. Over 1,000 French sailors were killed in the attack. Until a few hours previously, France had been Britain’s principal ally but Churchill seeing that the UK was now facing Hitler alone decided that preventing the French fleet from falling into German hands was vital for the UK’s survival.

Yet historians still debate just how important a factor this decision was in Britain’s ultimate victory and whether some parts of the French fleet would have joined the French opposition to the collaborationist Vichy government. The Allied strategic bombing of Germany, and in particular cities like Cologne in 1942 and Dresden in 1945, has continued to divide historians. The strategic bombing killed around 600,000 Germans and other civilians. Some see it as a monstrous war crime which was never successful in halting German war production or provoking mass opposition to Hitler and which played ultimately only a minor role in helping the Allies to prevail. Others see it as vital in forcing the Germans to keep a large portion of the Luftwaffe at home to defend Germany’s cities, thereby depriving them of a key asset on the Russian front and in Normandy after D-Day. The decision of then-US president Truman to use the nuclear weapon against Hiroshima and Nagasaki also has inspired an enduring debate. Some believe that it was unnecessary because by August 1945 Japan had lost the war and would have been obliged to surrender shortly in any case. Others believe that even a defeated Japan would have fought on to the bitter end on its own homeland, costing potentially millions of American and Japanese lives before Victory over Japan (V-J) Day could be reached.

No doubt when the war in Ukraine is over the debate over the utility versus the cost of cluster munitions will resonate as well. Yet given the fundamental interest of both Ukraine and NATO in preventing Moscow from winning the war and the overriding need to keep Ukraine in the fight at a moment when it is losing manpower and weapons at a rapid rate and needs to limit its losses in order to fight on, no conventional weapon can be ruled out. It all depends on where we want to place the moral cursor: on the type of weapon or on the higher strategic necessity and objective to enable a country to withstand unprovoked aggression.

We need to keep the current international arms control architecture even if it is often hardly universal or perfect

These two examples – on chemical weapons being uncontested and on cluster bombs being the exact opposite – demonstrate some core truths about arms control. First, as stated earlier, is that it is not a hopeless cause as global multilateral agreements with rigorous verification procedures are possible. Yes, states can cheat and violate such agreements, as Iraq, North Korea and Iran have done with their nuclear weapons programmes and as Syria and Russia have done with their retention of chemical arsenals. Yet an arms control regime raises the cost for them in terms of hiding their activities and exposing themselves to charges of duplicity and then to international sanctions.

Investigative mechanisms, such as the OPCW for chemical weapons or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear watchdog in Vienna, can act as independent arbiters in assessing responsibility and cutting through the lies, obfuscation and disinformation that often surround arms control violations. These agencies can also help to mediate disputes and build public confidence for controversial steps. The Director General of the IAEA, Raphael Grossi, for instance, has recently been in Japan and South Korea to reassure the local populations that it is safe for Japan to release millions of gallons of treated radioactive wastewater used for cooling the nuclear reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power station destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Putting this water in the ocean is less risky than storing it at the Fukushima site. The technical and scientific expertise of the IAEA can help to adjudicate what is otherwise a politically charged issue coming on top of long-standing disputes between Tokyo and Seoul that have only recently begun to heal.

The first conclusion is that we need to keep the current international arms control architecture even if it is often hardly universal or perfect. Implementation and verification may be wobbly but treaties such as the CWC, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) set the standards and disarmament objectives that legitimise action against the violators and hold them to account. The existence of the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions at least obliges the US to hesitate, to think carefully through all the parameters of the issue and to make sure that it has a convincing public line for Congress and the international audience before it goes ahead.

A second consideration is to get the Western allies onto a common line when it comes to which weapons to ban and which to retain, and then under which conditions. NATO member states have often been divided on these issues. Some have advocated a UN treaty – now in effect – to outlaw the possession, let alone the actual use of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons states, which see these weapons as crucial for extended deterrence, particularly at a time of rising great power competition, have strongly resisted. They prefer the step-by-step, verifiable approach to nuclear disarmament enshrined in the NPT and shake their heads at the hypocrisy of allies that want to ban nuclear weapons while living comfortably under the nuclear shield that the nuclear powers provide, at some risk to themselves.

Once the war in Ukraine is over, the allies will need to start a debate about their approach to modern warfare

It has also worked the other way. European allies were alarmed back in 1986 when the Reagan administration seemed ready to give up US nuclear weapons in return for the Soviet Union agreeing for both sides to build missile defence shields. When push came to shove, the Europeans clearly had more confidence in the deterrent powers of nuclear weapons than in the reliability of missile defence systems. Fortunately for them, the Soviet Union rejected the offer. There have also been disputes over banning anti-personnel mines. The US has resisted because it sees a use for such mines in protecting the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. The NATO air campaign in Kosovo in 1999 saw the extensive use of depleted uranium shells by allied air forces, which NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International subsequently linked to an increase in cases of leukaemia in the region. This was disputed by the alliance but Serbia tried to use it to build a legal case against NATO in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. International agreements on controlling small arms and light weapons have also run into trouble as different allies have different gun control laws, with the US being unsurprisingly the major example.

All these debates seemed largely theoretical at a time when NATO was not planning to fight a major war and use any of its weapons – except for limited operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan – was still improbable and largely a planning exercise. But now that the alliance is turning itself once more into a war-fighting machine and supplying massive military assistance to its friends and partners, this question is no longer academic. So once the war in Ukraine is over, the allies will need to start a debate about their approach to modern warfare.

What is their response if Russia or other aggressors use nuclear weapons or banned chemical or biological agents or indeed cluster bombs or thermobaric air-sucking weapons? Where do the allies agree to abide by weapons bans unconditionally and where do they give themselves opt-outs under certain conditions, for instance, if Russia uses cluster bombs against NATO first? Under which circumstances would those allies supporting the ban of a certain weapon agree to its use by another ally in the name of the collective defence? If an ally does not want to use the weapon itself, could it propose an alternative solution? For instance, what are those allies that have criticised the US decision on cluster munitions doing to maximise their capacity to supply Ukraine with 155mm shells and other ammunition? These are delicate questions, but they will come to the fore quickly and be potentially divisive in any conflict that NATO is involved in. So, best to agree on a common stance and public justification now.

The West has an interest in imposing as many constraints on Russia as it can and bringing as much of the Global South along with it in this effort as possible

Finally, the allies also need a conversation, among themselves but also with their partners such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, about how they can revitalise the international arms control agenda. This has certainly taken a beating in recent times. A US think tank has calculated that so far in its war against Ukraine, Russia has violated over 120 different international treaties and agreements. At NATO HQ, and as the alliance holds its latest summit in Vilnius, the focus is very much on deterrence by demonstrating to Russia that the allies have the capabilities, plans and readiness to defeat rapidly any form of attack that Russia might launch against them. With Russia having violated or frustrated many arms control agreements in recent times – from the INF Treaty on intermediate-range missiles, to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, to the Treaty on Open Skies – faith in the normative and legal constraints of formal arms control agreements is at a low ebb in Western chancelleries. Concepts of ‘integrated deterrence’ – using economic, cyber and diplomatic as well as military instruments – and resilience against shocks have taken their place.

The many years of painstakingly negotiating multilateral arms control agreements do not seem to be justified by the lasting security that they bring. Yet this effort deserves to be undertaken anew by the Western democracies once the war in Ukraine has ended. Russia will seek to rebuild its military power and to develop and deploy ever more deadly weapons. So, the West has an interest in imposing as many constraints on Russia as it can and bringing as much of the Global South along with it in this effort as possible. The same applies to China which has embarked on a massive and rapid military modernisation programme to have the world’s most powerful army similar to what we witnessed in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Arms control agreements can slow these efforts down and raise the political and economic costs for those countries determined to ignore the constraints. They also provide in terms of data exchanges, inspections, satellite observation and technical verification, as well as agreements on the prevention of incidents and the handling of crises a degree of transparency. Otherwise, with fake military budgets, secret procurement programmes and obscure military plans and doctrines, there is a tendency for the international community to go dark. Is China’s intelligence really good enough, for example, to enable the leadership in Beijing to really understand what is happening around it and how the rest of the world is likely to react to Chinese behaviour, for instance, an operation against Taiwan? Without a US-China structured military-to-military dialogue and agreement on crisis management procedures, it is easy for tunnel vision and magical thinking to take over within the Chinese High Command. Already we see the consequences for nuclear security of Russia cancelling inspections of its nuclear missile silos under the New START Treaty with the US and refusing to share data with the US on its missile tests, nuclear exercises and technology upgrades. The suspension of US-Russia Strategic Stability Talks, which continued for a short period after Russia invaded Ukraine, does not help potential belligerents to better understand each other either. Contrary to what Donald Trump often proclaimed, imperfect arms control treaties (as nearly all of them perforce are to achieve agreement in the first place) are still better than no treaties at all and solely rely on power relations and the law of the jungle.

Peace will return one day and it will be the moment to rebuild the European security architecture

Moreover, there is an urgent need to extend the arms control agenda into new technologies and weapons systems, especially artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous weapons systems, cyber warfare, genetic engineering, hypersonic weapons; and to protect domains such as space and underwater from excessive militarisation. At the same time, looking beyond the war in Ukraine, NATO has to consider the shape of the future European security architecture. The alliance tried to do this on the eve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine when it invited two Russian deputy foreign ministers to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council to discuss military confidence-building measures and future conventional arms control agreements. Yet Moscow was not interested and demanded instead that NATO remove all its troops and infrastructure back to its pre-enlargement Cold War borders, thereby turning its members in central and eastern Europe into second-class, unprotected allies. Russia had clearly decided on the invasion of Ukraine gambling that it could succeed rapidly in subjugating the country and presenting the alliance with a fait accompli before it had time to rally. Arms control will be difficult after the Russia-Ukraine War. Trust is at an all-time low and Russia will be reluctant to go back to previous post-Cold War treaties which it believed worked against its interests, particularly the limitations on conventional armour and the flanks deployment restrictions in the CFE Treaty.

Now that Finland and Sweden are joining NATO the strategic configuration in northern Europe is changing, and the interests of neutral countries like Austria, Switzerland and Moldova will also need to be addressed. But, militarily weakened as it will be by the war in Ukraine, Russia may have an interest in putting as many constraints on NATO as it can, particularly in the area of troops on borders, long-range artillery and strategic bomber deployments. It is never too early to think about the future and allies need to start a conceptual planning exercise to come up with security models that meet NATO’s essential defence requirements while also reassuring Russia regarding its own legitimate security interests. The alliance certainly has an interest in taking the lead here and putting its proposals up front without waiting for the Russian propaganda machine to make all the running. 

NATO used to be big on arms control. During the Cold War, it had several committees dealing with arms control issues and tasked to come up with common proposals. Arms control was seen as the vital corollary to defence and deterrence. It may seem strange and even counter-intuitive to think about arms control with Russia at a time when the Kremlin is raining missiles on Ukrainian cities, blowing up dams and gesticulating with nuclear weapons. But peace will return one day and it will be the moment to rebuild the European security architecture even if it is more in the form of a cold peace and less in the form of cooperative interlocking institutions that was hoped for back in the 1990s. If NATO wants to shape the peace as effectively as it has shaped the war, it has to be ready.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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