Ending the Cycle of Confrontation Between Russia and the West

It is wonderful to be back in this lovely city and to be here with such a distinguished group. The Luxembourg Forum has served, and will continue to serve, as an exceptionally important forum for dialogue on critical issues affecting our common security. It regularly attracts the most distinguished diplomats, military officers, government ministers, and leaders in international relations – and it is a distinct privilege to be with you once again today.

The theme for this afternoon’s panel is follow-on reductions of strategic arms, a topic which I will return to momentarily. But I would first like to acknowledge a theme that others will no doubt mention throughout this conference – and that is that we find ourselves at a critical juncture, a crossroads if you will, between confrontation and acrimony on the one hand, and stability and mutual security on the other. As others have mentioned this morning, across the Euro-Atlantic region, we are confronted with a particularly dangerous geopolitical environment, one characterized by heightened tensions between Russia and the West and consequently, growing risks for us all.

NATO and Russian militaries continue to move closer together – with increasingly frequent military exercises and troop rotations close to common borders. Channels of communication between our militaries and our political establishments are few and far between. Despite the initial meeting of the NATO-Russia Council last month, we remain without any meaningful military or technical-level interactions aimed at reducing risk and building confidence. Dangerous military encounters between Russian planes and NATO aircraft and ships continue to dominate the headlines– and there remain major disagreements between Russia and the West regarding ballistic missile defense, conventional strategic weapons, and tactical weapons – all without a meaningful forum for discussion and debate.

Perhaps the most significant challenge we face is the corrosive lack of trust that undermines any prospect for cooperation between our political leaders. This lack of trust permeates all levels of our societies and our governments, including our militaries, making it far more likely that an innocent miscalculation could turn into a serious catastrophe.

What we are left with is an unforgiving cycle of confrontation between Russia and the West. Zero-sum becomes the name of the game. Acrimony breeds more acrimony. And with thousands of nuclear warheads still primed for prompt-launch, we risk leaving future generations with potentially grave nuclear dangers.

So how do we emerge – or at least, start to emerge out of this cycle? I’m sure many of you will offer your suggestions throughout these next two days – and I’ve already heard several excellent ideas put forward this morning. But I would like to take the opportunity to put forward three recommendations of my own on rebuilding mutual security:

First, it is essential that our leaders reconfirm their countries’ fundamental commitment to strategic stability. At a time when there is so much distrust and potential for miscalculation, it is important that leaders make clear – as they did in the 1980s - that nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.

Second, it is essential that NATO and Russia begin a meaningful dialogue on confidence-building measures to reduce the risks of miscalculation and accident. The first NATO-Russia Council meeting was an important step – but in order for this forum to bear meaningful results, it must include communication at levels below the Ambassadorial-level to include military and technical officials. The NATO-Russia Council could look to the U.S.-Russia “deconfliction” agreement pertaining to military operations in Syria for prudent measures to apply elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic region, such as distance limitations for aircraft and ships and a requirement to fly with transponders on when flying in international airspace.

Third, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the other members of the OSCE should work to modernize the 2011 Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures. The Vienna Document serves as the benchmark for prudent security measures – but its measures have not kept pace with the constantly evolving security environment. Specifically, updates to the Vienna Document should focus on reducing troop & equipment level thresholds for notification on exercises, increase transparency on snap exercises, and increase the quotas on evaluations and inspections of unusual military activity. These measures have the potential to significantly improve transparency around military exercises in the Euro-Atlantic region, thereby reducing the risks of miscalculation.

While these recommendations do not create a specific roadmap for follow-on reductions in strategic arms, I believe they create the conditions under which such negotiations become possible.

Another key step will be to invest in broadening our understanding of and developing innovative solutions to the significant technical challenges related to deep cuts in nuclear weapons. That is why I am proud that NTI has partnered with 28 governments to facilitate the work of the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, a major initiative aimed at tackling these tough technical challenges in a multilateral setting. As this important effort moves forward, Russia should be encouraged to join as a full member so that it can share the considerable arms control experience it has accumulated over decades with others in the international community. 

Let me conclude by stating that if we are not able to restore confidence and some degree of trust between Russia and the West, we are unlikely to see arms reduction talks go very far in the near future. Instead, we are likely to see greater investments in modernization, more loose nuclear talk, and increased risk for the international community. I hope we are wise enough to choose the other path – the path of stability, the path of prudence – and work to convince our colleagues back home of the benefits of this wisdom. Thank you.


June 7, 2016

Addressing the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, NTI Vice Chairman Des Browne said a corrosive lack of trust between Russia and the West undermines prospects for future arms reductions.

Des Browne
Des Browne

Vice Chair, NTI