Imagine the following: tomorrow, Vladimir Putin—almighty president of Russia—takes to the United Nations and announces the withdrawal of Russia’s remaining forces in Georgia, Moldova, and other post-Soviet territories.

In exchange, he only wants “peaceful relations with the West, economic prosperity for all, and the establishment of a common framework for jointly governing the security space from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”

The older ones among us will remember that the world has already been there.

Ulrich Kühn
Ulrich Kühn is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the head of the arms control and emerging technologies program at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.
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Back in 1988 in New York, then general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, announced that the Soviet Union would voluntarily reduce its military presence in Eastern Europe by half a million soldiers. What had been unthinkable for decades was about to happen in a blink: the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe.

Perhaps more than any other event in the following years, that day—December 7, 1988—marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

It was the irreversible sign that the politics of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) had become reality. It was the moment Moscow relinquished its trump card in the military standoff with NATO. It was the signal for the other Warsaw Pact members that the Kremlin would not constrain their foreign and security policy choices the way it had done in the past.

In my new book, The Rise and Fall of Cooperative Arms Control in Europe, I make this day the culmination point from which the “golden age” of arms control would unfold. During the next ten years, an unbelievable number of cooperative security agreements and institutions would emerge.*

But today, most of these arrangements are defunct, abrogated, forgotten, or simply overtaken by political and technical events. Older agreements, among them the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987), have been cancelled. Newer ones, such as the New START agreement of 2011, might soon cease to exist.

Given this incredible list of diplomatic achievements, and the inability of the international community to uphold the principles of cooperative security, it is not an exaggeration to speak of the end of arms control.

What went wrong?

First, cooperation between rising and falling powers is difficult. The massive shift in U.S.-Soviet, and later U.S.-Russian, capabilities in conjunction with the end of the Cold War had both a cooperation-enabling and, over the long term, cooperation-disabling effect.

In simpler terms, due to massive economic pressures, Moscow had to cooperate, and arms control promised to alleviate some of the pressure. Given the relative Russian weakness, Washington was able to follow through with its preferred policies, for instance on European security—meaning more NATO, less OSCE.

The results were Russian perceptions of inequality, dissatisfaction with the post–Cold War security design, continued calls for renegotiation, protracted negotiations, and increasing acts of noncompliance.

Second, both Moscow and Washington lost interest in cooperation. Throughout the Cold War, both shared a mutual survival concern tied to the principle of mutual assured destruction. With the September 11, 2001, attacks, Washington’s immediate concern shifted away from Russia to the War on Terror and, later, toward China. Russia dropped out of the focus. Cooperation was not a direct priority of the White House anymore.

In turn, Moscow, under Putin, shifted its priority toward economic and military recovery and consolidating its influence in the so-called near abroad, the other post-Soviet states. This mutual diminished interest in cooperation paved the way to mutually uncompromising behavior once divergent interests came to the fore.

Third, issue linkage across different regimes and issue areas is problematic. If you already have divergent views on, say, U.S. missile defense installations in Europe, try not to link it to possible arms control measures on non-strategic nuclear weapons, as Russia did in the past. Or if you do not recognize the role of Russian “peacekeeping forces” in secessionist territories in Georgia and Moldova, do not link their presence there to the further development of the conventional arms control regime in Europe.

This seemingly simple negotiation formula was ignored repeatedly on both sides, to the detriment of a number of arms control agreements, which ended up deadlocked.

By the way, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump is currently doing exactly that by linking possible extension of New START to progress on arms control talks with China.

Fourth, Russia did not cope too well with its loss of empire. The Russian attempts to consolidate the near abroad and to forge alternative military and economic alliances as well as open attempts to halt NATO enlargement (including the war in Ukraine) are all signs that Russia has not accepted its relative loss of power.

The result is a partial incompatibility of the current Russian foreign and security policy with the principles of cooperative security and therewith with arms control.

Fifth, both had problems in their mutual interpretation of certain key norms. One of those norms is the so-called indivisibility of security, which means that “my security is your security and whatever I do should not be to your detriment and vice versa.” Particularly on the European continent, both Russia and America interpreted this and other norms according to their own gusto.

Of course, there are a couple more reasons why arms control is (almost) dead. Perhaps most importantly, it seems that the times of “man makes history,” that is the willingness and ability of one man to significantly alter the course of history—the Gorbachev moment from 1988—are over, as is the binary U.S.-Soviet power equilibrium of the Cold War.

All that will make future arms control more difficult to achieve, because, compared to back then, the number of political variables has grown.

The next arms control agreement will have to include more and different actors and weapons platforms across multiple domains.

Perhaps it will also need more effort from middle-sized powers to forge new coalitions and to act where the so-called big ones are not willing to act anymore.


* For the arms control geeks, check out this impressive, although incomplete, list of arrangements that emerged in the “golden age” of arms control:

  • The U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities, 1989
  • The Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, 1990
  • The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, 1990
  • The Vienna Document, 1990, and its various follow-ons
  • The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I, 1991
  • The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, 1991
  • The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, 1991
  • The North Atlantic Cooperation Council, 1991
  • The Treaty on Open Skies, 1992
  • The CFE-1 A Agreement, 1992
  • The Chemical Weapons Convention, 1993
  • The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II, 1993
  • Over a dozen agreements under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), including the perhaps most beautiful arms control agreement of all times, the almost forgotten “Code of Conduct on Politico-Military Aspects of Security,” 1994
  • The NATO Partnership for Peace Framework and Invitation Agreement, 1994
  • The Budapest Memorandum, 1994
  • The Review and Extension Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 1995
  • The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, 1996
  • The Mine Ban Convention, 1997
  • The NATO-Russia Founding Act, 1997
  • The NATO Basic Agreement of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, 1997