The Rise and Fall of Arms Control?

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(Disponible en français : Contrôle des armements : après l’essor, le déclin?)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, superpower tensions began to fade. As a result, it became possible to negotiate complex agreements on conventional arms and weapons of mass destruction. However, as the geopolitical context evolves, assessments can change, and momentum can be lost.

This HillNote discusses the arms control architecture that was constructed at the end of the Cold War and its status today.

Verifiable Disarmament

Unlike the more limited arms control agreements that preceded them, those signed between 1987 and 1993 included intrusive verification measures, while also requiring weapon reductions.

Both the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) included provisions for data exchange, notifications, and on-site inspections.

By 1991, the INF Treaty had eliminated an entire class of weapons for the United States and Soviet Union, namely ground-based missiles – conventional and nuclear armed – with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Those missiles had the potential to reach their targets within minutes of launch.

The START I Treaty applied to the strategic arms that could cause catastrophic destruction from a distance. It limited the U.S. and Soviet Union each to 6,000 treaty-accountable nuclear warheads deployed on 1,600 long-range delivery vehicles – i.e., land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launchers and bomber aircraft. Negotiations between Russia – as the legal successor to the Soviet Union – and the U.S. toward follow-on agreements, including the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, led to further reductions in their nuclear arsenals.

Today, under the New START treaty signed in 2010, the U.S. and Russia are each limited to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles. Both parties remain below those limits.

While the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical weapons in wartime, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibited any development, production, retention, stockpiling, transfer, acquisition or use of such weapons. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to monitor the treaty’s implementation. The treaty now has 193 states parties, including Canada.

The Dissolution of Trust

The geopolitical environment that influences state perceptions of arms control is not static.

The last two decades have seen power shifts, military modernization programs, and a series of developments, various of which Russia has interpreted as undermining its security, and the United States and its allies have seen as eroding the rules-based international order. Those developments include the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) enlargement eastward, and Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine.

In 2002, in the wake of Al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks against the United States, the U.S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, citing the need to protect the nation “from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks.” The bilateral treaty had prohibited nation-wide defensive systems with the intent of promoting stability by ensuring that the superpowers remained vulnerable to each other’s offensive systems.

In 2007, Russia announced that it would be suspending the implementation of its obligations under the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), which includes 30 states parties, including Canada. The treaty aimed to lessen the threat of surprise attacks by limiting the deployment and concentration of heavy conventional military equipment in central Europe.

The 1999 Adapted CFE Treaty had been negotiated to account for the dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact and to allow additional European states to become treaty parties. However, NATO countries indicated they would not ratify the adapted treaty unless Russia withdrew its remaining armed forces from breakaway regions in Moldova and Georgia. That did not occur.

In 2014, the same year that Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, the United States declared publicly that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty for having developed a ground-launched intermediate-range missile system. After calling repeatedly on Russia to return to compliance, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in August 2019, and NATO allies declared that Russia bore “sole responsibility” for the treaty’s demise.

Russia’s alleged non-compliant behaviour was also cited in May 2020 as the reason for the U.S. notification of withdrawal from the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies. It has been ratified by 34 states including Canada, which, along with Hungary, is the treaty’s co-depositor. The U.S. government announced that its withdrawal had taken effect on 22 November 2020. While sharing concerns about Russia’s restrictions on the short-notice observation flights permitted by the treaty, 12 European states have indicated that they will work to continue the treaty’s implementation.

The New START treaty – which applies to strategic, but not tactical (“battlefield”) nuclear weapons – is set to expire on 5 February 2021, although it can be extended by mutual agreement for up to five years.

China’s military modernization has further complicated the negotiating context. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China possesses more than 1,250 ground-launched, conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. There are also concerns that it intends to expand and diversify its strategic nuclear forces, albeit from a much smaller level. Since China has not been party to the nuclear weapon agreements reached by the U.S. and Russia, it has not been subject to equivalent transparency measures.

The Chemical Weapons Convention has resulted in the destruction of more than 98% of the world’s declared stockpiles of chemical weapons and is largely viewed as a success. However, chemical weapons have been used in recent years in the Syrian war and reportedly against targeted individuals elsewhere.

In 2019, the Annex on Chemicals was amended to expand the list of toxic agents, and subject them to disclosure and verification requirements, changes that entered into force for all states parties on 7 June 2020. The amendment responded to the use of a military-grade nerve agent from the “Novichok” group in the United Kingdom in 2018, an operation that France, Germany, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom connected to Russia.

In September 2020, the German government communicated the results of tests revealing that Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny had been poisoned using a Novichok agent. OPCW technical assistance was requested and provided in the matter, confirming the presence of Novichok in the collected samples.

The Group of Seven foreign ministers, NATO allies and European Union (EU) have called on Russia to determine who is responsible, and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The EU has also announced sanctions on six individuals and one entity in relation to the poisoning.

What New Era Awaits?

When he sought his nation’s approval of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the first major constraint of the nuclear age, President Kennedy warned that times past had shown “the spirit of one moment or place can be gone in the next.”

Much of the arms control architecture built as the Cold War ended and a new era began is showing signs of stress. Failure to renew or replace it could see the emergence of an international security landscape that is less transparent and predictable, and – consequently – less stable.  

Additional Resources

Arms Control Association, Fact Sheets: Treaties and Agreements at a Glance.

United States Department of State, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (Compliance Report).

Lisa M. Schenck and Robert A. Youmans, “From Start to Finish: A Historical Review of Nuclear Arms Control Treaties and Starting Over With the New Start,” Cardozo Journal of International and Comparative Law, Vol. 20, 2012.

Joe Clark and Peter Jones, “The Treaty on Open Skies is too valuable for international stability to be abandoned,” Opinion, The Globe and Mail, 29 November 2019.

Ian Anthony, Strengthening Global Regimes: Addressing the Threat Posed by Chemical Weapons, SIPRI Policy Paper 57, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, November 2020.

Government of Canada, Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Government of Canada, Chemical weapons.

Authors: Allison Goody and James Lee, Library of Parliament



Categories: International Affairs and Defence

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