Security demands of the present have a way of infringing on disarmament aims of the future. On 4–5 September, as the IISS was running the EU Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Conference, some of the European government officials who wanted to attend instead had to devote their attention to the overlapping NATO summit in Wales.

The NATO discussions also intruded directly. The leitmotif of a dinner speech by UN High Representative for Disarmament Angela Kane was what she called the ‘swerve’ of disarmament, taking off from the recent popularity of that term to describe major historical changes in consciousness in other fields, such as climate change. But former BBC World News presenter Nik Gowing, who served as moderator for the ensuing Q&A, asked how progress can be made toward the disarmament goal when Europe suddenly faces new security challenges on its doorstep. ‘Counter-swerves’ could lead to a ‘car crash’ on conventional weapons and much worse, he suggested.

Gowing noted that General Sir Adrian Bradshaw, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, had said at a RUSI conference the day before that NATO must ‘refresh its capability to deter Russia up to strategic nuclear weapons’. In light of fast-moving new realities, doesn’t the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs have to reassess what is achievable? Kane answered that assessments are always necessary but that one cannot lose sight of the goal simply because the time is not ripe, ‘otherwise you will never get there’.

Several questions were raised about the implications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime of Russia’s violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia had promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence as a condition for removal of the Soviet nuclear weapons that had been stationed on its soil. Kane noted the challenges Russia presented in several areas, including its lack of support for the Arms Trade Treaty, as well as its disinterest in cooperating with the US on further arms-control measures. But mindful of UN neutrality, she also noted Russia’s cooperation on Syrian chemical-weapons disarmament and declined to answer directly when I asked if ‘swerve’ does not translate well into Russian. Gowing interpreted her body language: ‘You have just nodded. Okay, it is an on-the-record nod.’

One of the simultaneous smaller sessions at the conference was devoted to the interplay among deterrence, non-proliferation and disarmament. Session chair Corentin Brustlein of the French Institute of International Relations expressed pleasant surprise that an EU-sponsored event would take up the topic. As he noted, the issues have to be considered in tandem, especially in light of events that ‘have shaken confidence in our ability to ensure European security and in Europe’s neighbourhood’, including Syria’s chemical-weapons attacks and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and direct military involvement in eastern Ukraine.

Russian voices in the conference were quieter than usual, but not entirely. Speaking in the deterrence session, Alexey Arbatov from the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations lamented that, at a time when attention to nuclear arms control was already sharply diminished, cooperation between Russia and the West has stopped. In some respects, the present crisis has moved the parties beyond Cold War standards, with economic sanctions being imposed and neutral countries seeking to join NATO. In this situation, nuclear weapons have become a sacred cow for Russia, he said, just as ballistic-missile defence has for the United States. He judged that we are seeing the end of the history of arms control based on the principles of the past 40 years.

Responding to comments from participants who advocated sustained engagement, William Alberque, head of the NATO Arms Control and Coordination Section, said the conditions in the 1997 NATO–Russia founding act do not currently exist (for example, the inviolability of borders); the alliance could not go back to business as usual without the reinvigoration of core principles. Commenting on Russia’s emphasis on nuclear weapons, Alberque said there is now debate in Moscow about pre-emptive nuclear strikes and ‘de-escalatory’ nuclear strikes: ‘These are crazy concepts that makes things from Dr Strangelove seem sane by comparison.’

Arbatov had the last word on literary references, in answering a question about the impact of the Ukraine crisis on the Iran nuclear talks. He hoped that successful negotiations with Iran could provide a new basis for arms control, but he was dismayed by the current situation: ‘It’s a Kafkaesque world when the six powers negotiate with Iran with the threat of new sanctions in the background while they simultaneously apply sanctions against each other.’ This undercuts prospects for a successful agreement. On the other hand, if the US and Europe judge that Russia is a bigger threat than Iran and make compromises in order for Iranian fossil-fuel exports to supplant Russian oil and gas, then it won’t strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime, he noted.

To me, hearing Arbatov’s perspective underscored the need for engaging Russia. And yes, for discussing disarmament and non-proliferation in the context of security realities.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.

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