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Avoiding War in Europe: The Risks From NATO-Russian Close Military Encounters
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November 2015

By Ian Kearns

A Russian warship moves through the waters near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol on March 7, 2014, as part of a blockade of Ukrainian ships. [Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images]On March 3, 2014, a Russian warplane with its transponders switched off came within seconds of colliding with a Danish civilian airliner carrying 132 passengers from Copenhagen to Rome. SAS flight 737 averted a collision that day only because of evasive action taken by its pilot.1

An almost identical incident occurred nine months later, on December 12, again involving a Russian warplane and a civilian airliner that had just left Copenhagen.

Barely a year after the first incident, in March of this year, Russian Su-30 multirole fighter jets used two NATO warships in the Black Sea as targets in high-intensity training exercises.2 The purpose of the exercise appears to have been to provoke the NATO ships into taking defensive action so that the pilots of the Russian aircraft could observe that action and practice countermaneuvers.

Over the last 18 months, the European Leadership Network has logged more than 60 such dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area.3 The wider catalogue of events includes mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on targets in North America and Denmark, instances of Russian and Western fighter aircraft coming within meters of each other while on maneuvers, a series of submarine hunts off the coasts of Scotland and Sweden, and the abduction by Russian agents in September 2014 of an Estonian security service operative on Estonian, and therefore NATO, territory. In recent weeks, as Russian air operations have commenced in Syria and instances of Russian violations of Turkish airspace have come to light, the theater of these close and dangerous military encounters and incidents appears to have broadened from the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to the Middle East.

There is a wider military and political context to these events that makes them all the more worrying. In addition to the close NATO-Russian military encounters now occurring, a general deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the West has become visible in an action-reaction cycle of military exercises being conducted in Europe. Russia is conducting more exercises than NATO, and the two sets of exercises are dissimilar in scale. A Russian “snap” exercise conducted in March, for example, brought together 80,000 military personnel in operations focused on the Arctic and the Baltic Sea regions whereas NATO’s largest exercise in many years, Trident Juncture, which started last month, drew about 36,000 military personnel. Moreover, while NATO exercises are aimed at reassuring allies in the eastern part of the alliance in the context of Russian support for separatists in Ukraine, Russia is using its exercises at least partly to intimidate and unsettle its neighbors.

Despite these important differences, however, there are similarities in the exercises of the two sides. These similarities say something important about what is occurring.

Both sides are using their exercises to practice a rapid mobilization and redeployment of forces over long distances to strengthen what they perceive to be their most strategically exposed areas. NATO is conducting exercises with a view to being able to protect the Baltic states and Poland. Russia is focusing on its border areas with Latvia and Estonia; Kaliningrad, the Russian territory between Lithuania and Poland; the Arctic; and occupied Crimea. The exercises of both involve ground, air, and naval forces in joint operations and include high-intensity combined arms training, the conducting and repelling of amphibious assaults, and engagements with low-level irregular forces.

Most importantly, despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. Many in NATO believe that the demonstration of resolve that the NATO exercises and additional force deployments in eastern Europe represent is essential to deterring Russian aggression and therefore to keeping the peace in Europe. In NATO’s view, the exercises are not a problem, but a virtue. Whether this view is justified—given Russia’s recent behavior, it may well be—the total effect of the developments described here is to generate a growing sense of insecurity on both sides. Russian exercises are seen as a provocation and a threat in the West, and NATO exercises and new deployments are seen as threatening in Moscow.

The developing situation also has a nuclear dimension. In a documentary made for a domestic Russian audience in March 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the operation to annex Crimea. Just a few weeks later, the Russian ambassador to Denmark appeared to tell that country that if it took part in NATO’s emerging missile defense shield, it could expect to go on the target list for Russian nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. These instances of what are seen as nuclear intimidation and nuclear saber rattling are creating pressure for a NATO response.

Last month, in response to Russia’s recent behavior, Adam Thomson, the UK ambassador to NATO, said that since the end of the Cold War, NATO has conducted exercises with conventional weapons and nuclear weapons but not “the transition from one to the other.” Now, however, “[t]hat is a recommendation that is being looked at. It is safe to say the UK does see merit in making sure we know how, as an Alliance, to transition up the escalatory ladder in order to strengthen our deterrence.”4

Meanwhile, Crimea and Ukraine have become flash points of a much more fundamental political disagreement. Not only are there significant policy differences between Russia and the West, but on the Russian side, a growing number of military and national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing Putin and weakening the Russian state to the point where it can be effectively destroyed and dismembered. Claims that the removal of the Yanukovych government in Ukraine was a Western-backed unconstitutional coup and a trial run for a “color revolution” in Russia itself are dismissed as rhetoric in the West, but are more deep-rooted in Moscow than some Western policymakers appear willing to acknowledge.5 It therefore seems safe to assume that current Russian behavior is driven as much by a concern for regime survival as it is by a concern for geopolitical advantage or by disagreement with specific policies of the West.

Many in the West at the same time believe that Russia is seeking to change the post-Cold War settlement, or perhaps even the post-World War II settlement, in Europe in a number of ways, including by use of force if necessary. The charge sheet here concerns changes to the borders of the Georgian state since 2008 and events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past two years. It also includes the provision of funding and support to nationalist political parties hostile to the European integration project in central and western Europe and the use of energy as an instrument to influence the domestic and foreign policy choices of a number of states in NATO and the European Union. For many, it is becoming apparent that Russia is a revisionist power in western as well as eastern Europe.

Whether or not the current situation amounts to a new Cold War, the upshot is a confrontation in which both sides now perceive their fundamental interests to be at stake.

At the Mercy of Events

Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it. To understand why this is not an exaggerated concern, one might consider the sequence of events that easily could have transpired if the aforementioned SAS civilian airliner en route from Copenhagen to Rome had collided with the Russian warplane.

The outrage and uproar in Western capitals at what would certainly have been a very serious loss of life would have been understandably huge. Media and public pressure to act quickly against Russia would have been irresistible. A demand for an immediate cessation of Russian military flights with transponders switched off, especially in civilian air corridors, would have been issued. If that demand did not elicit an immediate positive response from Moscow, a move that might imply acceptance of guilt, previously routine civil aviation flights in European airspace would have been declared at risk. In that situation, those flights would have to have been suspended, which would have been politically unacceptable and economically very damaging, or NATO would have needed to begin military interdiction of Russian aircraft. Any European government not willing to support such interdiction would have been taking its future in its hands, exposing itself to claims that it was weak in the face of unacceptable Russian behavior or risking a further incident while doing little or nothing to prevent it.

Amid this kind of uproar in the West, Putin would be highly likely to exhibit sadness at the loss of life and to offer full Russian assistance in any inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened. At the same time, he almost certainly would point out that Western military aircraft themselves fly with transponders switched off and that the Russian military aircraft involved in this particular incident was operating in full compliance with international law and was in international airspace. Although not ruling out talks to manage the situation, his domestic political persona would constrain his options. He has invested a lot of time and effort in portraying himself to his own people as a strong leader, capable of standing up to the West while making Russia respected again on the international stage. Capitulating to Western pressure outright would be politically damaging.

Diplomacy might save the day, but that could not be assumed. The scene would be set for the planes, naval vessels, and land forces of a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance to continue coming up against each other. This time, however, the close encounters would not be part of planned exercises or a game of brinkmanship, which is dangerous enough, but would come amid a real standoff over who had the right to fly where and under what circumstances, with everyone’s fundamental interests and full political prestige at stake.

Little or nothing is being done to avert this kind of crisis, which could be triggered by any one of the other dangerous incidents and encounters that have taken place over the last 18 months. This absence of action is shocking. If such a crisis resulted in military hostilities, there would be no telling where those hostilities might lead and, given the nuclear arsenals on both sides, what the end result could be.

Agreements on Avoiding Incidents

The Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, was signed by U.S. President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at their summit in Moscow in May 1972. It is a technical military-to-military agreement rather than a statement of political principle. It requires each side to avoid dangerous maneuvers, refrain from mock attacks that might simulate weapons use against aircraft or ships, and avoid dropping objects close to ships to hinder their navigation. It also requires the surveillance ships and aircraft of one side to communicate with the other.

The agreement was a response to a dangerous pattern of military activities, including instances of each side’s warships maneuvering very close to those of the other, and a pattern of dangerous maritime air surveillance involving close overflights of warships. The latter was often perceived as harassment by the ships’ commanders. The agreement proved its worth when, during the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, it helped ensure there were no serious incidents while 150 U.S. and Soviet warships shared the crowded waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities was signed on June 12, 1989, and entered into force on January 1, 1990. Like the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it governs the activities and personnel of each side when operating in close proximity to the other in peacetime. It focuses on four categories of military activity: military operations by one side near the territory of the other; the use of lasers, particularly those directed at aircraft cockpits, which could be harmful to personnel; operations in areas of high tension, which either party could designate as a “special caution area”; and interference with command-and-control networks. In each of these areas, the agreement requires caution, communication to avoid dangerous incidents and misunderstandings, and action to terminate injurious activity if a problem is identified by the other side. Unlike the Incidents at Sea Agreement, it incorporates certain operations on land as well as those at sea and in the air. It also sets out agreed communications signals and frequencies to be used by the aircraft, ships, and ground vehicles of each side. A joint military commission was set up to issue an annual assessment of compliance and consider how the agreement could be enhanced.—IAN KEARNs

    Negotiating a New Instrument

    The risk of a serious crisis and the absence of action to prevent one led to a recent paper from the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, made up of senior figures from Russia and the rest of Europe. This group called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened urgently to discuss a possible new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between NATO and Russia on rules of behavior in air and maritime encounters between the two sides. This proposal has been signed or endorsed by a total of 78 senior military, political, and diplomatic leaders drawn from across the European continent.

    The task force proposal draws explicitly on an agreement signed by China and the United States in late 2014. This U.S.-Chinese MOU sets out the principles and procedures for communication during encounters between military vessels and aircraft and requires each side to give timely hazard warnings if military exercises and live weapons firing are to take place in an area where the military vessels and aircraft of the other may be operational.6 It also sets out a series of rules for establishing mutual trust. These include a commitment, when conducting operations, to communicate in a timely fashion about the planned maneuvers of military vessels and military aircraft. They also include a list of actions that should be avoided, such as simulation of attacks by aiming guns, missiles, fire control radar, torpedo tubes, or other weapons in the direction of military vessels and military aircraft encountered.

    The agreement specifies the radio frequencies to be used for communication and the signals vocabulary to be used if pilots, commanding officers, or masters of vessels experience language difficulties as they communicate with one another. It also contains a provision for each party to conduct an annual meeting, led by senior military officers, to assess application of the agreement in the previous year and to deal with any problems or issues that have arisen during that time.

    With regard to the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and Over the High Seas, usually known as the Incidents at Sea Agreement, and the 1989 Agreement on Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities (see box) operate in a similar way. These two agreements could serve as the basis for a more multilateralized arrangement involving all NATO members and Russia and even NATO partners such as Sweden and Finland. Russian and NATO officials should pursue this objective with urgency.

    Some apparently still think such a deal is not necessary. In off-the-record conversations, some military commanders stress that close military encounters of the kind now under way in Europe were a fact of life during the Cold War and that well-trained, professional military personnel are more than up to the task of handling them without incident.7

    Furthermore, some diplomats and politicians, particularly in eastern Europe, see the proposal as dangerously corrosive to Western unity with regard to Russia. This latter group sees any attempt to negotiate a mechanism for reducing the risks of close military encounters with Russia as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior and as an unwelcome opportunity for some Western countries, suspected of wishing to return their relations with Russia to “business as usual,” to advance their case. According to this view, a move to negotiate a new instrument would encourage further aggressive Russian behavior and dissipate the message of resolve, deterrence, and a commitment to collective defense that NATO has been trying to construct and maintain since the annexation of Crimea.8

    On the Russian side, there also are some voices arguing against this proposal, seeing in it a Western tactic aimed at distracting attention from matters of greater significance, such as the eastward enlargement of NATO, the failure of the West to engage in dialogue on future arrangements for European security as a whole, and a lack of willingness to address wider Russian security concerns from missile defense to developments in conventional prompt global-strike systems.

    The arguments on all sides are understandable in the context of what is now a total breakdown of trust between NATO and Russia and a lack of confidence among some allies within NATO. Ultimately, however, they are not persuasive.

    The very existence of the recent U.S.-Chinese MOU validates a concern over the risks that are run when the military forces of states that are not allies come into close proximity with one another. That agreement makes clear the importance of having protocols and military procedures in place to manage events in real time rather than relying on agreements to refrain from certain kinds of activity in the first place. Although some military commanders seem less worried about such incidents, many more believe leaving the outcome of close military encounters to chance or the split-second decisions of individual pilots and other military personnel is unnecessarily dangerous.

    The more recent dialogue between Russia and the United States on the subject of “deconflicting” the roles of the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military forces deployed in and around Syria is another timely recognition of the need for and logic of a new multilateral instrument to manage the risks.

    Although there has been some concern about the ultimate diplomatic consequence of negotiating such an instrument in Europe, the necessity of having the conversation with regard to Syria was realized almost immediately once it became clear that the Russian military presence in Syria was being increased and was changing in character and capability. To put it bluntly, it became evident to everyone that U.S. warplanes operating over Syria could be accidentally shot down by Russian air defense systems being deployed there, embedded U.S. special forces on the ground could be the victim of Russian air attacks, and Russian and U.S. military aircraft could be operating in an uncoordinated way in the same airspace. This overall situation and several instances of Russian warplanes entering Turkish airspace from Syria prompted NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell a press conference on October 6 that “Russia must deconflict its military activities in Syria” and that “it’s unacceptable to violate the airspace of another country, and this is exactly what we were afraid of, that incidents, accidents may create dangerous situations.”9

    It is difficult to see why dialogue and the negotiation of more-formal arrangements makes strategic sense between China and the United States in the East and South China seas and why deconflicting makes sense in Syria, but neither apparently makes sense between NATO and Russia in Europe.

    Deterrence Is Not Enough

    NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addresses a press conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on October 6.  [Photo credit: Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images]The argument that an attempt to negotiate a new instrument between NATO and Russia in Europe could weaken deterrence also is not persuasive. It is a reasonable concern, echoing debates on whether to engage in détente and associated steps toward superpower conflict prevention and crisis management during the Cold War. Yet, it is important to recall that the underlying rationale of détente was a lowering of tension with the Soviet Union to avoid the possibility of an accidental conflict and the potential for catastrophic nuclear war. Détente emphatically was not nor was it intended to be the end of superpower competition or of differences between the Soviet Union and the United States.

    The impetus for dialogue in that period, as manifested in the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreement and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, to cite two examples, was an acceptance of the need for mutual restraint and the adoption of measures to avoid accidental war. This approach was seen as the only basis for mutual survival. The nuclear shadow was ever present, and the fear of nuclear war was the driving force. In essence, what followed the near catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 was a developing belief that the task of avoiding war between nuclear-armed states could not be left to deterrence alone. Other mechanisms were needed to keep the peace and, no matter what disagreements and confrontations existed, these mechanisms needed to be negotiated and implemented.                 

    Looking at the current absence of dialogue between NATO and Russia and at arguments against negotiating a new instrument to manage close military encounters, one is struck by what appears to be nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency, or both. If a military confrontation between Russia and NATO were to develop today, for whatever reason, the risks and the potential consequences would be the same as they were during the Cold War.

    For these reasons, the case for a new instrument to help manage the risks in the Euro-Atlantic area, and in particular to manage the risks between NATO members and Russia, is strong. The call for negotiation of such an instrument chimes with the times and with approaches being used in other theaters. Above all, it reflects the lessons of history. To pretend the status quo is safe or acceptable is to abdicate the responsibility of leadership and to leave the security of Europe and potentially of the world at the mercy of events.


    Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom and deputy chair of the institute’s independent All-Party Commission on National Security in the 21st Century.


    ENDNOTES

    1.  “SAS Flight in Russian Spy Plane Near Miss,” The Local, May 8, 2014, http://www.thelocal.se/20140508/sas-plane-in-russian-spy-plane-near-miss.

    2.  Government-owned Russian media even bragged about this incident. See Sputnik International, “Russian Jets Penetrate NATO Ships’ Air Defenses in Black Sea,” March 19, 2015, http://sputniknews.com/russia/20150304/1019036875.html.

    3.  Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa, and Ian Kearns, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/medialibrary/2014/11/09/6375e3da/Dangerous%20Brinkmanship.pdf. For a further update on incidents, see Ian Kearns, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear, “Russia-West Dangerous Brinkmanship Continues,” ELN, March 12, 2015, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/russia--west-dangerous-brinkmanship-continues-_2529.html.

    4.  “Britain Backs Return of Cold War Nuclear Drills as NATO Hardens Against Russia,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2015.

    5.  The term “color revolution” is a reference to labels used by the world’s media to describe previous waves of revolutionary change in a number of countries. Examples include the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.

    6.  “Memorandum of Understanding Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters,” November 9, 2014, sec. 1, http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/141112_MemorandumOfUnderstandingRegarding
    Rules.pdf.

    7.  Between March 2014 and October 2015, the author conducted face-to-face, telephone, and e-mail interviews on background with a number of senior military figures from NATO countries and Russia. The statement made in this paragraph reflects the view of a minority of those interviewed.

    8.  Since the publication of the position paper by the Task Force on Greater Europe calling for a new memorandum of understanding, this view has been expressed in August 2015 to the author directly by a former Baltic state defense minister and by several ambassador-level diplomats from the same region.

    9.  “Pre-Ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, October 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_123471.htm. NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on October 8.

    Posted: November 2, 2015