Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

NATO and Russia Must Reopen Contact to Keep the “Cold War” Cold

| November 25, 2015

On November 24th, 2015, fighter aircraft from Turkey, a NATO state, shot down a Russian Su24 fighter along the Turkish-Syrian border.  A local Syrian rebel group claimed to have found one of the pilots dead.  Not since a Soviet sentry shot US Army Major Arthur Nicholson in 1985, has there been a shooting death between the forces of Russia and members of NATO.

Even as investigators work to uncover exactly what happened the incident has already set in motion a dangerous course of events.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has already threatened "serious consequences" for what he called a stab in the back.  He characterized the Turkish government as "the accomplices of terrorists".  At this moment of crisis between Russia and a NATO member state, there are few if any open channels of communication to resolve questions surrounding the incident.  The potential for reactions to escalate not only along the Syria-Turkey border but also along borders with other NATO member states, like the Baltics, is great.

In October of this year, the Elbe Group - a group of six US and six Russian retired general officers – met for the seventh time in five years and urged NATO and Russia to open a military-to-military dialogue immediately to communicate on military operations in proximity to each other’s borders. The Elbe Group recommended this policy because it was convinced that an accidental shootdown or clash of forces was inevitable considering the concentration of US, NATO, and Russian troops along the Turkey-Syrian border and the Baltics.   The group includes such senior US veterans as former CENTCOM Commander General John Abizaid, former STRATCOM Commander General Eugene Habiger and former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Michael Maples, as well as Russian counterparts such as former Interior Minister General Anatoly Kulikov, former Military Intelligence Chief General Valentin Korabelnikov and former FSB Deputy Head General Anatoly Safonov.

In a Joint Statement reflecting the opinion of both the US and Russian members, the Elbe Group recommended renewed “contacts between Russia and NATO, given that combat operations in Syria are being conducted near the border of a NATO member state.” Tuesday’s shootdown of a Russian fighter underscores the urgency of the recommendation.  Transparency about operations, force dispositions, and intentions is key to avoiding miscalculation or misunderstanding that could lead to unintended consequences.  In that light, the Elbe Group commended the recent agreement between Russia and the US to “deconflict” operations in Syria, but urged that it be expanded to include “practical steps for coordination and actions in the fight against ISIS.”  For example, the agreement reached in October does not provide for cooperation in rescuing downed pilots.

It is important to recognize how serious the situation has become over the last two years.  In response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and excursions into Ukraine, almost all operational communications between the militaries of NATO and Russia have been suspended.  Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has openly characterized Russia as an adversary threatening world order, and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu has responded in kind.  Even if it is not possible to reconcile the two sides politically and diplomatically, it is vital that a military dialogue reopen now to provide national leaders with a means to deconflict and resolve security issues without resorting to force.  NATO and Russia should reopen military-to-military contacts to provide transparency over capabilities and intentions – the two components of a threat.  This kind of dialogue was able to keep the Cold War “cold” and is needed again.

Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is Director of Defense and Intelligence Projects at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and organizer of the Elbe Group. He served as U.S. Defense Attaché to Moscow from 2001-2003.


An updated version of this op-ed was published by the Moscow Times Nov. 30, 2015

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ryan, Kevin.“NATO and Russia Must Reopen Contact to Keep the “Cold War” Cold.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 25, 2015.