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NATO and Russia Need To Take Steps To Prevent Accidental War

| July 6, 2016

This year has seen warplanes and warships operated by U.S. and its allies, on one side, and Russia on the other side, continue to repeatedly engage in dangerous maneuvering in proximity of each other over the skies of Syria and in the Mediterranean Sea. The probability that these confrontations, if continued, would end in another shoot-out is not negligible. Therefore, leaders on both sides to take joint legal and practical steps to prevent their militaries from dragging them into an unintended armed conflict with each other. The July 13th sitting of the NATO-Russia Council offers a good opportunity to discuss these joint steps.

The latest in the series of air confrontations between U.S. and Russia over Syria was reported to have occurred on June 16. On that day Russian Su-34 bombers dropped bombs on U.S.-supported rebels of a New Syrian Army in the At-Tanf area, prompting American Navy to scramble two F/A-18 Super Hornets in response. The Russian planes then left the area, but once the two U.S. jets left the skies over At-Tanf to refuel, the Russian aerospace forces made another run at the same target. U.S. military commanders insist that they immediately sought to contact their Russian counterparts via a communications line, which has been established in accordance with a memorandum on safety of fights that the two sides signed on October 20, 2015. But that hotline is apparently meant to avoid air accidents rather than call off strikes, which might have given the Russian military an excuse to avoid responding immediately to the U.S. call. In fact, the U.S. military didn’t get to confer with their Russian counterparts until June 17th. The day after Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu flew to Syria to meet with Bashar Assad. Now imagine Shoigu’s plane was in the Syrian airspace at the time of the actual incident and not two days after. Would the Su-34 pilots have then taken a more confrontational stand, entering a dog fight with the approaching F/A-18s, especially given the fact that Russia is still smarting from the shoot down of a Su-24 by Turkish air force last year?

The probability of such a deadly development is still low compared to days of the original Cold War. I have counted at least 250 incidents when planes of US, USSR and their allies were either shot or damaged outside official zones of armed conflicts in the course of that Cold War. But while low compared to the days of the Cold War, the current probability of NATO and Russian warplanes or ships engaging in a shooting battler is not negligible, as the numbers of near-by misses, which Western and Russian warplanes and warships have been involved in recently, demonstrate. And, as we know, the risk equals probability multiplied by consequences. The consequences of U.S. and Russian militaries stumbling into an open armed conflict because of a mid-air or high-seas collision would be devastating, in my view. To lower that grave risk, Russia and U.S. militaries should have a serious discussion of how to avoid confrontations in the air in the zone of the Syrian conflict. If that requires modification of the October 2015 memorandum to allow both sides to urgently ask to call off strikes, then that should be done. If Russia’s claims that U.S. has repeatedly spurned its offers to draw a common map that would contain up-to-date information on the locations of existing forces in Syria are true, then U.S. should also get serious about drawing such maps.

Looking forward and beyond the zone of the Syrian conflict, U.S. and its NATO allies should have a serious discussion of how US-Soviet agreements on avoiding incidents in sea and air could be multilaterized. Perhaps, NATO members can work out a common position at their July 8-9, 2016 summit in Warsaw and then propose to Russia during the July 13th session of the NATO-Russia Council to transform the 1972 US-Soviet agreement on prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 US-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities from the bilateral format to the multilateral NATO-Russia format. United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Netherlands, Canada, Greece, and Portugal have similar agreements with Russia on prevention of incidents of high seas that are similar to the 1972 U.S. agreement between Moscow and Washington, while Canada and Greece also have agreements on prevention of dangerous military activities. However, almost a dozen of NATO members do not have such agreements with Russia, even though they abut seas. These countries include Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovenia.

NATO and Russia should also discuss extension of the 1972 agreement to incidents under the high sea because collisions of nuclear-armed submarines could be even more dangerous than nearby misses of ships and planes. The Russian side could be particularly amenable to such extension if only because it was ne of Russia’s most respected defense intellectuals Andrei Kokoshin who initially proposed such extension. The sides should also discuss including concrete mechanisms on actual prevention of incidents in such existing multi-lateral agreements, as the 2011 Vienna Document and Convention on International Civil Aviation, including, perhaps, a requirement for warplanes to fly with their transponders turned on at all times while in international airspace.

In addition to enhancing multilateral and international agreements on prevention of incidents, Russian and Western leaders should also make sure their military commanders do not take unauthorized actions that increase risk of an accident that could make sides stumble into a conflict. Some might think in Russia commanders take no such risks, but this is not the case, according to Vladimir Putin. In a documentary on Russia’s taking of Crimea, which aired on Russian television in March 2015 Putin said that Russian commanders had chosen not clear their actions in engagement of U.S. military at least one occasion during the Crimean crisis. In the documentary commander of the Russian Black Seat fleet Alexander Vitko describes how “it was decided” to send a Su-24 attack plane to fly low over the deck of USS Donald Cook in April 2014: “We had to show use and resolve to use force.” Then documentary’s creator Andrei Kondrashov asks Putin to comment on that incident and Putin says: “It was not my decision. It was hooliganism on their (commanders’) part and didn’t tell me anything about it.”

With top US and Russian officials on both sides openly referring to each other countries’ as adversaries in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, a new Cold War may be inevitable. However, that doesn’t mean the sides cannot jointly work to reduce grave common risks that unintended mid-air and mid-sea collisions and other military incidents can pose.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Saradzhyan, SImon.“NATO and Russia Need To Take Steps To Prevent Accidental War.” The Huffington Post, July 6, 2016.

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