De-Escalating Russia-West Military Tension Before Too Late – Analysis


By Özdem Sanberk

The Ukraine crisis has caused the biggest rift between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War. The crisis has produced thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of destruction. As well as downing a Malaysian airplane passenger jet over the Ukrainian airspace in July 2014, which killed 298 people on board, the conflict reverberated regional and global levels in the forms of increasing risk of military conflict, intensifying geopolitical and geo-economic divisions, and undermining much needed international cooperation against common threats such as ISIS in the Middle East. As the Ukraine crisis remained unresolved, military built-up by NATO and Russia carries an immediate danger of military conflict that would spark from a mistake any side may not be intended to cause.

Despite all geopolitical and economic repercussions of the crisis, continuation of facing a possible military spark cannot be sustainable, and thus such a danger must be kept minimal level if not totally avoided. Many in both sides would agree on these words, but how it would be best achieved in the current circumstances?

Where we are now in the Ukraine Crisis

To provide some answers to this question, first and foremost we need to look at where we are now in the Ukraine crisis. The cease-fire agreement, produced with the efforts of Germany and France, on 18 February 2015, is largely holding between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels. Despite the fact that this agreement is more comprehensive than the first cease-fire agreement signed in September 2014, but never implemented, it is not difficult to find many views in Russia, West and Ukraine that the current cease-fire is shaky and renewal of heavy fighting between the parties is quite possible.

The latest cease-fire agreement contains a number of measures to de-escalate the crisis and provides basis and trust for a political solution in the future. However, there is not a single provision in the agreement that Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebels fully agree on. Neither side appears to have not left their position to a chance. Russia continues to express that it is not a part to the conflict in Ukraine and so there is no need to be bound for Moscow by any provisions of the ceasefire agreement. The key position that Russia wants to keep under its control is the long border with Ukraine in order to continue pressurising Kiev government on political matters and to support pro-Russian rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine. Most agree that renewal of heavy fighting is not going to bring any success to Ukrainian military forces of 250 thousand before a pro-Russian army of 100 thousand rebels supported by Moscow.

It is because of ongoing risk of the renewal of the conflict and inability to implement the cease-fire agreement fully that western countries extended sanctions against Russia until January 2016. Fragile cease-fire in Ukraine and ongoing disagreements between the western countries and Russia on the Ukraine crisis have not only maintained the risk of renewal of the military clashes in Ukraine but also continuously increased the risk of military collision between NATO and Russian military forces in the Baltic region, Black Sea and some other regions. Consequences of a military accident between NATO and Russian military forces will surely be much more serious and dangerous for all sides and any other states when one thinks of the reality of a confrontation occurring between an alliance and state both having thousands of nuclear weapons.

Rising risk of military incident

It is reported that, especially since March 2014 when pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine started demonstrations against Kiev government and Russia annexed Crimea, there is an increasing pattern of military activities on the sides of Russia and NATO against one another. Indeed, the risk of a military encounter between Russia and NATO during that period is well documented by the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe with its Position Paper III released on 26 August.

As pointed out in the Position Paper III, the European Leadership Network, a London based think-tank and one of the partners of the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe alongside International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK), has given 66 military incidents between NATO and Russian forces, and the forces between Russian military and those of Sweden and Finland. Of these military encounters, three were classified as carrying high risk incidents. The Position Paper III informs that, in fact, there are much more military incidents between NATO and Russian forces. According to the Position Paper III, NATO carried on more than 400 intercepts of Russian fighter jets in 2014, a number four times higher than that of in 2013. On the other side, as reported by basing on Russian statement, NATO conducted 3000 tactical aircraft flights near the Russian border in 2014 an amount that were in half in 2013. It is also reported that Sweden and Finland intercepted a number of Russian warplanes near to their airspace, had to conduct search for mysterious “underwater objects” in their territorial waters in the last 12 months.

There are also increased number and size of the military exercises of NATO and Russia. NATO is reported to have conducted 162 military exercises in 2014 under NATO’s Military Training and Exercise Programme, which were twice more military exercises than those of initially planned. As for Russia, it increased military exercises including no-prior notification snap exercises, and some of them were conducted in the Russian Western military district that is close to NATO territory. Russia has also deployed additional air and see defensive and offensive military equipment in Crimea, and increased military activities, for instance, by using surveillance aircraft and long-range strategic aviation.

Although NATO and Russian military forces as well as national militaries closer to Russian territories have so far shown restraints in these military encounters and exercises, this condition of constant military activities carries a high risk – a picture reminiscent of the Cold War confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. There is no need to repeat the economic costs that have already been inflicted by the conflict on Ukrainian economy, sanctions and threat of further sanctions between the western counties and Russia. All in all, it can be seen that western countries inside and outside NATO will acquire a positive approach towards Russia, if Moscow demonstrates a more constructive position in the Ukraine crisis. Top of all these today, however, is the need to keep the mutual military activities by Russia and NATO under control in order not to let things go out of control.

Way out of military danger

Under the current tense situation caused primarily by the Ukraine crisis, it would be simplistic to see a quick normalization in the relations between the West and Russia. Therefore, as many would also agree, priority should be given to prevent military activities from getting out of control. This means that there need to have an effective risk management in military activities of NATO and Russia. For sure, there exist communication links between NATO and the Russian General Staff, and high level meetings of military and political representatives during the time of heightened tensions. But, these will be too late if an accident happens during military engagements along the line of contact between NATO and Russian forces.

Last year in July in its Position Paper II, the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe urged all sides of NATO, the EU and Russia to strictly follow three measures to reduce the military risk. It recommended them first to “exercise full military and political restraint”, second to “embrace increased military to military communication, information exchange and transparency measures”, and third to “engage in direct dialogue with each other”. These recommendations have still been very important measures in the de-escalation of the Ukraine crisis and military encounters between NATO and Russian forces. Open communication channels that exist between NATO and Russian General Staff are surely of great value, but are still not enough to eliminate military risk.

Indeed, as its Position Paper II, the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe proposed urgent convention of the NATO-Russia Council in the Position Paper III. This paper suggests the meeting of NATO-Russia Council not just for consultation or re-opening the communication channels between the two sides, but for producing a document that would better prevent NATO and Russian military forces from making a mistake on the theatre.

Specifically speaking, the Position Paper III urges the convention of the NATO-Russia Council to “discuss a possible Memorandum of Understanding between NATO and the Russian Federation on the Rules of Behaviour for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters between the two sides.” In this context, as well as similar agreements between the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War period, an agreement that was signed between the United States and China in late 2014 are given as valid and useful examples for the sides to look at.

Although the Ukraine crisis and its wider repercussions do not seem to be abating in a short period, there are still options not to allow them to worsen. Existing communication links especially military to military are very important to reduce the risk of unwanted military incidents between NATO and Russia, and any other document in the form of agreement would further strengthen this objective and help build much needed trust between the sides.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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