Staying in Touch During Escalation

By Yury Nadtochey, Visiting Scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The partial mobilization announced by the Russian authorities and President Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons against those who interfere with what he calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine significantly raise the degree of tensions between Moscow and the West.

In the face of growing uncertainty, which could bring Russia and NATO to the edge of a direct clash, it is time to think about the means of prevention. At first glance, there are not many of them, but they do exist. The communication hotlines between the Russian military and NATO, and Russian and U.S. decision-makers are crucial to this prevention.

Although this tool should not be overestimated, neglecting it could turn out to be very costly for both parties. The exchange of information during a conflict prevents decision-makers from making miscalculations which could result in aggravating the conflict. Disregarding this principle could be highly risky for the conflicting parties and could lead to catastrophic consequences.

Moscow and Washington have long recognized this fact. Since the first communication hotline was established between the Kremlin and the White House in 1963, the two superpowers have sought to prevent situations in which a lack of information could produce misinterpretation of one’s military intentions. Direct communication made it possible to correctly evaluate the other party’s actions. This created predictability and minimized the probability of a preventive nuclear strike resulting from a fear of being attacked first.

This principle was long adhered to in the Cold War environment. With each decade, confidence-building measures in the field of nuclear weapons use have been improved through the development of new mechanisms and agreements. As a result, we have a fairly advanced multi-channel system that facilitates communication between Russian and American leaders, in contrast to what we had in the early 1960s. However, what about the possibility of creating hotlines when it comes to conventional weapons use? Could they provide the same level of confidence as those established between nuclear forces?

Conventional weapons still play the dominant role in the Russia-Ukraine War. This weaponry, along with battlefield aircraft and drones, could easily reach NATO positions in the border areas of Russia and Belarus. Today, Russian and NATO forces are separated by just a few dozen kilometers in the areas surrounding the Poland-Belarus border.

Moreover, this issue extends beyond the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It encompasses a broader scope of activities such as military maneuvers, drills, strategic aviation flights, and the patrolling of air and sea borders. Are hotlines so effective when it comes to these activities? The answer is not as clear as it is in the case of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to the navy or air force, diplomats and the military cannot boast of such achievements as happened in highly sophisticated strategic arms control agreements. However, during the Cold War, some preventive mechanisms and agreements were developed in order to deal with potentially dangerous military activities and to prevent incidents or accidents at sea and in the air. These include the bilateral U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), the Agreement on Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas, and the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities Agreement (DMA), as well as multilateral agreements such as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREG).

Unfortunately, these agreements were not designed to be real-time risk management tools and therefore did not provide stable communication channels for the rapid exchange of information among the parties concerned. Moreover, they proved to be even less effective after the collapse of the Soviet Union as the geopolitical landscape in Europe had changed dramatically. That became clear in the 2000s due to NATO enlargement, U.S. military initiatives (such as America’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) installations in Poland and Romania), and the renewal of Russia’s military activities in Europe and the Atlantic. Long hikes of Russian warships and military aircraft (including strategic long-range bombers) became more frequent, producing more encounters and incidents at sea and in the air with NATO forces.

Moscow and NATO members have long worked to solve this problem, achieving only short-term successes. In 2002, just one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) started the so-called Cooperative Airspace Initiative (CAI). This mechanism was designed to create a more reliable system of communication and coordination between Russia and NATO in order to prevent dangerous incidents in the air involving both civilian and military aircraft. Unfortunately, the initiative was paralyzed with the suspension of NRC activity in 2014, and timid attempts to revive CAI did not lead to any substantial results.

But does this failure signal the irrelevance of communication hotlines? Not at all. One example of a deal that was made in the aforementioned area is the Memorandum of Understanding of Air Safety in Syria, signed by defense officials in October 2015. Though this accord was only active for a couple of years, it nevertheless turned out to be an excellent collision prevention tool that stopped U.S. and Russian forces from entering into inadvertent conflicts. Moreover, the memorandum of understanding (MoU) was a subtle but effective way of addressing the lack of transparency between the U.S. and Russian militaries. More importantly, it is probably the only case in which accords have been developed in order to reduce the risks of unintentional clashes of warplanes during wartime conditions rather than in peacetime.

What conclusions can be drawn? Why has the example of cooperation in Syria been more positive than the multilateral initiative in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic? One explanation lies in the intentions and aspirations of the negotiating parties. In Syria, the United States and Russia sought to prevent accidental collisions in the zones of military operations. In Europe, neither Russia nor NATO regarded such incidents as crossing a line which would precipitate a full-fledged military clash. But with the escalation of the war in Ukraine, there is clearer evidence that things could get out of hand. The good news here is that both the Kremlin and NATO members have signaled their readiness to stay in touch with each other in order to keep things under control and avoid misinterpretations or miscalculations of each other’s intentions and actions. Russia raised the issue of management of dangerous military activity in two so-called “security guarantees” agreements projects with the U.S.and NATO” drafted in December 2021, but consultations with the West were doomed to fail. However, on March 1, 2022, just a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a de-escalation military-to-military line was established between the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

Ultimately, there is no doubt that Moscow and Washington are ready to go all-in to achieve their goals in Ukraine. That could be a very scary scenario. Almost all the confidence-building and transparency mechanisms in Europe, either bilateral or multilateral, were designed to prevent war, but not to manage military activity while cannons speak, and diplomats remain silent. For the sake of all parties involved in the Russia-Ukraine War, it is crucial to develop and implement a more reliable and protective communication arrangement that can meet the challenge of wartime conditions.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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