Unwarranted maneuvers of Russia and NATO

By Yuriy Nadtochei, associate professor of Moscow State Institute for International Relations

As much as contradictions between Russia and the West proceed in Europe, the Euro-Atlantic region and in the Middle East, the crisis of the existing system of confidence-building measures in the military sphere manifests itself ever more distinctly. First of all, it refers to the mechanisms capable of preventing serious incidents involving the armed forces of Russia and NATO countries at sea and in the air.

According to an investigation carried out by the expert center “European leadership network,” the number of such incidents in European skies totaled more than 60 during the year-long period between March 2014 (the beginning of the escalation of conflict in Ukraine) and March 2015. In 2016, this figure increased to 780 events, an amount, according to some NATO representatives, unprecedented since the end of the Cold War.

The incidents included cases of mutual air intrusions, razor-close fly-by’s between Russian and NATO military planes, and close encounters between military planes and commercial liners. Additionally, incidents have been recorded involving Russia and NATO’s navies in the Baltic sea, the Black sea, and the Mediterranean.

Both the growing military activity of the Pentagon and its European allies at the Russian boarders, and the reciprocal, equally dynamic military measures of the Ministry of Defense of the RF undertaken at the Western frontiers of our country, have contributed to aggravation of the situation. A sharp increase in the number of training exercises (including surprise battle-readiness inspections) conducted regularly in border territories and aquatic areas separating Russia and NATO countries, multiplied by the mutual accusations of the Russian and NATO militaries of “aggressive behavior” and “non-professionalism,” have even more greatly increased the risk of collision between Moscow and the Western alliance. Such a collision may result not so much from intent, but emerge because of force-major circumstances or unintentional actions of one or several parties participating in military activity.

In view of the degradation of the existing regimes of arms control in Europe, narrowing communication space between Russia and NATO, expert estimations acquire a special significance, the purpose of which consists of elaborating practical recommendations both for political, diplomatic, and military circles capable of reducing the existing risk of confrontation with their decisions.

One can distinguish recommendations among such estimations, which are aimed at increasing functional capabilities of both already available mechanisms of providing measures of confidence and transparency in the military field, and principally new approaches to settling the outlined problem.

Unfortunately, the existing list of traditional regimes of control of unsafe military activity is not so extensive and is based either on agreements forged when the Cold War was in full swing, or on documents that came into force as it ended. First of all, this refers to international agreements developed on the basis of grave experience gained by the Soviet and American military at the peak of confrontation between the USSR and the United States in 1960s. A whole series of serious incidents, involving naval ships and military aircraft, sometimes featuring disastrous results, and the death of crews, led the world community to believe that it is expedient to develop international legal doctrine to prevent the repetition of such tragedies in the future.

One should distinguish both multipartite agreements – such as the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS-72) – from bilateral (predominantly Soviet-American) agreements, such as the 1972 agreement “On Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas” (hereinafter referred to as “INCSEA”) and the 1989 pact “On Prevention of Unsafe Military Activity.”

Ideologically, both documents were adopted during periods of thaw in Soviet-American relations – in the first case under the conditions of “détente”, and in the second case during “perestroika” and “new political thinking.” In technical respects, these agreements were forged to mitigate the side effects of uncontrollable military activity of superpowers that had become globally evident, first and foremost in the Euro-Atlantic region.

In particular, the 1972 agreement to order combat ships and planes of the parties to follow special measures for preventing collisions, use specific signals to identify their actions and intentions, and avoid simulating attacks on each other.

In return, the arrangements reached between Washington and Moscow in 1989 extended the functional and geographic boundaries of the 1972 agreement to new spheres of interaction – close military activity, as well as within the boundaries of state territories and aquatic areas of the member countries. In this case, the document addressed the activity of all military branches and corps, not just the Air Force and Navy.

Thereafter, both Soviet-American agreements became the model ones for similar arrangements concluded between the USSR/RF and 12 other NATO member countries.

The extension of measures aimed at preventing serious incidents continued after the Cold War, including the platform of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe/Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In particular, the provisions of Vienna Document adopted in 1990, and further, all its subsequent updated versions, have established a mechanism for preventing conflicts, risk mitigation and early warning, while the member countries have undertaken to hold consultations with respect to unscheduled military activity, transfer of troops and forces, and cooperate in order to prevent serious military incidents.

However, these provisions have never been used in practice, due to insufficient conceptual elaboration, while further attempts to arrange a steady dialog between Russia and NATO have also gone nowhere. The provisions of the earlier Soviet-American agreement of 1989 have not been implemented, in terms of establishing so-called “extreme vigilance regions”, locations of personnel (equipment) and armed forces presence mutually determined by the parties with the existing possibility of their undeliberate collision or stay upon activity.

In the interim, a geopolitical situation after disintegration of the USSR and NATO expansion to the East has created the necessity to develop a mechanism for the prevention of serious incidents involving aviation and ships of Russia and the Western alliance in zones of high military activity (first of all, in aquatic areas of Baltic and Black seas).

The assessment of risks of serious incidents, particularly in the open sea, has appeared to be a satisfactory argument, especially for the United States and China, which, relying on the experience of the Soviet-American Agreement of 1989, adopted a memorandum of understanding in November 2014 regarding rules of behavior for safe airborne and seaborne approaches.

According to experts, this document, despite the absence of a binding character, can be nevertheless appreciated as an important step towards development of a bilateral American-Chinese regime in the prevention of serious military incidents. In the final reckoning the very fact of the emergence of the memorandum is capable of creating prerequisites for the conclusion of agreements of this kind between the USA and countries in different world regions (including Europe), especially if such documents are developed on a multilateral basis.

In some degree, such a presumption has been proven by the political and diplomatic practices of the current Russian-American relationship. Though the memorandum on preventing incidents and providing safety of aviation flights in the course of operations in Syria, adopted in October 2015 between military agencies of the United States and Russia, failed to become a reliable prevention mechanism, nevertheless it demonstrated the availability of potential cooperation between the two countries in the defined sphere.

At the same time, such optimistic conclusions can encounter a good deal of criticism, since the translation of the American-Chinese or Russian-American experience to the grounds of relations between Russia and NATO is extremely difficult under current conditions. It is connected not only with the extremely tense relations between Moscow and Brussels or Washington, but also with bi-directional interests of NATO member countries, and non-aligned countries (Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine), as well as Belarus. It will be quite difficult to plug these countries into the Russian-NATO dialog because of the purely technical problem of incidents, since it appears intertwined into the more complex web of political contradictions between Russia and the West. Moreover, the majority of countries of Central and Eastern Europe have not concluded any arrangements with Russia for preventing serious military incidents similar to the agreements between the United States and the USSR, as well as those reached between the latter and other (Western European) NATO member countries.

In addition, internal coordination between alliance members themselves for the prevention of incidents is also far from perfection. Nor have national standards of transatlantic allies in the field of information exchange on such incidents been brought to a common standard, and sometimes they differ considerably.

Some treaty members not only hide information on particular cases of unsafe military activity and inherent retaliatory actions, but also restrict access to information on general functioning of INCSEA agreements reached between themselves and Russia. This circumstance obstructs identification of particular challenges related to unsafe activity, as well as the elaboration of standardized practices on neutralizing its negative manifestations.

The difficulties may appear as well in the process of attempting to settle a problem on the platform of the OSCE, despite the non-aligned character of this organization and the degree of representation of all states of Europe and Northern America in its body. The erosion of fundamentals of a system of confidence-building measures outlined in the latest decades in the military field developed within the framework of the OSCE, and the intensification of tensions between individual member countries of this organization on the issues of arms control, narrowed the extent of one of the most important OSCE “baskets”, the military and political one. The departure of the Russian leadership from previously overestimated expectations with respect to the OSCE and an orientation towards a more pragmatic approach to cooperation with the body has had more particular results, in the form of a moratorium on the operation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), entered as far back as 2007.

In addition, the absence of enthusiasm within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation with respect to further review of the Vienna Document of 2011 (as it is required by its provisions) also does not testify to the lack of options of OSCE as a platform for cooperation on the problem of military incidents for Russia.

As for the INCSEA agreements, Russian military leaders and diplomats are prone to consider these from an absolutely technical point of view, without giving consideration to and not comparing them with the documents in the field of arms control. In this respect, any attempts of broad interpretation of INCSEA, with the aim of expanding its domain, would hardly receive a positive welcome from Moscow.

This position of the Russian authorities can hardly be referred to as non-constructive, if one takes into account that further improvement of Vienna Document is on its own just a half-measure. The problem is that the document pays attention to the consequences of serious incidents only, and does not envisage any procedures of investigation with the aim of further prevention.

A significant drawback of the document and other arrangements concerning settlement of the problem of unsafe military activity is also an insufficient consideration of implications of revolution in the military science. A conceptual basis of such agreements shaped several decades ago envisaged an extremely limited circle of participants of serious incidents (predominantly, ships and planes), with the unmanned aerial vehicles and other models of military equipment, which are widely used nowadays, beyond the scope.

The underdevelopment of mechanisms of tracking military aviation flights gives birth to the risks of collision of civil and military aircraft owing to the latter’s use of commercial air corridors. A failure of provisions of the rules of International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to extend to the flights of military aviation performing missions with switched off transponders has resulted in cases of hazardous proximity between military and non-military planes becoming more frequent, which has endangered traffic safety in some sectors of international air routes.

After a tragic shooting-down of a Malaysian Airlines civilian passenger jet in the skies over Donbass in July 2014, the prospects of improving the internationally accepted statutory basis of the civil aviation remain as indefinite as ever. For instance, the probability of involving Russia into procedures of interaction in the framework of the European Aeronautical Safety Agency (EASA) is estimated by the experts as an extremely low one, though the agency itself published a report as far back as 2015 comprising particular recommendations for improving cooperation of ICAO member countries in terms of strengthening the regime of air traffic safety over the neutral waters of the Baltics. In particular, this means entering corrections to the third chapter of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, with the aim of obliging the member countries to publish their aviation safety rules and procedures according to a due regard principle [1].

The Agency has also proposed as a particular measure to present the maximum possible volume of primary data from radars for the disposal of civil air traffic control services, which is possible under conditions of general space for the countries of EU and NATO, but troublesome, if it involves states having no membership in these organizations.

The aforementioned obstacles to the building of efficient mechanisms for the reduction of the risks of incidents associated with unsafe military activity, nevertheless, do not exclude the possibility of attaining compromises capable of if not eliminating all the cases of such incidents, then, at least, bringing the repetition of them to a minimum. A “new rationality” in the relations between Russia and the West, where a refusal from overestimated expectations and calculations for a strategic partnership in favor of more careful plans of batched cooperation at the “level of reasonable sufficiency” becomes a distinctive feature. The main objective here is the possibility of reaching compromises based on common interests (but not on values, as before), while the final target is to avoid the head-on collision and maintain predictability in relations.


Incredible as it may seem, the practice of Cold War giving birth to a documentary basis of agreements governing unsafe military activity provides proof of the possibility of cooperation even under conditions of confrontation. The feasibility and effectiveness of the model of “non-cooperative” interaction grants certain advantages under current conditions. In the case of due application of this model in practice, Russia and the NATO countries have the chance to attain more productive results of joint activity than those which have been based on longstanding assurances of friendship and partnership.

[1] This principle was incorporated into article 3 of Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, saying: “The contracting states undertake to pay due attention to the safety of navigation of civil aircraft in the course of establishing rules for their state aircraft.

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