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Risky Encounters with Russia: Time to Talk About Real Deconfliction

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from War on the Rocks.

The days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions … are over,” said President Joe Biden on Feb. 4, in his initial foreign policy speech. This coupled with the first actions his defense and foreign policy team have taken confirms speculation about the new administration taking a tougher stance vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, Biden also made it clear that, although not so widely reported, the United States is willing to deal with the Kremlin on critical national security matters, such as the agreement to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

In that spirit, there is one other issue with Moscow that requires immediate attention and is worth the effort to cooperate on: the growing number close contacts between U.S. and NATO air, land, and naval forces and their counterparts on the Russian side. Any of these encounters implies a threat of rapid escalation should something go terribly wrong, like a mid-air collision, a prospect made more likely owing to reckless conduct by the Russians during some of these incidents.

Deconfliction — which is not really as simple as a hotline between Russian and NATO commanders, but rather involves advanced coordination of military activities — could offer one solution, but admittedly the status quo is complicated. This critical matter is set against a fraught backdrop of increasingly more widespread attacks by the Russian intelligence services to penetrate and exploit U.S. computer networks (including some in the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies); the more bellicose geopolitical narrative between Moscow and Washington; Russian military forays in the Middle East and Africa, and the endless war the Kremlin perpetuates in eastern Ukraine; Moscow’s persistent propagation of disinformation intended to destabilize American politics and society; and the recent arrest and imprisonment of Russian dissident Alexey Navalny. But, even in this context, if the United States seeks to reduce the likelihood of a serious military crisis, an initiative to regularize military operational activity on the part of NATO and Russia might provide the basis for a broader reduction in tensions.

Two questions arise when considering this important political-military problem. Why are these events occurring more frequently and more widely now, and what can be done to mitigate the dangers inherent in such encounters? As the vast majority of these incidents occur in the air, the emphasis here will be on that sphere of operations, but the overall principles and correctives to the fundamental problem certainly apply to sea and land operations as well.

We Have to Stop Meeting Like This

States that can will use highly visible deployments of aircraft, naval vessels, and ground forces to demonstrate what Michael Kofman has termed “status projection.” These “show of force missions” or “assurance measures” serve, as do military exercises, as geopolitical messaging to opponents. Such interactions are part and parcel of a multi-layered, multi-faceted “thick geopolitics” (as articulated by Gerard Toal) and should therefore be seen as implying much more than military capability.

Recent U.S. B-52 missions to the Persian Gulf region intended to send a message of deterrence to Iran, or U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation transits of the South China Sea to counter China’s de facto occupation of islands there, exemplify such activities. Likewise, the Indian navy’s higher operational tempo and increasing cooperation with the United States and other navies in the Indian Ocean and beyond is intended as a counter to China’s own expanding presence in the region. The messages that such actions convey can have very significant strategic and operational implications, perhaps even beyond the immediate intended effect. For example, Russia’s dramatic simulated nuclear strike on Stockholm in 2013 contributed to that historically neutral Nordic country’s much closer integration with NATO.

As dramatic as these geopolitical demonstrations are, by far the most common, and deceptively mundane, way that Western and Russian forces meet is in air-to-air intercepts. These events, which number in the hundreds yearly, occur when radar monitoring reveals aircraft that are not identifiable, and fighters are dispatched to visually identify potential intruders, including foreign military aircraft that have not filed flight plans or do not have an active signature transponder. Even though they may be routine, they hold the potential for trouble, especially if they happen during times of high tension. Repeated violations, such as those by the Russian Air Force in Swedish and Danish airspace, also have geopolitical messaging consequences, alienating the recipient and embellishing Russia’s miscreant reputation.

Add ubiquitous intelligence collection flights by many nations through areas of operational interest and the ante goes up even further. In addition to routine electronic monitoring missions (including large numbers by the United States and Russia), on occasion, simulated attack profiles are flown to observe defensive responses. Conveying the message and gathering the data connotes danger and increases the likelihood that opposing forces will meet each other in a potentially lethal manner. One such scenario involving groups of Russian and Chinese bombers that approached South Korean airspace resulted in South Korean fighters firing hundreds of warning shots at a Russian airborne early warning aircraft. Such responses can go awry, as happened when a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 off Hainan Island in 2001, resulting in a diplomatic crisis.

The Road Taken Might Have Been a Wrong Turn

Dangerously close encounters between U.S. and NATO militaries and the Russian armed services occur more frequently now and, accordingly, feature more prominently in print, online, and broadcast media on both sides of the divide. As Ian Kearns discussed in 2015, these incidents also imply more operational risk and serious knock-on effects. The increasing number and varied types of missions we see today, as compared with 2015, are a predictable byproduct of the new strategic competition between contemporary Russia and the West that, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, has radically altered the Eurasian geopolitical and military landscape and has expanded into new conflict areas.

Thus, these events now occur regularly right around the Eurasian landmass, literally from the North Cape of Norway moving counter-clockwise to the Bering Sea, and extend into the Middle East and North Africa. Within the past year, Russian fighters have repeatedly intercepted U.S. Navy patrol aircraft over the eastern Mediterranean Sea and have had close encounters with U.S. Air Force aircraft in the Syria-Iraq war zone. There have also been serious clashes between U.S. ground forces and Russian private military contractors in that conflict. And Russian warships recently forced American fishing boats from their grounds off Alaska.

But nowhere does this eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation manifest more intensely and dramatically than in the immediate contact zone in Europe between NATO member states and Russia, especially in the Baltic and Black Sea regions. As has been widely discussed in this forum, the eastward expansion of NATO from 1999 to 2004 — which incorporated new member states neighboring, or close to Russia — placed the alliance in a position where the countries that sought admission would then need to be assured by NATO’s bolstering defenses in the east if Russia presented a more threatening posture.

That rationale became stronger when Russia — prompted at least in part by NATO’s moves — made new ambitious military enhancements and adopted a more aggressive foreign and defense policy, including attacks on neighboring non-NATO countries Georgia and Ukraine. Russia’s actions, especially after its invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014, then induced the alliance to redouble its efforts to reassure its most vulnerable members (particularly the Baltic states and Poland) and deter Russian aggression despite concerns over placing forces (especially air assets) within easy range of Russian offensive weaponry. Predictably, this led to Russia bolstering its forces in its Western and Southern Military Districts (adjoining the Baltic and Black sea regions, respectively), especially in its Kaliningrad exclave and in Crimea.

Meet the Russians

How does this changing geopolitical landscape influence events at the operational level? First, when NATO’s territorial remit was extended further along the southern and eastern littoral of the Baltic, the alliance quickly introduced a military presence in those countries. Whether or not that decision made good sense has been called into question. Those questions aside, NATO established the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2004 in Lithuania and in 2014 in Estonia with quick reaction alert fighters drawn rotationally from NATO air forces to provide airspace security for the three NATO Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), which have no combat aircraft of their own. NATO makes clear that these alert fighters are, in the first instance, “launched to visually identify Russian Federation Air Force aircraft.”

But the regional geography that requires Russian air and naval craft to navigate around the Baltic NATO members while transiting to and from Kaliningrad combines with NATO’s upgraded air surveillance and intercept capabilities to guarantee a high number of contacts and a greater risk. To illustrate the seriousness involved, in 2017, NATO jets intercepted a Russian transport carrying Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Kaliningrad in what would have been a routine encounter involving fighters approaching within a safe distance from the suspect aircraft to visually identify it. But missile-armed Russian fighters accompanying Shoigu’s aircraft intervened, elevating the situation to a higher risk of hostile action that then made headlines because of the high-profile passenger. But such occurrences are now regular events over the Baltic. NATO recently reported that, in 2020, it performed around 350 intercepts of Russian aircraft in the region.

U.S. and NATO naval activities on and near the Baltic Sea have also ramped up, with the U.S. Second Fleet’s new command oversight emblematic of the heightened operational and exercise tempo in the region. As NATO’s naval presence in the region expands, this places more allied ships in the confined and busy limits of the Baltic and thus at closer quarters with the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet. With U.S. Navy destroyers now operating routinely in the Baltic along with the British Royal Navy, their Russian counterparts respond and shadow. On occasion, Russian aircraft have made unsafe low-level passes over U.S. warships that, owing to the provocative nature of the maneuvers, are seen as emphatic gestures of Moscow’s disapproval.

The same kind of friction also now manifests in southeastern Europe and in the Black Sea area. Consequently, NATO’s defensive posture in the region is much the same as in the Baltic, with air policing and a larger naval presence gaining traction. And, again, regional geography shapes the manner in which Russia and NATO interact: that is, both sides border the sea, with Russia possessing a major military complex in its midst. This renders the Black Sea another area where red is destined to meet blue, the only issue being under what circumstances. In response to Russia’s belligerent acts in Ukraine and heightened military capability and activity in the region, the alliance has, among other moves, expanded its air policing mission to southeastern Europe. From air bases in Romania and Bulgaria, intercepts of Russian aircraft are taking place, and, based on experience, will likely increase.

The Black Sea itself is likewise an arena in which Russian and U.S. and NATO forces operate in close proximity. In recent years, the U.S. Navy and other NATO vessels have ventured into these strategically vital waters to, in the words of the U.S. Navy, “strengthen interoperability with NATO allies and partners and demonstrate collective resolve to Black Sea security.” In 2020, U.S. Navy ships made seven transits into the Black Sea to communicate that commitment. Russia, not surprisingly, reacts strongly to these and other missions, again shadowing; at times, harassing U.S. warships by buzzing them; and conducting snap drills whenever the United States and/or NATO conducts training exercises with regional navies.

Unsafe at Any Speed

Numerous photos and videos show that, while maneuvering near U.S. aircraft and warships, Russian fighters and naval vessels at times exhibit unprofessional and highly dangerous conduct in contravention of international air and maritime safety norms — hardly a good basis for risk avoidance. Senior U.S. and NATO commanders have complained publicly about such incidents, to no avail. Russian Ministry of Defense officials, for their part, deny that any of these maneuvers have been unsafe. Moscow’s vaunted disinformation apparatus unabashedly rejects proof and attempts to shift the blame to others, as it has on other occasions, such as the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. It might also be the case that official subterfuge is intended to refocus attention on the “intruders” and, at times, it is successful.

Indeed, as Andrew S. Weiss and Nicole Ng maintain:

[The Russian] government … intentionally exploits the threat of military accidents as a political tool and source of leverage … [and] … sees these asymmetrical tactics as a valuable tool for pushing adversaries away from strategically important areas and testing whether the West can be intimidated.

If such actions are in keeping with Russia’s existing operational doctrine, at least in situations where they have particular geopolitical sensitivities, is there any reasonable hope of coaxing the Kremlin into a framework that mitigates operational risk? Proposing a deconfliction framework might be a way forward. But first we need to define “deconfliction.”

Defined Right, Deconfliction Could Be the Answer

Deconfliction is a term whose use has recently been expanded beyond its original meaning, and that semantic change is itself an obstacle to addressing the problem of risky encounters with the Russian military or anybody else for that matter. In my experience, deconfliction in the aerial domain was part of the pre-strike and mission planning process, with a central authority — acting as a clearinghouse — that distributes taskings to squadrons, which then carried them out. These orders incorporated measures to preclude friendly-fire accidents or collisions by allocating routes, altitudes, timing blocks, and specific geographic sectors to different participants in one’s own forces.

The problem here is that traditional deconfliction planning assumes a priori that everybody has a collective interest in assuring its success. But, when it comes to operational dealings with the Russian armed forces as manifested in the Syrian-Iraqi hot war zone, that has usually not been true. For example, as the war in Syria unfolded, the Russian military largely ignored and ultimately withdrew from a humanitarian deconfliction agreement with the United Nations that was set up to head off strikes against hospitals, schools, and other civilian infrastructure. While that agreement was in force, the Russian Air Force made numerous attacks on those very sites with horrific consequences.

Now calls for “deconfliction hotlines” from senior U.S. military commanders suggest the term has morphed into attempting to coordinate in real time between red and blue military forces to deal with unanticipated and potentially lethal encounters of the kinds discussed above. This is not deconfliction in the strict sense — coordinating in advance — and, anyway, using a hotline failed in many cases in the Syria-Iraq theater to resolve unfolding critical incidents involving Russian forces. This is not to suggest that mechanisms for dealing with emergent situations are a bad idea. In an important paper on managing escalation risk at sea, Liselotte Odgaard and Sune Lund provide a guide to adapting existing agreements on that problem to the NATO-Russian case, but, again, this is post-encounter planning.

So, given this definitional mess and an opponent unwilling to abide strictly by the rules, how should the United States and NATO proceed with the Russian military if the goal is to minimize situations where the only recourse now is a problematic hotline system? Unfortunately, the overall tense state of U.S.-Russian relations — and the suspension of most military-to-military contacts between NATO and Russia after the Ukraine crisis of 2014 — make an omnibus fix a very difficult prospect.

Back to basics might be one way to begin. In 2014, the European Leadership Network initiated an ambitious project to examine and implement a series of measures that would put in place far-ranging measures to regularize risk reduction in Baltic airspace. The United States should build and cooperate on that effort and urge NATO and Russia to establish a working group to construct a memorandum of understanding for deconfliction management that includes validating procedures for air intercepts and naval encounters. Then, as a practical matter, the two parties should agree on standing up virtual deconfliction coordination cells to deal with flight or route plans, use of transponders or other geolocation methods, and common radio frequencies. Having senior officers on call to sort out exigent problems would be the backup should deconfliction fail. Finally, as a trial arrangement, selecting one specific area (e.g., the Baltic region) to assess the workability of any such arrangements would test not only the system, but also the commitment of the Russians to make it work.

Biden suggested that constructively engaging Moscow when it suits U.S. national security interests should be seen as a possible win for both sides. The scale and scope of the dangerous encounters problem should be viewed in that light and with a sense of urgency. Otherwise, the risks of a disastrous accident increase, and the escalation consequences thereof will be very difficult to contain.

Ralph S. Clem is a senior fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He also served as an Air Force Reserve intelligence officer in a fighter squadron and wing, and at national agency level before retiring as a major general.

Image: U.S. European Command