Putin’s Risky Game of Chicken

Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in international waters in the Black Sea late in May, just days after the Royal Air Force scrambled to intercept nuclear-capable Bear bombers near British airspace. These dangerous Russian games of chicken are now regular occurrences and come hard upon a Russian threat in March to aim nuclear missiles at Danish warships if Denmark joins NATO’s missile defense system.

As tensions between the West and Moscow sharpen over Ukraine, NATO countries have seen a dramatic spike in provocative actions that risk a harrowing accident or devastating miscalculation. A NATO-Russia military-to-military dialogue would reduce these risks — if President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin allow it.

NATO has ratcheted down its political dialogue with Moscow in protest over Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the alliance should seek to engage Russia on a professional military level to minimize the danger of missteps or misunderstandings when their forces operate in close proximity or near each other’s territory. They would have good antecedents to draw on: a set of Cold War agreements whose titles clearly convey their purposes.

Neither NATO nor Russia would want a miscalculation — say, a NATO fighter misreading a Russian plane’s actions and shooting it down — that could lead inadvertently to a larger armed clash. An agreement could set down rules on how to approach an aircraft or ship, and whom to call in the case of an uncertain situation. Such measures could and should become part of standard operating procedures.

In the 1960s, encounters between the U.S. and Soviet navies became similarly dangerous. Soviet intelligence trawlers maneuvered to interfere with U.S. aircraft carriers conducting flight operations in the Mediterranean Sea. U.S. pilots buzzed Soviet ships — sometimes at high speed and so low that the shock wave blew crewmen overboard. In 1972, the United States and Soviet Union concluded the Prevention of Incidents at Sea Agreement to curb these kinds of occurrences. Russian reconnaissance flights were given minimum standoff distances and altitudes when flying near U.S. warships, and U.S. pilots had rules for intercepting and escorting Russian aircraft in a nonthreatening manner. U.S. and Soviet naval officers periodically met to review and discuss cases where the procedures had been violated.

The early 1980s saw a new phase of escalatory encounters, including the interception and shooting down of a Korean Air Lines passenger plane by a Soviet fighter near Sakhalin Island after the Soviets mistook it for a U.S. spy plane operating in their airspace. And, in 1983, a large-scale NATO nuclear forces exercise, coming just as U.S. Pershing missile deployments were about to begin in Europe, generated a full-blown war scare in Moscow that some historians consider as serious as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As part of efforts to reduce tensions, Washington and Moscow concluded the Dangerous Military Activities Agreement in 1989. This was designed to avert hazardous or ambiguous situations between U.S. and Soviet ground forces along the inner-German border while Germany was still divided. Among other provisions, U.S. and Soviet units at the tactical level were given radio frequencies, so in the event of possible misunderstanding during an exercise or routine movement of forces they could talk directly to sort things out.

These agreements remain in force, but they apply only to the United States and Russia. Russia has similar bilateral agreements with other NATO members, but the current situation demands that similar arrangements be worked out to cover all NATO and Russian military forces operating in Europe and the North Atlantic area. It would also be wise to update the arrangements as they are negotiated. Senior NATO and Russian officers are best suited to conduct this dialogue. The NATO defense ministers meeting set for June 24-25 offers an opportunity to explore this idea.

What is not clear is whether Mr. Putin and the Kremlin would welcome this step. Mr. Putin presents himself as acting to protect his country and its independence. Russian officials have created a narrative in which the West seeks to overthrow the Putin regime by supporting Russian opposition movements, ruining the economy with sanctions, and rolling Russia back from dominance in its traditional neighborhood through the expansion of NATO and European Union institutional arrangements. Mr. Putin’s domestic popularity has become entwined with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

This provides the backdrop for the more aggressive and seemingly irresponsible Russian military operations, like the SU-24 and Bear flights. Last year, an SAS airliner carrying more than 130 passengers narrowly averted a mid-air collision with a Russian military aircraft that had shut down its transponder and thus did not show on the radar of civilian air traffic controllers.

Mr. Putin and other senior officials have deliberately employed bellicose rhetoric, even threatening the nuclear card. They appear to have taken a page from Thomas Schelling’s famous work on conflict behavior. They act a bit crazy in a way intended to intimidate NATO and the European Union. They resort to warmongering to convince the West that they are prepared to take greater risks.

In spite of the saber-rattling, Mr. Putin and the Kremlin do not want war with NATO. Mr. Putin is not hell-bent on the destruction of Russia or his presidency in a nuclear exchange. But Russian security elites know they lack the economic and military resources for a major conventional conflict, so Moscow has to accomplish its goals without triggering total mobilization — through hybrid tactics and bullying, including threats of a nuclear strike.

And here lies the problem. Limiting the risks of miscalculation between NATO and Russian military units would seem to be a no-brainer. No one wants an accidental war. But, given Mr. Putin’s desire to intimidate the West, would the Kremlin permit such a dialogue to go forward?

Fiona Hill and Steven Pifer are senior fellows at the Brookings Institution.

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