Russian and Western perspectives on the crisis in Ukraine are bound to diverge, but the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 should bring us together. This is not only because we can appreciate and feel saddened by the scale of the human loss, but also because the incident is a harbinger of the wider danger we are in. Of profound concern is the possibility of an unintended escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine to a direct NATO-Russia military confrontation. To avoid such a development, policy makers need to relearn some important crisis management lessons from history.
Just consider that even before the Flight 17 disaster, we had seen a huge deterioration in mutual trust between Russia and the West. Russian and NATO military forces are being deployed ever closer to each other. A number of frozen conflicts, like Transnistria (a breakaway province of Moldova, on Ukraine’s western border), already haunt Europe; these have the potential to widen the theater of possible confrontation between Russia and the West beyond Ukraine. In addition, there is very little contact or exchange of information on what our respective militaries are doing, and the existing crisis management arrangements — both between NATO and Russia and the European Union and Russia — are inadequate. And, always in the background, there are large numbers of nuclear weapons on both sides on high states of alert.
Many potentially useful mechanisms for dialogue, like the NATO-Russia Council, which in normal times might meet monthly and offer a forum for discussing difficult issues, are also being closed down.
The upshot is that the current crisis is deepening even as our mutual capacity to discuss, manage and control it is either shrinking by the day or nonexistent.
To avoid an unintended military escalation and to act to stabilize the situation, we now believe, along with other members of a task force set up by the European Leadership Network, the Russian International Affairs Council and other security think tanks in Europe, that three further sets of measures are necessary, apart from some sort of accommodation in Ukraine itself.
First, there needs to be a concerted effort by all parties to ensure military and political restraint not only inside Ukraine, but outside as well. History tells us that one of the most difficult aspects of major-power crisis management is maintaining control over events.
A recent incident in which a Russian warplane flew close to the guided-missile destroyer Donald Cook in the Black Sea should serve as a warning. Political leaders should review their military rules of engagement to ensure restraint at all levels of command and to reduce any potential for an actual exchange of fire. Similarly, Russia and the West both need to use all their respective influence to ensure that there are no flare-ups in any of the other frozen conflicts in the region.
Second, we badly need to improve military-to-military communication and engagement between NATO and Russian commands. If the Cold War taught us anything, it was that steps to reduce the fear of a surprise military attack by one party increase the decision time that leaderships have in a crisis. That acts as a crucial stabilizing influence.
We also urge all sides to pursue exchanges of data on the activities of military forces when they are out of garrison and to allow military liaison missions to monitor such movements. Those measures would substantially reduce mutual fear and suspicion.
Third, we need to keep alive some direct dialogue between Russia and the West. The NATO-Russia Council was set up to enable contact and communication between the two sides when the relationship was better. But given the current circumstances, it should meet more frequently, not less.
We also need a major international conference to discuss fundamental issues at the heart of the Helsinki Final Act, the 1975 accord that established territorial integrity and human rights as central to the European security order. It is clear that a chasm of differing interpretations and alternate narratives has opened up between Russia and the West on those matters.
Looking further forward, since Ukraine’s economy will, ultimately, have to be helped by, and integrated with, the economies of both the European Union and Russia, both of those parties should continue a dialogue on possible future cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. We know we are a long way from seeing such cooperation today, but there is no reason detailed technical work on the relationship should not continue.
If NATO partners and Russia do not act to steer events in the way we set out, our fear is that the future course of this crisis will be shaped by circumstances independent of our respective political wills. If we allow that to happen, it may be chance, rather than good judgment, that will decide our countries’ fates.
Igor Ivanov is a former foreign minister for the Russian Federation. Sir Malcolm Rifkind is a former foreign secretary and a former defense secretary for Britain.