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Commentary | 7 March 2016

Managing Dangerous Incidents: The need for a NATO-Russia Memorandum of Understanding

NATO Risk Reduction Russia Russia-West Relations Euro-Atlantic Security

As followers of the ELN’s work will know, we have been conducting research into close military-military and military-civilian encounters between NATO countries and partners and Russia over the last two years. (1) Between March 2014 and March 2015 alone, we logged over 60 dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area. We are pleased that this work is profiled in the newly released Munich Security Conference Report 2016, (2) because our contention has been and remains that, against the backdrop of wider mistrust and tension in the NATO-Russia relationship, the ongoing incidents have the potential to trigger a major crisis between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance. More specifically, if additional crisis avoidance mechanisms are not put in place, more recent assertive Russian military activities, coupled with reassurance measures adopted by NATO in response, will increase the risks to stability in Europe. Anyone who doubts the potential consequences should reflect on the wider diplomatic and economic ramifications of the Turkey-Russia shoot-down near the Turkey-Syria border in November 2015.

That there is a gap that needs to be filled should be beyond doubt. There is today no agreement between NATO and Russia on how to manage close military encounters. Instead, an incomplete patchwork of bi-lateral Cold War era agreements exists between some NATO countries and Russia but not others.

To be precise, at present, eleven NATO countries have bi-lateral agreements with Russia to prevent incidents at sea (IncSea). These eleven countries are: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Portugal and Greece. (3) All these IncSea agreements are modelled on the original US-Soviet 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas and contain commitments by the signatories to refrain from provocative naval activities that could lead to a serious confrontation. Referencing relevant provisions of the International Maritime Regulations and the International Code of Signals, the agreements include specific instructions for keeping a safe distance from naval vessels of the other party and agreed measures to ensure caution in terms of speed of manoeuvres when in the vicinity of vessels of the other party. They further contain provisions on when and how to communicate each party’s intentions and clear commitments to avoid undertaking actions that could cause embarrassment or danger to the naval forces of the other side.

In addition to the 11 IncSea agreements, three other agreements on managing potentially dangerous encounters exist. One is the US-USSR (now Russia) Agreement on Preventing Dangerous Military Activities (DMA) signed in 1989; the second is the Canada-USSR Agreement on Preventing Dangerous Military Activities (DMA) from 1991, and the third is a similar Greece-Russia DMA signed two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As with the IncSea agreements mentioned earlier, these agreements contain provisions committing both sides to exercise caution and restraint.

Unlike the IncSea agreements however, the DMAs contain wider provisions for managing potential confrontations.

The DMAs call for the exercise of ‘great caution and prudence’ when operating near the national territory of the other party. They apply to all armed forces of the Party’s to the agreement, whereas the IncSea agreements cover only naval and some naval aviation assets. The DMA’s also broach territory not touched on by the IncSea agreements. For example, they contain restrictions on interference with the command and control systems of the other party. They allow for the creation of Special Caution Areas (SCA) in which each party would exercise, as the name implies, special caution. And the agreements commit each party to ensure that any forces it has operational in an SCA would establish and maintain military to military communication with the forces of the other party.

These agreements are all worthwhile but they are not enough. Our contention is that their limited scope and nature now poses a serious risk to security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

First, as far as we know, Special Caution Area provisions have hardly ever, if ever, been used.

Second, it is obvious, but not insignificant, that the agreements in place involve only 11 NATO countries, leaving the remaining 17 NATO members completely outside of the arrangements in place. Of particular note is the fact that Turkey is not one of the eleven. A Turkey-Russia agreement may have been irrelevant in the context of a direct Turkish political decision to shoot-down Russian aircraft infringing Turkish airspace, but the exact circumstance surrounding the incident are not publicly known. At a minimum, what can be said is that if there had been an agreement both in place and honoured, Turkish attempts to contact the pilots of the downed Russian warplane would have involved not only broadcasts in English but the use of pre-arranged signalling codes on pre-arranged channels. The chances of avoiding the incident could only have been increased.

Third, none of the agreements currently in place covers activities taking place under direct NATO command. For example, there is no agreed mechanism to manage encounters between Russian aircraft and aircraft participating in the Baltic Air Policing mission (BAP), which extends over an area where many of the recent close encounters have occurred.

Furthermore, no other existing multi-lateral arrangements contain provisions relevant to the management of military encounters in the Euro-Atlantic area. In the Vienna Document, for instance, only Clause 17 includes instructions on how to respond to incidents, with no provisions on how to manage them in real time. There are no such provisions in the Open Skies Treaty either. The latter only gives instructions for responding to ‘aviation accidents involving observation aircraft on the territory of an observed Party’.

Under these circumstances, it is clear that the military-military crisis management mechanisms currently in place in the Euro-Atlantic area are insufficient to manage the ongoing close military encounters. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg’s call for a modernisation of the rulebook of European security is a welcome public recognition of the   military reality in Europe.

So what can be done?

In August 2015, the Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, initiated by the ELN, urged members of NATO to develop, as a matter of urgency, a Memorandum of Understanding with Russia to manage dangerous incidents. (4) The Task Force argued this memorandum should be modelled on a US-China agreement signed in November 2014.

NATO member states should now task the appropriate NATO authorities, either the Secretary General or SACEUR, to undertake the necessary exploratory steps to achieve this. A NATO-Russia Memorandum could extend the military activity currently covered to include activity taking place under NATO command. Its development should also presage a major review of the terms and current operational status of all existing bi-lateral deals to ensure they are upgraded and made fit for current conditions. And a NATO-Russia deal could also provide an umbrella framework and model within which to extend the number of bi-lateral agreements in place to all NATO countries and NATO partners and Russia.

It is now clear to everyone that since the end of the Cold War, the NATO-Russia relationship has not developed into a fruitful partnership. That reality should not preclude productive cooperation in areas of mutual interest. Both NATO and Russia have a strong interest in avoiding inadvertent war. New arrangements to manage ongoing close military encounters in the Euro-Atlantic area should be developed as a matter of urgency.


(1) Full list of the incidents available here. See also Thomas Frear, Lukasz Kulesa, Ian Kearns, Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014, European Leadership Network, November 2014, available here.
(2) The full report can be accessed here. Some details on the ELN’s work can be found on page 27.
(3) The texts of some of these agreements can be accessed here.
(4) Task Force on Cooperation in Greater Europe, Avoiding War in Europe: How to Reduce the Risk of a Military Encounter Between Russia and NATO, August 2015, available here.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.