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Commentary | 7 December 2016

Russia-West Military Incidents: Skirting the Law

Dangerous military-military and military-civilian incidents involving ships or aircraft of Russia, NATO member states, and third parties continue to pose a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security. With the increase of military activities in the region there is also the risk of unintentional escalation as a result of miscommunication or miscalculation. Incidents in the Baltic and Black Seas, involving fighter aircraft conducting high-speed passes of warships, aggressive interceptions of reconnaissance aircraft, and other encounters continue to carry a risk to life, as has been clearly demonstrated by the Turkish downing of a Russian aircraft over its Syrian border last November.

The European Leadership Network (ELN) recently published a detailed study of the existing protocols in place to manage such incidents. We concluded that the hazardous encounters occur within a disparate patchwork of bilateral and multilateral risk reduction instruments that leave significant gaps in coverage and implementation.

To illustrate the dangers all sides face and to highlight the potential for further escalation and confrontation, the ELN has prepared a map with a selection of incidents in the period 2014/2016. This selection aims to showcase the patchwork nature of these agreements and their varied and incomplete nature. The map also highlights incidents in which these agreements, and international law more broadly, have been breached.

Building on consultations with experts and officials from several NATO member states, Russia, Finland, Sweden, the OSCE and NATO, we collated a number of options and recommendations through which to stabilise the Euro-Atlantic security environment.

The parties to the existing agreements (INCSEAs and DMAs) need to ensure that their provisions are known to and applied by their armed forces.

  • There should be zero tolerance for reckless behaviour of individual military commanders and personnel, especially by the Russian leadership.
  • It is necessary to begin work on a thorough review and update of existing bilateral agreements in the Euro-Atlantic space, as well as to conclude additional agreements between Russia and the states most exposed to the danger of dangerous incidents and with relevant military capabilities.
  • Expert-level dialogue on the safety of military-civilian encounters over the Baltic Sea, under International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) cover, should be continued and expended to other regions.


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 challenges of our time.