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Report | 24 October 2018

Russia-West Incidents in the Air and at Sea 2016-2017: Out of the Danger Zone?

Image of Lukasz Kulesa

Lukasz Kulesa |Deputy Head of Research, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Black Sea Risk Reduction Russia-West Relations Global Security

One of the main concerns of security experts and policymakers across the Euro-Atlantic area in recent years has been the potential for casualties and dangerous escalation of tensions stemming from a military incident between the West and Russia.

In order to look at the threat in detail, the European Leadership Network (ELN) has collaborated with researchers at the Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh who have compiled a list of open-source encounters and incidents occurring in the period 2016-2017. Together with previous ELN research, the data shows that many of these encounters between militaries, which would have previously generated broad and sensationalist media coverage, are now treated as routine and managed professionally.

However, the report focuses attention on a small number of incidents that continue to show dangerous characteristics and carry an inherent risk to loss of life and/or increase in tensions. It proposes a closer examination of what constitutes a dangerous or hazardous incident in the context of an overall increase of military activities in Europe is needed.

Key findings

Identification of incidents and discussion of potential incidents should focus on:

  • Military actions in breach of international law (e.g. airspace and territorial water violations, actions endangering civilian aviation), albeit with the need to assess the actual level of danger involved;
  • Actions which can be seen as violating specific commitments listed in the Incidents On and Over the High Seas (INCSEAs) or Dangerous Military Activities (DMAs), arguably even if parties involved are not bound by bilateral INCSEAs or DMAs;
  • Actions and manoeuvres in close proximity of ships and aircraft not covered by INCSEAs or DMAs, but which can be treated as dangerous, albeit with the need to assess the actual level of danger;
  • Other military actions seen as unusually aggressive, provocative, or interfering with the lawful activities of other states. Examples to consider may include simulating attacks against targets on another state’s territories, even when territorial waters or airspace are not violated.

In addition, the paper identifies the following measures that should be pursued in parallel to existing risk reduction efforts:

Continuously highlight the need to minimise the danger of incidents while conducting military activities. It remains necessary to continuously draw the attention of governments, parliaments and the armed forces to the danger of incidents and promote cooperative measures to prevent them.

Achieve maximum convergence across European states on the characteristics and types of hazardous/dangerous military incidents.  There are a number of questions related to identifying military incidents and separating them from routine or near-routine encounters and interactions.

Operationalise and, when possible, update the Vienna Document Chapter III mechanism for co-operation as regards hazardous incidents of a military nature. The starting point should be the operationalisation of the existing mechanism. This includes regularly updating the list of designated national points to contact in case of hazardous incidents and utilizing the procedure for providing information and prompt response to requests for clarifications – so far, it has not been.

Initiate work on a best practices guide or a handbook for preventing and managing hazardous/dangerous military incidents. While the knowledge and understating of the dangers of military incidents and rules of behaviour during routine and non-routine military encounters have significantly improved, it could be beneficial to provide governments, international organisations, and media with a consolidated yet comprehensive handbook describing incidents-related risk reduction norms and procedures.

Implement and, where possible, update the existing Incidents at Sea (INCSEAs) agreements. INCSEA agreements remain in force between several states in the Euro-Atlantic area. Beyond the full implementation of the letter and spirit of these agreements, states can also increase their practical effectiveness through several updates.

Explore options for conducting additional INCSEA or DMA-type agreements. Some of the countries most exposed to the danger of dangerous incidents currently do not have bilateral agreements with each other of this kind, including Poland-Russia and Romania-Russia. Their respective governments should be encouraged to look into the possibility of concluding them to increase military predictability and to avoid incidents.

Explore options for additional bilateral or sub-regional confidence-building measures. Additional bilateral confidence-building measures may be useful for preventing or managing incidents, and more generally for increasing levels of trust and predictability. These can include establishing military-to-military ‘hotlines’ between headquarters, additional exchange of information on military activities, increased intensity of contacts during major military exercises, other non-routine activities, visits to military units, and observation of exercises below Vienna Document thresholds.

A complete list of the West-Russia encounters and incidents can be found here. A map illustrating the approximate location of the 2016-2017 encounters can be accessed here.

Read the full report here.

The opinions articulated above also 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 pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.