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Preventing NATO-Russian Escalation

BRUSSELS – After expressing skepticism of the NATO alliance during his campaign, US President-elect Donald Trump is now beginning to craft a foreign policy that could have far-reaching implications for Europe’s fraught security situation. The United States’ potential disengagement from the Alliance comes just as relations between NATO and Russia have reached an all-time low. With both sides expanding their military activities significantly, Europe needs bold new ideas about how to manage possible future confrontations.

Fresh thinking is all the more important when one considers the increased risk of accidents or miscalculations that could escalate tensions, owing to Russia’s military activities along NATO’s borders over the past three years. Encounters that could result in loss of life include incidents in the Baltic and Black Seas, such as combat aircraft conducting high-speed passes on warships or the aggressive interception of reconnaissance aircraft. This possibility became all too real in November 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian warplane near its border with Syria.

A recent European Leadership Network (ELN) report points out that, despite bilateral incident-management agreements between individual NATO member states and Russia, significant coverage gaps remain. Existing agreements are limited, because they are not harmonized with one another and do not properly account for civilian activities or modern technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones.

Worse, the current framework excludes front-line NATO members such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania, as well as the non-NATO members Finland and Sweden. This is a serious oversight, one that increases the vulnerability of a poorly regulated geopolitical space to confusion and misinterpretation, not least because it leaves unclear the extent to which excluded countries should comply with the US-Russia Incidents at Sea Agreement when operating together.