In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook

What Stops US and Russia From Stumbling Into War?

January 09, 2020
Simon Saradzhyan

As we are all well aware, the original Cold War, which officially ended 40 years ago this month, featured a number of close calls that almost turned it into a hot war. Thankfully, neither the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 nor the Able Archer exercise of 1983 (nor any other perilous incidents), led to a war between Washington and Moscow. More recently, however, respected statesmen have again begun to sound alarms. “Not since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today,” former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn warned in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. I have expressed some doubts about this proposition, but it is nevertheless worth asking what it is—other than the fear of mutually assured destruction—that keeps the U.S. and Russia from stumbling into a war today or tomorrow. Part of the answer lies in the bilateral and multilateral agreements specifically designed to prevent incidents that could escalate into a war. 

As is clear from the list below, there are at least half a dozen bilateral agreements between Moscow and Washington that have been concluded for the purposes of preventing dangerous military incidents. These deals include the 1972 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of incidents on and over the high seas and the 1989 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities. Some other NATO members—including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, Greece and Portugal—have agreements with Russia on prevention of incidents on the high seas that are similar to the 1972 agreement between Moscow and Washington, while Canada and Greece also have agreements with Russia on prevention of dangerous military activities. However, almost a dozen NATO members have no such agreements with Russia, even though they abut seas. These countries include Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia. Nor are there any multilateral NATO-Russia (or NATO-Collective Security Treaty Organization) agreements on prevention of dangerous military incidents, though a NATO-Russia Memorandum of Understanding on avoiding and managing such incidents has been discussed in Track II.  

The U.S. and its NATO allies should consider forming a unified position and approach Russia about formal negotiations on how some of the existing U.S.-Russian agreements on avoiding incidents could be multilaterized, shifting from a bilateral format to a multilateral NATO-Russia format. In particular, NATO and Russia should also discuss multilaterizing the 1989 U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities. NATO and Russia could discuss including concrete mechanisms on actual prevention of incidents in such existing multilateral agreements as the 2011 Vienna Document and the Convention on International Civil Aviation, including, perhaps, a requirement for warplanes to fly with their transponders turned on at all times while in international airspace.1 The U.S. and its NATO allies should also, of course, discuss how to save the Open Skies Treaty of 1992.

In addition to enhancing the legal framework for prevention of incidents, Russian and Western leaders should also make sure their military commanders do not take unauthorized actions that increase the risk of an accident that could unintentionally lead to a conflict. There have been quite a few instances when the U.S. and Russian militaries have accused each other of unsafe behavior during one and the same encounter. For instance, in June 2019 the U.S. Navy accused the Russian Navy’s Admiral Vinogradov anti-submarine destroyer of “maneuver[ing] from behind and to the right of [U.S. missile cruiser] Chancellorsville, accelerat[ing] and clos[ing] to an unsafe distance" as the U.S. warship was recovering a helicopter within 50 meters of the Russian ship  in the Philippine Sea. The Russian Navy in turn accused the Chancellorsville of unsafe maneuvers, saying this cruiser crossed the Russian destroyer’s path and then abruptly changed direction. Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin had commented on risk-taking by his senior military officials after Russia’s taking of Crimea: In a documentary-style film about those events, which aired on Russian state television in March 2015, the then commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Alexander Vitko, describes how a Su-24 attack plane was sent to fly low over the deck of the USS Donald Cook in April 2014: “It was decided to show use and resolve to use force.” When the documentary’s creator Andrei Kondrashov asks Putin to comment, the Russian president says: “It was not my decision. It was hooliganism on their [the commanders’] part and they didn’t even tell me anything about it.”   

Last but not least, the sides should discuss how to prevent incidents in one domain that did not exist during the original Cold War. That domain is cyber and it is essential that the U.S. and Russia, which both now have cyber troops, and their allies discuss how to prevent incidents in that domain that could ultimately lead to an accidental war. In doing so they could take a cue from various sources, among them the aforementioned U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities of 1989, which warns against “interfering with command and control networks in a manner which could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment of the armed forces of the other Party.”

A new Cold War may indeed be inevitable. Some say it has already started. However, that doesn’t mean the U.S., its allies and Russia cannot jointly work to reduce grave but common risks potentially posed by unintended military incidents.

I. Agreements on prevention of military incidents and accidents

I.A. Bilateral U.S.-Russian agreements on prevention of military incidents and accidents

I.A.1. U.S.-Soviet Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Link of 1963

Contents:

  • At the Pentagon, the hotline system is located at the National Military Command Center.
  • The hotline was first used by the United States and Russia in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
  • Meant to avoid war, but U.S. President Barack Obama used it in October 2016 to warn Putin against using hackers to disrupt the U.S. election.

Operational status:  Remains in force.

I.A.2. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Nuclear War (Accidents Measures) of 1971

Contents includes:

  • A pledge by each party to take measures each considers necessary to maintain and improve its organizational and technical safeguards against accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons;
  • Arrangements for immediate notification should a risk of nuclear war arise from such incidents, from detection of unidentified objects on early warning systems or from any accidental, unauthorized or other unexplained incident involving a possible detonation of a nuclear weapon; and
  • Advance notification of any planned missile launches beyond the territory of the launching party and in the direction of the other party.

Operational status: Remains in force.

I.A.3. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Prevention of Incidents on and over the High Seas of 1972 

Contents:

  • Not interfering in the "formations" of the other party;
  • Avoiding maneuvers in areas of heavy sea traffic;
  • Requiring surveillance ships to maintain a safe distance from the object of investigation so as to avoid "embarrassing or endangering the ships under surveillance";
  • Using accepted international signals when ships maneuver near one another;
  • Not simulating attacks at, launching objects toward or illuminating the bridges of the other party’s ships;
  • Informing vessels when submarines are exercising near them;
  • Requiring aircraft commanders to use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft and ships of the other party.

Operational status: Remains in force.

I.A.4. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War of 1973

Contents: the signatories agree 

  • “[T]hat an objective of their policies is to remove the danger of nuclear war and of the use of nuclear weapons.”
  • That they “will refrain from the threat or use of force against” each other.
  • That “if at any time relations … involve the risk of a nuclear conflict," then they "will immediately enter into urgent consultations with each other and make every effort to avert this risk."

Operational status: Remains in force, “of unlimited duration.”

I.A.5. U.S.-Soviet agreement on prevention of dangerous military activities of 1989 

Contents: “Each Party shall take necessary measures directed toward preventing dangerous military activities, which are the following activities of personnel and equipment of its armed forces when operating in proximity to personnel and equipment of the armed forces of the other Party during peacetime:

  • “Entering by personnel and equipment of the armed forces of one Party into the national territory of the other Party owing to circumstance brought about by force majeure, or as a result of unintentional actions by such personnel …
  • “Interfering with command and control networks in a manner which could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment of the armed forces of the other Party.
  • “Hampering the activities of the personnel and equipment of the armed forces of the other Party in a Special Caution Area2 in a manner which could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment;”
    • The agreement covers not only personnel but also “any ship, aircraft or ground hardware of the armed forces of the Parties.”

Operational status: Remains in force.

I.A.6. Moscow Declaration by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin of 1994

Contents:

  • “The presidents announced that they would direct the detargeting of strategic nuclear missiles under their respective commands so that by not later than May 30, 1994, those missiles will not be targeted. Thus, for the first time in nearly half a centuryvirtually since the dawn of the nuclear agethe United States and Russia will not operate nuclear forces, day-to-day, in a manner that presumes they are adversaries.”

Operational status: Unclear.

I.A.7. U.S.-Russia Memorandum on safety of fights in Syria of 20153

Contents:

  • The memorandum contains specific protocols for air crews to follow to avoid an inadvertent clash over Syria, calling for U.S. and Russian aircraft to maintain a safe distance.
  • The memorandum provided for creation of a ground communications link between the two sides in the event air communications fail, and the communications link was established.
  • The memorandum also provided for formation of a working group to discuss any implementation issues.
  • The U.S. has also told Russia where its special forces are in Syria so that Russia would not bomb them. 

Operational status: Remains in force.

I.A.8. U.S.-Russian agreement of early November 2017 on dividing line in Syria.

U.S. and Russian officers reportedly agreed on the Euphrates River as a dividing line in Syria and on a system of advance notifications prior to any river crossings.

Operational status: Unclear.

I.B. Multilateral agreements on prevention of military accidents and incidents

I.B.1. International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea of 1972

(both U.S. and Russia are signatories, as is China)

Contents:

  • Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision.
  • Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.
  • Every vessel shall use all available means appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions to determine if risk of collision exists.
  • When two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.
  • When two power-driven vessels are crossing so as to involve risk of collision, the vessel which has the other on her own starboard side shall keep out of the way and shall, if the circumstances of the case admit, avoid crossing ahead of the other vessel.
  • A vessel restricted in her ability to maneuver when engaged in an operation for the maintenance of safety of navigation in a traffic separation scheme is exempted from complying with the Rule [on traffic separation schemes] to the extent necessary to carry out the operation.

Operational status: Remains in force.

I.B.2. Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea of 2014

(signed by Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Tonga, the United States and Vietnam at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium)

Contents:

  • Calls on naval warships and planes to maintain a safe separation between vessels.
  • When conducting exercises with submarines, surface naval ships should consider the display of appropriate signals to indicate the presence of submarines.
  • Naval ships should generally avoid the simulation of attacks, discharge of signal rockets and weapons, illumination of navigation bridges and aircraft cockpits, aerobatics and simulated attacks in the vicinity of ships encountered.
  • Does not apply to coastguards

Operational status: Remains in force, but non-binding.

 

II. Confidence-Building Measures

II.A. Bilateral Confidence-Building Measures

II.A.1. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on the Establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers of 1987

Contents:

  • Each party agreed to establish a Nuclear Risk Reduction Center in its capital and to establish a special facsimile communications link between these centers.
  • The centers are intended to supplement existing means of communication and provide direct, reliable, high-speed systems for the transmission of notifications and communications at the government-to-government level.
  • The Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers do not replace normal diplomatic channels of communication or the "Hot Line," nor are they intended to have a crisis management role.

Operational status: Remains in force.

II.A.2. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Notifications of Launches of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (BML) of 1988          

Contents: Provides for notification, no less than 24 hours in advance, of the planned date, launch area and area of impact for any launch of an ICBM or SLBM. The agreement also provides that these notifications be provided through the Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers.

II.A.3. U.S.-Soviet Agreement on Reciprocal Advance Notification of Major Strategic Exercises (MSE) of 1989

Contents: The agreement provides for each party to give the other advance notification of one major strategic-forces exercise that includes the participation of heavy bombers each year.

Operational status: Remains in force.

II.A.4. U.S.-Russian Arms Control and International Security Working Group established in 2009

Contents: Addresses 21st century challenges including:

  • Enhancing stability and transparency;
  • Cooperating on missile defense;
  • Preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction;
  • Assessing common threats.

Operational status: Suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

II.A.5. U.S.-Russian Working Group on Cooperation on Information and Communications Technology Security established 2013

Contents: A White House fact sheet’s section on “ICT Confidence-Building Measures” says:

  • “The United States and the Russian Federation have also concluded a range of steps designed to increase transparency and reduce the possibility that a misunderstood cyber incident could create instability or a crisis in our bilateral relationship.”
  • “To facilitate the regular exchange of practical technical information on cybersecurity risks to critical systems, we are arranging for the sharing of threat indicators between the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) … and its counterpart in Russia.”
  • “We decided to use the longstanding Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) links established in 1987 between the United States and the former Soviet Union to build confidence between our two nations through information exchange, employing their around-the-clock staffing at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., and the Ministry of Defense in Moscow.” 

Operational status: Suspended in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

II.B. Multilateral Confidence-Building Measures

II.B.1. Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty of 1992, adapted in 1999 to reflect disbanding of Warsaw Pact

Contents:

  • Sets equal limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft and attack helicopters that NATO countries and then-Warsaw Pact members could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.
  • Sets regional (flank) limits intended to prevent destabilizing force concentrations of ground equipment

Operational status: Russia “suspended” its participation in 2007, citing the ongoing delay of the adapted treaty’s entry into force by some of the signatories.

II.B.2. Open Skies Treaty of 1992

Contents:

  • Permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed reconnaissance flights over the others' entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.

Operational status: Remains in force, though the Trump administration is reportedly planning to pull out.

II.B.3. NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security of 1997

Contents: States that, in building their relationship, NATO and Russia will aim for:

  • Enhanced regional air traffic safety, increased air traffic capacity and reciprocal exchanges, as appropriate, to promote confidence through increased measures of transparency and exchanges of information in relation to air defense and related aspects of airspace management/control;
  • Increasing transparency, predictability and mutual confidence regarding the size and roles of the conventional forces of member states of NATO and Russia.
  • Also states that NATO reiterates that, in the current and foreseeable security environment, the alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.

Operational status: Remains in force, but non-binding.

II.B.4. Vienna Document on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures of 2011 (OSCE)

Contents:

  • Annual exchange of military information about forces located in Europe (defined as the Atlantic to the Urals);
  • Notifications for risk reduction including consultation about unusual military activities and hazardous incidents;
  • Prior notification and observation of certain military activities, such as large-scale exercises;
  • Compliance and verification by inspection and evaluation visits.

Operational status: Remains in force.

 

Footnotes:

1. At the NATO-Russia Council meeting of July 13, 2016, Russian diplomats reportedly offered a new plan that would commit Russian and all other planes flying over the Baltic Sea to switch on their transponders, a step that helps civil aviation authorities track flights and avoid near misses. More recently, U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian said in September 2019 that a direct line of communication between NATO air commanders and their Russian counterparts could be helpful in deescalating tensions.

2. “‘Special Caution Area’ means a region, designated mutually by the Parties, in which personnel and equipment of their armed forces are present and, due to circumstances in the region, in which special measures shall be undertaken in accordance with this Agreement.”

3. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of U.S. Central Command, signed the protocol on the U.S. side.

Simon Saradzhyan is the founding director of Russia Matters. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Photo by U.S. Navy. A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a low altitude pass by USS Donald Cook.

This post has been updated to include two additional entries.