Russia and the West need closer ties to avert 'real danger' from military exercises and encounters, say European diplomatic leaders

We need to re-learn some Cold War lessons on confrontation management between nuclear armed states - and reconvening of the Nato-Russia Council would be a start

Kim Sengupta
Monday 07 September 2015 18:45
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Russia and the West should urgently restart dialogue to prevent a conflict being accidentally triggered during increasingly aggressive military exercises and encounters, diplomatic and military leaders have urged.

Otherwise, warns the group – from both Russia and Europe – the law of unintended consequences means a growing risk of an unintended clash, as the relationship between the two sides continues to sink towards the levels of the Cold War, following events in Ukraine.

The European Leadership Network (ELN) is calling for the reconvening of the Nato-Russia Council – suspended by the Western Alliance after President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Crimea last year – as an immediate first step. This should be followed by a new agreement on guidelines for exercises, says the group, along the lines of a memorandum of understanding between the US and China signed nine months ago following a rise in military activities and confrontations in the Pacific Rim.

The guidelines would require better warnings of military exercises and live weapons firing to be conducted close to the other side’s forces; clearer procedures for communications between aircraft and ships involved in stand-offs; and more advanced warning of manoeuvres that may be open to misinterpretation.

The proposal is supported by senior figures in the West including Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, both former Nato secretary generals; General Lord Richards, the former head of the British military; Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former British foreign and defence secretary; former French prime minister Michel Rocard; Giancarlo Aragona, the Italian former secretary-general of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and Hans Blix, the former Swedish foreign minister and director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Backers in Moscow include Boris Pankin, the former foreign minister of the USSR and the former Russian foreign minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.

The Nato-Russia Council, started in 2002, was seen as one of the most valuable dividends from the end of the Cold War. It led to joint military exercises and training; co-operation in Afghanistan, and nuclear non-proliferation initiatives.

Recent diplomatic and military moves have heightened tensions, with more frequent air and sea encounters between Nato and Russian forces. Nato has set up semi-permanent bases close to Russia’s borders, which the Kremlin claims breaches a previous agreement; there have been frequent encounters between warplanes of the two sides; and Russia and Nato have carried out exercises – involving 80,000 and 15,000 personnel respectively – during the last three months.

Ian Kearns, the director of ELN, said : “The experience and credibility of those endorsing the recommendations of our recent task force suggests that the danger in the current situation is real and cannot be dismissed. The situation is now so bad that we need to re-learn some Cold War lessons on the art of confrontation management between nuclear armed states and alliances.”

Nato insists that the ELN is wrong to equate the two sides’ military exercises. The Kremlin has announced 10 times more drills than those conducted by Nato, and is including nuclear-capable forces in them, according to Carmen Romero, Nato’s deputy-spokeswoman.

“The scale and scope of Russia’s exercises are far beyond anything the Alliance is doing,” she said.

Any resumption of dialogue will face opposition from some Nato member states, especially those in the Baltics and eastern Europe. Lauri Bambus, Estonia’s ambassador to the UK, warned that such a move would be rewarding aggression.

“We’re clear, Nato has not accepted Russian occupation in Ukraine and we are worried by Russia’s behaviour there,” he said. “We would like to have a dialogue with Russia, but unfortunately the behaviour of Russia’s current leadership makes this unlikely in the near future.”

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