From the Baltic to the Black Sea, we see a worrying increase in the number of close military encounters between warships and jets belonging to the Russian Federation and NATO Allies. Such encounters increase the risk of miscalculation or unintended incidents that could lead to the escalation of tension and even direct confrontation. With its unique set of complementary, mutually reinforcing arms control arrangements and confidence and security building measures, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) offers a useful platform through which to address this urgent issue.

The Baltic region, which has long been a central friction zone between NATO and Russia, has recently seen close, and arguably dangerous, encounters between Russian and Allied warships and jets. On 12 April 2016, the US guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook experienced multiple high-speed passes by Russian jets at close range, while crossing international waters off the coast of Poland. A few days later a US reconnaissance flight over the Baltic Sea was barrel rolled by a Russian fighter, which came as close as 30 feet to the aircraft. The Baltic space is not the only one concerned. On 7 September, US authorities protested against the “dangerous” interception of an American aircraft patrolling above the Black Sea by a Russian fighter. On 22 September, two strategic Tupolev TU-160 Blackjack aircraft were intercepted by the French Air Force at less than 100 km from the French coast.

Two Russian warplanes with no visible weaponry flew near the destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in what one US official described as one of the most aggressive interactions in recent memory – 12 April 2016. © REUTERS/US Navy/Handout via Reuters

More than 60 incidents of this kind were recorded between March 2014 and August 2015 by the European Leadership Network, which recently addressed this worrying phenomenon in an expert workshop organised jointly with the Brussels-based Egmont Institute. These incidents have to be seen together with “snap exercises” conducted by Russia since 2013, which include the rapid deployment of significant numbers of troops.

Following decisions taken by Allied leaders at the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO has taken a number of steps to reinforce its collective defence and plans its biggest build-up in eastern Europe for decades. From Russia’s perspective, the increased number of NATO exercises, enhanced presence of its military infrastructure in eastern Europe, and its potential further eastward enlargement represent a threat to Russia’s national security. Suspension of practical civilian and military cooperation under the NATO-Russia Council since April 2014 – in response to the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal and illegitimate occupation and annexation of Crimea – is also part of this “Cold War script” pointed out at the Munich Security Conference in February 2016.

The downing of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F-16 in the Turkey-Syria border area, on 24 November 2015, shows how such close military encounters trigger the risk of dangerous miscalculation or unintended incidents that could lead to the escalation of tension and even direct confrontation between Russia and the West. That is why the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security, established in 2014 by the OSCE Troika, stressed, as a first and most urgent step, the need for more effective measures to reduce the risk of military accidents or incidents spiralling out of control.

In that context, restoring military confidence should focus on increasing military transparency, in particular with regard to “snap” exercises, and improving risk-reduction measures to avoid military incidents and accidents and prevent potential escalation and counter-escalation. A number of bilateral arrangements and channels of communication have existed since the Cold War and could be updated to forge a new generation of bilateral incident prevention agreements in the Euro-Atlantic space.

In parallel, the OSCE could prove to be an advantageous and inclusive arena in which to discuss hazardous military incidents and resume dialogue on military transparency between Russia and NATO member states. The Vienna Document on military transparency and predictability – a pillar of the OSCE’s politico-military acquis – provides a valuable framework to initiate reflection.

The Vienna Document

The OSCE has a well-earned reputation for dealing with the politico-military aspects of security. The Organization’s unique set of complementary, mutually reinforcing arms control arrangements and confidence and security building measures has played a central role in fostering security in Europe and is an integral element of its comprehensive approach to security.

In particular, the Vienna Document, a politically binding instrument adopted in 1990, is an important source of information for all 57 OSCE participating states. It promotes information exchanges on defence planning, military budgets, military forces and structures, data and plans for the deployment of major weapon and equipment systems, and military activities. It is a facilitator of military contacts, military cooperation, and regional confidence and security building measures.

16 ships from 9 nations maneuver in close formation in the Baltic Sea during NATO exercise BALTOPS 2016 on 9 June 2016. © NATO HQ MARCOM

It is also a political tool for conflict prevention, risk reduction and early warning. According to its Chapter III, participating states consult and cooperate with each other regarding any unusual and unscheduled activities of their military forces outside their normal peacetime location (para. 16); they have to be militarily significant and raise security concerns from another state. This provision was highly utilised in 2014, after Ukraine invoked Chapter III: 21 requests for consultation and cooperation in regards to unusual military activities were made under the Vienna Document. This led to four joint meetings of the Forum for Security Co-operation – an autonomous decision-making body where representatives of participating states meet weekly to consult on military stability and security – and the OSCE’s Permanent Council in March and April 2014.

Participating states also commit to cooperate with regard to hazardous incidents of a military nature to avoid any possible misunderstanding and to mitigate their effects on other states (para. 17). However, this paragraph has never been used and the related ‘Format’ (i.e. template for “notifications” to be used in the OSCE network in particular circumstances) has never been defined.

Making use of the Vienna Document to try to address the issue of hazardous military incidents would build on an already adopted and operational set of commitments. It would follow up on the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, in which “The member states of NATO and Russia will strive for greater transparency, predictability and mutual confidence with regard to their armed forces” and “will comply fully with their obligations under the Vienna Document.” It would also be consistent with the aims of the OSCE and its legacy as a forum for dialogue on politico-military issues. Unlike the NATO-Russia option, it would also be inclusive in nature from the start, encompassing all the countries in the Vancouver-to-Vladivostok space.

The changed security environment and developments in military technologies and operations over the past twenty years have required the adaptation of the OSCE’s arms control and confidence- and security-building regimes, including the Vienna Document, as well as a reappraisal of the value and role of confidence and security building measures in Europe. Since its adoption, it was updated three times (1992, 1994, 1999) prior to the entry into force of a new version of the Vienna Document on 1 December 2011. According to this latest version, OSCE participating states have to organise a special meeting every five calendar years or more frequently to reissue the Document – it is therefore due to be reissued in 2016 at the latest.

Improving incident management

The crisis in and around Ukraine has called attention to the deficits of Chapter III. That is why efforts at the Forum for Security Co-operation have been aimed at addressing activities which have the potential to cause concerns and possible ways to improve confidence as well as reduce tensions.

Among other initiatives, the joint proposal of a group of OSCE participating states (led by Poland as the main sponsor) for a draft decision on “Strengthening co-operation as regards hazardous or dangerous incidents of a military nature” focuses on paragraph 17 in particular: “Participating States conducting military activities in the zone of application for confidence and security building measures, in particular in situations of increased military tension, should seek to prevent any actions which could lead to a hazardous or dangerous incident of a military nature and provide pertinent information concerning this activity to other participating states as early as possible, preferably before the commencement of any such activity.

The joint proposal includes other new elements related to the risk-reduction procedure such as how to manage them in real time, effective ways to investigate the details of specific incidents, and how to avoid their repetition. The proposal spells out in more detail the reporting requirements on incidents, introducing time limits for providing information and further clarifications, and introducing the possibility of convening an explanatory meeting between the countries whose armed forces are involved in the incident.

The OSCE comprises 57 participating States that span the globe, encompassing three continents – North America, Europe and Asia – and more than a billion people. © OSCE

Additional elements could include the definition of the concept of “unusual military activities” in a way that would better encompass the notion of hazardous military incidents. Moreover, measures similar to the US-USSR Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities could be introduced, such as the possibility of enhanced transparency and new, tighter measures on deployments and exercises of military forces outside their peacetime locations and close to international borders. Specific measures of restraint in crisis situations could be envisaged. Forging regional and sub-regional confidence and security building measures and specific border-related regimes, particularly in areas of elevated tension, would also provide added value.

Rather than setting-up a new robust verification mechanism, smaller steps towards strengthening transparency and confidence in crisis situations seem more likely to achieve consensus and to cope with the overall political context. Meaningful confidence and security building measures would send a clear signal that the most dangerous options are excluded – this was the clear assessment of participants at the OSCE Security Days on “Revitalising Military Confidence-Building, Risk Reduction and Arms Control in Europe” in Vienna in October 2016.

A forum to discuss hazardous military incidents

Beyond the Vienna Document, the OSCE should be used more intensively as a platform for security dialogue on divisive issues. This view was shared by participants at the OSCE Security Days “From Confrontation to Co-operation: Restoring Co-operative Security in Europe” in Berlin in June 2016. Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – who is also OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in 2016 – has recently called for a new arms control deal with Moscow to avoid an escalation of tensions in Europe and to rebuild trust, for which the OSCE could offer the forum. Among the five areas that this reboot of conventional arms control must cover are agreements that define regional upper limits, minimum distances and transparency measures (especially in militarily sensitive regions, such as the Baltic states).

The Forum for Security Co-operation, as part of the proposal on paragraph 17, could offer a space for a regular exchange of views on the issue of hazardous military incidents, including their effects on civilian air traffic. Although it would need to avoid acrimonious debates over the alleged responsibility for specific incidents, it would create an opportunity for all OSCE participating states to express their positions in regards to the gravity of incidents, their causes, and the adequacy – or inadequacy – of the existing arrangements, including bilateral ones. Such a dialogue could also serve to raise awareness of the issue among all the OSCE states, and possibly lead to a universal clarification on what constitute ‘dangerous’ or ‘hazardous’ incidents. The OSCE high-level military doctrine seminars (the most recent having been held in February 2016) could also be used to this effect. Last but not least, if follow-up action should be required to investigate the encounter, the OSCE could provide an objective third-party to conduct such fact-finding missions.

Then NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow participates in the OSCE Security Days in Vienna, 3 October 2016. © NATO (Ambassador Vershbow’s remarks)

The OSCE also provides a regular framework for military-to-military contacts between NATO member states and Russia. Indeed, the North Atlantic Alliance has recently been very supportive of the use of the Vienna Document and, more generally, of the OSCE as a platform to progress military transparency.

Responding to the call from NATO

The issue of hazardous military incidents and the need for more military transparency came up at the NATO-Russia Council on 13 July 2016, where Russia submitted a proposal on air safety over the Baltic Sea. In parallel, representatives of NATO members, including Poland and the Baltic States, as well as NATO partner countries Finland and Sweden, were invited to Moscow for talks in September on common issues, with the aim to reduce shared concerns that have arisen over increased military movement near borders.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also regularly renewed the Alliance's offer to Russia jointly to update and strengthen the Vienna Document and other arms control regimes to increase stability and transparency. “NATO strongly supports efforts to strengthen the mechanisms we have for transparency, predictability including modernizing the Vienna Document,” he stated, inviting everyone to participate constructively in the work and recalling that a number of Allies had tabled concrete proposals on how to modernise the Document.

In a time of inflation of different types of institutions in the Euro-Atlantic area it is important to avoid competition and duplication. NATO’s “empowerment” of the OSCE to reinvigorate the Vienna Document and the corresponding “division of labour” between the two Organizations to ensure that relations are characterised by predictability, confidence and stability should be underlined and valued.

The Vienna Document has demonstrated its utility in so-called “bad weather conditions”. The fact is that rarely since the end of the Cold War have international relations in the Euro-Atlantic region been as strained as they are today. Hazardous military incidents underline the urgency of making full use of all multilateral instruments at hand, including those under the OSCE politico-military dimension of security, to ensure military transparency and stability. Of course, the Document alone cannot prevent the return of war. Confidence and security building measures are not a cure-all for international security problems and constitute only part of the outcome of a wider cooperative process of reconfiguring inter-state relations. But the OSCE can certainly help in mitigating tensions, de-conflicting movements and improving confidence, as long as its participating states show political willingness and shared interest, and avoid seeking to use risk to gain advantage.