Putin and the West: Playing With Matches in a Woodshed

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey, on December 1, 2014. Putin signed a decree imposing economic sanctions against Turkey four days after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. Umit Bektas/Reuters

The shooting down by Turkey of a Russian warplane that strayed into its airspace last week appears to have switched on the world's media to the possibility of a hot war between Russia and the West. This is not before time.

Thankfully, the Russian response has so far been confined to the diplomatic and economic domains, and Turkey says it is in favor of de-escalation. There is, however, no room for complacency. The situation is ripe with potential for escalation, all the more so because what happened over Turkey is but one example, albeit a very dramatic one, of a much wider problem in Russia's current military relationship with the West.

Over the last 18 months, Russia has been probing NATO territory in a systematic and dangerous way. Evidence of mock Russian cruise missile attack runs on NATO targets in North America and Europe, cases of Russian and NATO warplanes coming within meters of each other in the air and accounts of hunts for Russian submarines off the coasts of Sweden and Scotland have all been put into the public domain.

Against this wider backdrop, Russian activities in Syria in recent weeks, while being combat operations rather than peacetime maneuvers, can be seen as an addition to a wider and pre-existing pattern of behavior rather than as an entirely novel development.

The broader political context is what makes them so worrying. The Russian probing is embedded within a fundamental political disagreement between Russia and the West over the future of Europe.

On the Russian side, a growing number of national security officials appear to believe Western policy is aimed at overthrowing President Vladimir Putin and weakening the Russian state. Many in the West, on the other hand, believe Russia is seeking to change the European order through use of force in the east of the continent and through the provision of funding to political parties hostile to the EU in the West.

The debate on whether this amounts to a new Cold War has had some ink. Whether it is or it isn't, it is certainly now a confrontation in which both sides perceive fundamental interests to be at stake.

The evaporation of trust in the NATO-Russia relationship has also become visible in a new pattern of military exercises being conducted on both sides. The number of exercises has increased, and while Russia's are larger and often appear designed to intimidate neighbors, NATO exercises are pitched at reassuring fearful allies close to Russia.

Neither side states it, but the Russian military is now preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia.

It is in this context, quite apart from the complexities of Russian and Turkish affiliations in the Syrian civil war, that the Turkish shoot down of the Russian warplane could be described as a match falling on a potential tinderbox.

If leaders in both Russia and the West have any foresight at all, they will now move quickly to reconvene the NATO-Russia Council and use it to negotiate a memorandum of understanding on managing the ongoing close military encounters effectively.

Such a memorandum would include agreement on prearranged codes to be used by pilots trying to communicate with each other as potentially dangerous events unfold. Had these existed between Turkey and Russia this week, the shoot down might have been avoided.

The case for such an agreement ought to seem self-evident. The U.S. and Russia negotiated a de-confliction agreement to manage the risks in Syria just a few weeks ago. The U.S. also signed a similar agreement with China in November 2014 to manage the risks in the South China Sea.

There are still some in Europe, however, who believe negotiating a Euro-Atlantic-wide agreement could be seen as a green light by Russia to continue with its provocative behavior. There are also concerns that it could weaken NATO's message of resolve to defend its territory in the east against Russian attack.

These concerns are real, but similar ones were faced during the Cold War and did not stop a series of bilateral conflict avoidance agreements being signed between individual NATO countries and the Soviet Union, some of which are still in operation with Russia today.

The driving force for such agreements in the Cold War, however, was the all-pervading fear of nuclear war. The dangers were simply seen as too great to leave such things to chance.

Perhaps the most worrying feature of the current debate is that policymakers on both sides now seem to be discounting the nuclear danger, even though both still possess nuclear weapons in large numbers and some remain on high states of alert.

It is not only concerns about Russia, then, that stand in the way of the risk reduction measures we need but also a case of nuclear amnesia, nuclear complacency or a combination of both.

If this isn't changed, more dangerous incidents will follow, and the security of all of us will be left hanging at the mercy of events.

Ian Kearns is co-founder and director of the European Leadership Network. Follow him on Twitter at @IanKKearns.

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