Regarding the crisis in the Middle East — Syria in particular — relationships between key international spokespeople seem to be headed toward a state of imbalance that carries multiple risks. Russia, NATO and the European Union need to start a dialogue, but this could become increasingly difficult after the recent shooting down of a Russian fighter jet. Friction-causing issues that threaten the post-Cold War order seem to be stacking up and, even if their ideologies are not entirely conflicting, this is why the protagonists are not paying the utmost attention to an essential transition: from confrontation to cooperation.
Since the start of Russian operations in Syria, there has been fear that a Russian fighter jet will be shot down, and this demonstrates the high level of military insecurity in Europe and the wider Mediterranean area. It is largely the aviation sector that suffers from this insecurity: The previous shooting down of a passenger flight over Sinai and of the Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine are proof of this. Clashes between Russian military planes and civil and military aircraft belonging to NATO countries are also increasingly frequent. The European Leadership Network is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in London, counting several Italian members among its participants. Months ago the agency brought the risks of this situation to international attention. The ELN keeps an up-to-date list of “close encounters” and potential incidents between Russia and NATO’s air forces. It reveals that there have been 60 instances of this kind in the last 18 months, alongside border violations, missile launch tests, and disturbances caused by military exercises and maneuvers. Such incidents are predominantly taking place in the Nordic area and Arctic regions whose strategic relevance has been growing and where NATO has also increased its military drills. Last February, ELN leaders raised the huge risks regarding this situation with the foreign minister of Russia, Lavrov. He pointed out that the appropriate place for confronting such issues should be the NATO-Russia Council, though its practical operations have been suspended. Other Russian representatives noted, without denying what has taken place, that NATO air forces would have a similar reaction. Russia has become more aggressive on a declaratory level, too. Other ambassadors and generals from the Russian administration have publicly put forward the possibility of resorting to nuclear weapons. Even more worrying is that it was President Putin who indicated that such an option had been considered in the wake of the crisis in Crimea. No Western leader or politician has made a declaration of this kind.
A new international order was established after the Berlin Wall fell, leading to decades of cooperation with Russia. It has stopped working. Its most significant achievements, including Russia’s participation in the G8, Russia-NATO cooperation in the “spirit of the Rome Summit” and the EU-Russia partnership, have run aground. Since 2007, Moscow has suspended observance of its obligations to the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which enforced equal limits on European military forces. Under this treaty, thousands of armored military tanks, as well as aircraft and heavy artillery, were destroyed under the surveillance of watchful inspectors from all sides. Moscow ignored what was — even during the Cold War — the cornerstone of European postwar order: the ban on using force to change borders. The 1994 Budapest memorandum ratified territorial integration in Ukraine, and in exchange, Ukraine would give up its nuclear arms. But it was ignored. The Americans claim Moscow is still violating the INF Treaty, which prohibits Russian and U.S. possession of mid-range nuclear missiles.
Russia has also faced its fair share of grievances. Moscow has seen the Warsaw Pact fall apart, as many of its member countries joined NATO. Russia also complains of the presence of NATO forces in territories over which there had been tacit agreements suggesting this would not happen. This highlights the destabilizing nature of the antimissile defense program the Americans developed after Washington withdrew from the ABM Treaty. The withdrawal established vulnerability on both sides by limiting their antiballistic defenses. Moscow has now also started down an antimissile path, but is unable to compete with the Americans in this area. Today, this all supports the concept of Russia’s inferiority in conventional armed forces. Such inferiority is forcing it to rely more on nuclear weapons. There is even a risk that the recent agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, a matter in which the Russians and the Americans cooperated well, will become yet another conflicting issue between the two. In Moscow’s eyes, the U.S. can no longer justify keeping its antimissile defenses in Europe as this was originally accounted for by the threat of Iranian nuclear missiles, a threat that has now been substantially reduced.
The fundamental ideological disagreements that existed between the two sides at the beginning of the Cold War are no longer there. Yet, despite this the mechanisms put in place to further cooperation and maintain security and trust between the East and West, through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, no longer seem able to prevent huge crises such as those in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative, recently became the voice of this situation, holding a bilateral meeting with Lavrov at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Belgrade.
In the midst of this worrying picture, it is first and foremost necessary to identify concrete and immediate measures that will prevent igniting a fire that engulfs the entire continent. The ELN proposal to establish a Code of Conduct that prevents incidents between Russia and NATO’s air and naval units is therefore worthy of attention. The U.S. has recently concluded such an agreement with China, proving the need to make one with Russia even more convincing.
The recent proposal from NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg is also due positive reception. He suggests a re-examination next year of the security and trust measures in the 2011 Vienna document. The new year is already on our doorstep with the beginning of the new German chairmanship of the OSCE, which, alongside its Secretary General Lamberto Zannier, resolves to undertake the primordial task of promoting “cooperation rather than confrontation.” This should mean measures will be adopted that aim to prevent military incidents and to prevent today’s leaders from denying the risks, risks so serious that the situation can be compared to the time when European leaders “sleepwalked” into World War I.
Carlo Trezza, outgoing president of the Missile Technology Control Regime, was the Italian permanent representative for the Conference on Disarmament and nonproliferation in Geneva.
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