U.S., Russia Open Hotline To Prevent Accidental Clash in Europe

According to two U.S. defense official, the U.S. military created a hotline for communication with Russian forces in order to stop an unintentional clash between their two nuclear superpowers amid increasing tensions regarding the war in Ukraine. The so-called de-confliction line is intended to ensure that the two countries’ pilots or warships do not mistakenly fire upon one another as they conduct daily missions in eastern Europe.

The military-to-military channel, which will run out of U.S. European Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, was set up March 1 after the Russians responded to the Pentagon’s request. Maintaining communications to avoid accidental confrontations between the forces is critical, officials say, so hostilities don’t spiral out of control. “It’s really important that we don’t risk accident or miscalculation,” said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
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American forces are not fighting inside Ukraine, where Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops and is carrying out daily bombing runs, but both militaries are now operating near each other along Ukraine’s borders. The U.S. has sent fighter jets to multiple countries on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastern flank for air policing flights in solidarity with the transatlantic alliance. Officials from the United States said that it could prevent an accident shoot-down or collision in Eastern Europe.

This isn’t the first time that the two countries have established such a system. The U.S. and Russian military established back-channel after Russia entered Syria’s multi-sided civil war in 2015. Russia supported its ally in Syria President Bashar al-Assad while the U.S. bombed ISIS strongholds. Special forces were also deployed for specific missions. Although the deconfliction line had a Google Mail account and an unsecure phone line, it was useful for avoiding catastrophic accidents.

Eastern Europe has a different situation. While the U.S., its allies and Russia aren’t operating in the same area as Russia. However, the Biden Administration was aware of the risk of making mistakes. Officials from the U.S. stated that there will be a telephone line for eastern Europe, however they refused to give more details.

Since Russia moved more than 150,000 soldiers, warships, and aircraft around Ukraine late last year communication has been an issue. The administration was initially reticent to set up the channel ahead of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials said, out of concerns that it could appear as though Washington would abide and unprovoked assault by Russia on its smaller neighbor.

A communication channel was essential as Russia’s bloody military campaign entered its second week. “We understand the importance of de-confliction, particularly now that the airspace over Ukraine is contested, and some of that airspace butts right up against NATO territory,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.

NATO has mobilizedSince Russian Vladimir Putin’s order to invade, thousands of soldiers and over 100 planes have been deployed. Recent weeks have seen increased U.S.-European air-policing operations over allies, with regular sorties by F-35 stealth fighter planes and F-16 fighter jets in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania.

“The presence and rapid re-positioning of aircraft in Europe, including F-35s and B-52s, not only strengthens NATO’s eastern flank countries, but demonstrates our ability to adapt to a dynamic warfighting environment,” General C.Q. Brown, the nation’s top Air Force officer told TIME, adding that de-confliction is critical, “given the proximity of NATO nations to Ukraine.”

Ukraine isn’t a NATO member but borders four countries: Poland, Slovakia Hungary, Hungary, and Romania. The U.S. and other NATO allies have pledged to protect their eastern and central European members under the alliance’s defining Article 5 mutual defense commitments, which establish that an attack on one member is an attack on all. It is crucial to avoid an accident because, if an ally service member dies, all of Europe and the U.S. could become involved in the conflict.

As tensions between Washington, Moscow and Ukraine have escalated dramatically over the past few days, this back-channel was necessary. In an effort to stop the U.S. from intervening in Ukraine’s war, Putin raised the possibility of nuclear weapons multiple times in this crisis. The Biden Administration delayed a planned military test launch for an intercontinental missile-type ballistic missile on Wednesday due to concerns that it could be misinterpreted and escalatory.

A month ago, three Russian Su-35 fighter planes flew within inches of U.S. P-8A surveillance airplanes on separate occasions. These incidents were over international airspace at the Mediterranean Sea. No one was hurt, but the Pentagon called the incidents “unprofessional intercepts” and the U.S. expressed concerns through diplomatic channels. “The U.S. retains a number of channels to discuss critical security issues with the Russians during a contingency or emergency,” a senior U.S. defense official said.

But communication between the U.S. and Russia—nations commanding the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals—has been limited since American intelligence agencies discovered that the Kremlin had engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to meddle in 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In addition, Congress passed a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act in late 2014—and renewed since then—which restricts the Pentagon’s ability to work with Russia. The law was passed in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued support for pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country.

During the Cold War, a series of treaties between the U.S. and Soviet Union were designed to avoid miscalculation and keep communication channels open – even though Washington and Moscow were sworn adversaries. Many of these treaties, including the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas and the Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities, are no more in existence.


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