Europe’s security has become less predictable and less stable. This week, NATO held an extraordinary meeting where Turkey informed allies about the downing of a Russian Air Force plane violating its airspace. This is a serious incident, which requires calm and diplomacy – and I would welcome further contacts between Ankara and Moscow. It also highlights the need to strengthen the mechanisms to avoid such incidents in the future. Because this is part of a bigger pattern. Over the last few years, we have seen a significant increase of Russia’s military activity around our borders, as well as a willingness to use force in pursuit of political aims.
On 26 February 2014, Russia launched a so-called ‘snap exercise’ involving 38,000 troops in its Western Military District near the Ukrainian border. A few days later, many of those same Russian troops were involved in the seizure of Crimea – part of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
As a response to growing unpredictability in our neighbourhood, NATO has taken defensive measures to protect all Allies and we will continue to do so as long as necessary. However, restoring long-term stability in Europe also requires to modernise the rule-book of European security.
Russia’s pace of military manoeuvres and drills are reaching levels unseen since the end of the Cold War. Over the past three years, Russia has conducted 18 snap exercises. Some Russian exercises have involved more than 150,000 troops, and several have appeared to include simulated nuclear attacks. We also see a clear increase in Russia’s air and maritime activities, including – it seems – to test its neighbours’ reactions.
Military training and exercise is part and parcel of every nation’s right. NATO exercises its forces too. Last month alone, we conducted our largest exercise in years with 36,000 troops dispatched across Portugal, Spain, and Italy. However, unlike Russia, we publish our exercise schedule, and we invite observers, including from Russia, to attend. This stands in stark contrast with Russia’s calculated unpredictability and lack of transparency.
This occurs in a context where the regime governing military activities in Europe no longer fulfils its core purpose: to provide transparency and predictability. Under the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), 57 nations, including all NATO Allies and Russia, have agreed on rules governing military activities in Europe, including observation and notification of exercises.
These measures reflected shared principles to avoid conflict in Europe while respecting every nation’s sovereignty. Yet Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and previously in Georgia but also in Moldova, point to the fact that Moscow no longer holds these principles as inviolable. Moreover, Russia has walked away from some of these agreements or uses loopholes to evade their provisions.
This is not a new Cold War. But it is a wake-up call.
The reality is that the rules-book of European security is out of date. We need to modernise it to reflect today’s reality and re-engage Russia. We need snap inspections of snap exercises. We need lower thresholds for notification of exercises. We need measures to put more transparency on military activities and postures in Europe. And we need common standards to manage possible accidents and incidents at sea and in the air.
NATO is abiding by the rules and will continue to do so. At the same time it is clear that we need a modernised regime negotiated within the OSCE framework. Unless we create a more intrusive and up-to-date transparency regime designed for this new reality, the danger of miscalculation, accidents and stumbling into a military confrontation is real and it is increasing.
We should not sleep-walk into unintended escalation.
Being firm in defending the Allies and seeking reciprocal transparency about military activities must go hand-in-hand. We should re-double efforts to modernise and strengthen the rule-book of European security. Without it, there will be no lasting stability in Europe.
The author is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This opinion-editorial was published in seven European newspapers (Le Figaro, El Pais, La Repubblica, Le Soir, Die Welt, Tages-Anzeiger, and Tribune de Genève) on Thursday, 26 November 2015.
L. J. De Rothschild