Avoiding the New Cold War With Russia

With two risky flyovers of U.S. military assets in a week, tensions with Moscow are high. We need to tone things down, before flyovers become bombing runs.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks near a new Russian fighter jet Sukhoi T-50, after its flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow on June 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walks near a new Russian fighter jet Sukhoi T-50, after its flight in Zhukovksy, outside Moscow on June 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

In Ian Fleming’s iconic novel Goldfinger, the villain says about secret agent James Bond’s tendency to turn up and disrupt his plans again and again: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

So what are we then to make of the two highly provocative Russian maneuvers that occurred over the past week, directed against a U.S. warship on the Baltic high seas and a U.S. aircraft in international airspace nearby?

Vladimir Putin is playing with fire in this kind of hyper-aggressive maneuvering, and there can be little doubt the direction is coming from him, personally, given the way Russia is run today and the high-stakes nature of flying attack profiles against U.S. military assets.

In the first incident, on April 12, a Russian Su-24 jet flew within just 50 feet of the USS Donald Cook at high speed after approaching at an extremely low altitude. The U.S. ship, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, held fire but would have been clearly within the rules of engagement to use defensive weapons on the Russian aircraft. Having commanded a similar ship some years ago, I can attest to the level of restraint shown by the captain; he was presented with possible hostile intent and must have at least considered shooting down the jet. The situation was mitigated by the lack of a visible weapon on the Su-24 and the absence of Russian fire control radar being actively used to “lock up” the U.S. warship.

The second incident occurred on April 17, involving a U.S. Boeing RC-135 operating in international airspace. In this instance, a Russian Su-27 did a barrel roll over the top of the slower and less maneuverable U.S. plane, at about 50 feet away. This is very dangerous (two of my carrier strike group’s F-14s managed to collide while doing this in 2004) and was more reminiscent of the kind of aerial buffoonery made famous by the film Top Gun. That kind of flying was stupid in 1986 (when we were doing it, as well as the Russians), and it is stupid now.

Tensions between Washington and Moscow are at the highest levels since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago. This is the result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, both violations of international law, which have resulted in severe sanctions against Russia by the United States and its European allies. Moreover, the two nations are in strong disagreement over the proper course of action in Syria, with Putin backing the execrable regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and the United States trying to put together a more moderate coalition of Syrian rebels to overcome him. The Kremlin is particularly sensitive at the moment due to the NATO buildup of exercises and troop deployments around its periphery — a direct result of its aggressive actions in Georgia and Ukraine. Finally, Russia is concerned with the security of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea (where both of the incidents occurred) that is cut off from the rest of the nation. Moscow has threatened to deploy ballistic missiles there, should the United States upgrade its nuclear arsenal in Germany.

This downward spiral into a Cold War-mentality is clearly not in anyone’s interests. So, how do we avoid it but still confront Moscow when norms of behavior demand it?

Don’t go it alone

The first rule is to act multilaterally. Setting up a “nation vs. nation” mentality is counterproductive for the United States. Washington’s responses should be within the context of NATO as much as possible, including ground, sea, and air deployments to the region. Russia wants to make this a direct confrontation with the United States and try to drive a split in the alliance. We should avoid that and continue our deployments under NATO branding, including the European Reassurance Initiative.

Pick your battles

Second, we need to confront Russia — but only where we must. In particular, we should maintain the pressure of sanctions on Moscow until it fully conforms to the Minsk cease-fire agreements; object strongly to Assad’s continuation in power; and admonish Russia for gross human rights violations. But there are many other disagreements we have with Russia about how to operate in the international system that do not require confrontation (militarizing the Arctic, walking away from arms control, deployment of ballistic missile defenses, Russian arms sales to Iran, how to operate in the cyber-world, etc.).

Cooperate where we can

As a third step, we should take a more forward-leaning approach to cooperative counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and counterpiracy — all international problems about which Washington is largely in agreement with Moscow. It is conceivable that we could work together in the Balkans to calm relations between Serbia and the breakaway Republic of Kosovo and within the still-contentious boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina. We could improve our cooperation on the environment, increase nongovernmental educational exchanges, and perhaps find common ground over time in Syria (though Assad will continue to be a stumbling block). We also have common interests in solving the challenges in Afghanistan and promoting peace between India and Pakistan.

More talk, less shooting

Finally, at the tactical level, we would be smart to talk more frequently with Russia on the current protocols for the military interaction of our forces. The U.S.-Soviet agreement on the prevention of incidents on and over the high seas, negotiated in 1972, is still a good foundation for how ships and aircraft should operate; it lays out very specific guidance and was a foundational doctrine during the Cold War. Bringing together the heads of the U.S. and Russian militaries in a high-level conference to review and re-energize the agreement would be a positive step.

People frequently ask me if we are back in the Cold War. My answer: not yet. The Cold War dwarfed the current tension in terms of numbers of troops, ships, and aircraft, as well as the degree of military readiness to conduct massive, global combat operations — including the real likelihood of nuclear strikes. We are not remotely at that point.

But if we do not stop provocative activities like those undertaken by the Russian aircraft last week, we will sooner or later have a shoot-down and a potentially far more dangerous confrontation. The United States, for its part, must be transparent about military deployments around the Russian periphery and emphasize that no offensive action is contemplated — doing this via the NATO-Russia Council makes sense.

There is no need to stumble backward into a new Cold War, but avoiding it will require restraint, common sense, and diplomacy, especially on the parts of both Moscow and Washington. Like Goldfinger, both sides see plenty of “enemy action” in the other’s activities, which creates a dangerous potential for miscalculation. Above all, we need to be clear with each other and tone down both the rhetoric and the acrobatic maneuvers before they escalate into ordnance flying.

Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj