The unexpected Russian military encirclement of Ukraine has not only brought closer the prospect of a devastating war in that country, it has also raised the risks of triggering a wider global conflict.
The US and Nato have been adamant that their troops will not enter Ukraine no matter what happens, and the Pentagon has pulled out the 160 national guard soldiers who were serving as military advisers.
Even during the cold war, Washington and Russia made sure their forces did not clash, and Joe Biden has made clear he would try to maintain that.
“That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another,” Biden pointed out.
However, the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus and the stationing of a substantial Russian naval force in the Black Sea, matched on a smaller scale by Nato land, sea and air reinforcements on the alliance’s eastern flank, means there is much far more military hardware in close proximity than is normal. And with proximity comes the increased danger of accidents and undesirable consequences.
“The risk of something going down like a mid-air collision, or a trigger-happy Russian or American, can really escalate things quickly,” remarked Danny Sjursen, a former army major and director of the Eisenhower Media Network.
“You’re setting yourself up for accidents and miscalculation, and that’s when you can get out of control real quick, because there are domestic considerations both in Russia and in the United States. An American pilot dies – now what? I’m not saying that necessarily means we go to cataclysmic nuclear war but it escalates things.”
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told a local television news on Sunday that the US had sought to be transparent about its troop deployments in eastern Europe in order “to avoid mistake miscalculation or escalation and also to send a very clear message to Russia we will defend every inch of Nato territory”.
There is a long history of close encounters over the Baltic and Black Seas. Earlier this month US jet fighters scrambled to intercept Russian warplanes operating close to Nato airspace while British and Norwegian planes took off to monitor Russian aircraft flying into the North Sea.
While Russia has shut off large parts of the Black Sea to conduct its manoeuvres, Nato navies have stayed out of the immediate vicinity for now, while building up their presence in the Mediterranean. If they do decide to go through the Bosphorus in a show of strength, or to safeguard commercial shipping, the risk will rise again.
On several occasions in the recent past, civilian ships traveling in the Black Sea have encountered mysterious GPS troubles that showed the vessels being in a different part of the Black Sea or even on land. It was widely though the incidents were caused by Russia testing its technology.
“It raises the risk for naval vessels that are in the Black Sea, which we should remember is not that big, and it’s crowded,” Braw said. “There’s enormous shipping activity in the Black Sea, and so all those crews face the risk of having no GPS.”
“The closest training ranges in Belarus are 150 to 200km from Vilnius or Warsaw,” said Kristjan Mäe, the head of the Nato and EU department at Estonia’s ministry of defence. “This is a Russian force posture that hasn’t been there previously.”
“The world’s two largest nuclear-armed states have returned to the brink of conflict exactly 60 years after the Cuban missile crisis. If diplomacy is not pursued to the fullest extent, the risks of miscalculation and miscommunication could potentially pull in wider Europe into a devastating war. Without dialogue on how to manage de-escalation, it will be as if our leaders are running into a monsoon with newspapers over their heads.”