Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape
The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape

The Art of the Possible: Minimizing Risks as a New European Order Takes Shape


Note: Research for this analysis was completed on October 13, 2022. The text does not reflect events since that date.

Executive Summary

  • Russia’s war on Ukraine is poised to bring into being a new European security order. Although the last eight months have been full of surprises, that new order may very well be marked by unstable standoffs, buildups, and dangerous activities and incidents between both Ukraine and Russia and Russia and Ukraine’s Western backers. These will risk ever more dangerous crises, all with the threat of nuclear war looming.
  • The last eight years of military deployments, near-simultaneous exercises, and other proximate activities by Russia and NATO offer some hints as to what this future may look like. These, notably, were undertaken not to prevent an escalation in Ukraine but to deter NATO from attacking Russia and vice versa. During this time, discussions about a return to conventional arms control in Europe to mitigate the dangers of military activities gained little traction with policymakers, and the agreements and arrangements that had been in place continued to deteriorate and dwindle.
  • In late 2021, as Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s borders, the West offered Russia a return to conventional arms control solutions. Russia countered with demands that NATO return to its 1990s-era force posture and eschew any further enlargement, and then proceeded to roll its tanks into Ukraine. During the tense months prior to Russia’s invasion, the conventional arms control mechanisms that remained, such as the Vienna Document, made it possible to call out Russia’s buildup, but not reverse it or prevent attack.
  • Although there is little logic and less appetite for new arms control deals now, an end to fighting in Ukraine will create new imperatives to make Europe safer than it is today. While sanctions can limit Russian capacity to some extent, they may well be inadequate to prevent substantial buildups. For this reason, NATO members and their partners should be thinking in advance about how they could limit Russian capabilities via negotiated arrangements with robust verification measures and repercussions for violations. Once the shooting stops in Ukraine, deals such as these could make a more secure Europe, bolstered by more reliable deterrence, attainable.

Address by President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the NATO Summit, June 2022. (NATO)


Europe, a seeming bastion of stability since the end of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, has once again grown dangerous.[1] Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, which had followed eight years of lower-grade conflict, has brought the heaviest fighting the continent has seen since World War II and raised the specter of Russian nuclear weapons use. Although Western states have not gotten involved directly, they have backed Ukraine with weapon deliveries, imposed heavy sanctions on Russia, and issued their own (mainly non-nuclear) deterrent threats in response to Russia’s. Moreover, the NATO alliance is poised to enlarge. Sweden and Finland applied to join in May and were invited to do so at NATO’s June summit in Madrid.

It is too early to judge the outcome of a war that has already brought many surprises, not least of them Ukraine’s fierce and effective resistance, the hollowness of Russia’s early military strategy, and continuing gaps in its capacity both in terms of personnel and equipment. But many if not most plausible futures, including that of a protracted conflict, will bring years if not decades of continuing enmity between Russia on the one hand and NATO members on the other, most likely with Belarus in Russia’s camp, and Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova in NATO’s. That enmity is poised to translate into troop buildups on both sides, an influx of weapons into partner countries, and increased military exercises. Especially if Russia is trying to camouflage military weakness like that evidenced in Ukraine, it may rely on more bluster and coercive threats, and potentially further aggression. All of this sets the stage for more crises, each with significant risks of escalation, which, as this war has already demonstrated, threaten the world as a whole.

If it comes to pass, such a standoff will likely magnify patterns set over the past eight years, when NATO member states and Russia both increased their force presence and exercise operational tempo throughout Europe in an effort to send deterrent signals to the other and assurance messages to allies after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and fomentation of war in Donbas in 2014. These fueled a sharp increase in incidents in which Russian and Western forces, operating in proximity, endangered one another. But, throughout this period, both NATO and Russia balked at constraining these activities and attendant deployments, because both saw these risks as a feature, not a bug, of their deterrence stances, intended to remind the other party of the potential costs of escalation.

Notably, NATO’s posture since 2014 was not intended to prevent Russian escalation in Ukraine—it was intended to deter attacks on NATO member states. Russia’s posture, meanwhile, was not designed to set the stage for escalated war in Ukraine, but to emphasize the costs for NATO of direct conflict with Russia, including the aforementioned risk of nuclear escalation. Thus, in terms of immediate goals, both were and remain successful: Russia has not attacked NATO member states, and NATO members have been careful to avoid direct engagement with Russia as they support Ukraine. But the very fact that Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine underlines the instability of those postures and the limits of the security they can deliver. 

Now, whatever happens next in Ukraine, this dynamic will likely get even more dangerous. More incidents, likely with more activity, may not spark war directly but will contribute to overall tension and insecurity to heighten enmity and potentially increase the risk of escalation when a crisis does occur. If war continues in Ukraine, with Western states facing increasing pressure to do more and more to aid their partner and Russia, increasingly strapped for personnel, equipment, and funds, looking for a faster victory, more crises seem very plausible. And unless either Kyiv or Moscow has won outright and decisively, almost any imaginable deal to end the fighting in Ukraine will leave both sides looking to rebuild and relitigate the conflict. In that case, too, a new crisis is also only a matter of time.

NATO as an alliance and its member states face the challenge of designing a strategy and posture that can preserve and ideally enhance deterrence while lowering the temperature of the overall standoff. In principle, negotiated limits on deployments and activities would seem the path forward. In late 2021 and early 2022, as Russian forces built up around Ukraine, senior Western officials indeed hoped to reverse Russia’s preparation for war by proposing such limits. Then, Russia’s maximalist responses and eventual invasion of Ukraine flummoxed these efforts. Today, there is little appetite for negotiations with Russia. But in time, particularly if some sort of deal between Kyiv and Moscow becomes more plausible, its sustainability could be greatly enhanced if it is embedded in broader European security arrangements. Even absent such a deal, agreed limits can make preparations for war that is much more visible and aggression that much harder.

In this paper, we draw on the existing literature on conventional arms control in Europe, supplemented by interviews with experts and policymakers, to ask what this could look like. We assess the overall security context in the region, discuss how and why conventional arms control measures have decayed over the years and with what implications, and offer an overview of measures that could contribute to increasing stability without undermining deterrence. While this is not a paper focused on the risks of nuclear escalation, those risks lie at the heart of the imperative to find ways toward a more stable Europe.

The Eager Leopard 2021 exercise in Lithuania tested capabilities of joint operations between battle groups of the Baltic states and US forces. (Flickr/NATO)


Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the way Moscow has waged it, is rooted in hundreds of years of history and fundamental and persistent misperceptions among Russians and Russian officials about their neighbor. But while these complicated dynamics are critical to understanding the war, in this paper, we focus not on Ukraine specifically, but on the broader European context in which the war takes place, and in which any peace must be grounded. The sources of tension between Russia and NATO member states, too, are multifold, far older than the current crisis, and rooted in fundamentally dissonant views of what security in Europe means.

Moscow has long seen the US-led, NATO-centered European security order as one that excludes it and ignores its interests, weakening it and rendering it susceptible to coercion or worse. Russia’s hopes in the 1990s and early 2000s of a leading role in Euro-Atlantic security, one befitting how Moscow sees its station as a great power and offering protection from such coercion, were dashed. Instead, Moscow watched NATO expand over the course of thirty years to incorporate the Soviet Union’s old allies and even make inroads into former Soviet republics.[2] From this perspective, which ignores the interests and agency of the countries in question, Russia’s wars on Georgia in 2008 and on Ukraine since 2014 are not simple neocolonial aggression, but part of an effort to push back against NATO encroachment ever closer to its own borders.

Moscow may also have felt increasing pressure to act sooner rather than later to establish its position, before it lost even more ground in a changing global order.[3] Concerned that NATO countries would continue to seek influence in its neighborhood and in Russia itself, Russian officials and analysts also believed that alliance members would not stop short of forcibly changing others’ governments in pursuit of their goals. This perception was based on Russia’s reading of events in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan as well as Ukraine, Georgia, and the countries that experienced the Arab spring.[4] To deter NATO, (although not only for that reason), Russia thus not only started and kept war going in Ukraine but built up its own forces and exercise tempo near NATO member states’ borders.[5]

For most NATO members, meanwhile, a definition of Moscow’s interests and security that requires continuing sway over its neighbors, even if those neighbors would prefer other arrangements, is disingenuous and destabilizing. Moscow’s actions in support of its world-view thus lead NATO members to view it as a resurgent revisionist power looking to destabilize the current world order.[6]

Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers at NATO headquarters on 12 and 13 October. (NATO)

Moreover, prior to 2022, many NATO states saw a Russia willing to wage war in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria and were fearful Moscow would at some point be emboldened to use force against one or more of the alliance’s members. Moscow’s use of a variety of political, information, and economic tools to advance its interests in their own countries added fuel to the fire.[7] To prevent Russian aggression against their own territories, NATO countries thus sought to strengthen their deterrent by deploying forces and conducting exercises to show they would fight back if attacked. In the Black Sea, these forces and activities also played a role in contesting Russia’s claims to sovereignty over Crimea, which it annexed in 2014, at the start of the war in Ukraine.

Dueling perspectives on security and threat reverberated on the subregional level. In the Baltic Sea region, both NATO and Russia took steps to mitigate their own perceived vulnerabilities, measures that made the other even more nervous. NATO members worried about two things: the Suwalki Gap and the related defensibility of the Baltic member states.[8] The Suwalki Gap, also known as the Suwalki Corridor after the nearby Polish town, is the 100-kilometer Poland-Lithuania border. To the east of this line is Belarus, to the west, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.[9] In a scenario in which NATO must supply or militarily support the Baltic states via Poland while in conflict with Russia (with Belarus aligned with or at least supportive of Russia), everything it sends has to either traverse this narrow border, or somehow get past Russian assets in Kaliningrad that cover the Baltic Sea.[10] Thus, Western analysts argued that in case of such a conflict, Russia would attain great advantage if it moved quickly to take control of this territory, separating Poland from the Baltic countries. These arguments may be weakened by Russian military performance in Ukraine. However, as Russia’s naval and air presence in Kaliningrad remains forceful, they are not yet negated.[11]

To respond, since 2016, NATO implemented changes to its force posture in the Baltic Sea.[12] Its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) rotated four battalion-sized battlegroups, composed of forces from a variety of member states, through locations in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.[13] EFP deployments were accompanied by exercises, all intended to reassure the Baltic states and Poland of NATO’s commitment to their territorial defense and send Russia a message: “don’t mess with us here.”[14]

Russia, for its part, saw the situation in reverse. For Moscow, it was Kaliningrad, with its military bases and assets of Russia’s Western military district, that was vulnerable to NATO attack, and difficult to defend due to its lack of connection with mainland Russia.[15] Some analysts believe that the Suwalki Gap was crucial for this reason as well, arguing that if Russia fails to seize the Suwalki Gap, it will lose Kaliningrad once a conflict began.[16]

Fearful that NATO’s positioning of rotational forces in the Baltic states make it possible for the alliance to pressure Russia or Belarus, Moscow responded with its own military build-up. Russia expanded the forces placed in Kaliningrad. Notably, Russia permanently deployed its nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in 2018, previous deployments of which had been temporary.[17] In 2019, Russia’s Ministry of Defence reported that it had completed construction of a new facility in Kaliningrad Oblast to store missiles, torpedoes, and artillery ammunition.[18] The number of main battle tanks, excluding naval infantry, increased from a range of thirty to ninety in Kaliningrad.[19] The Russians were also planning a new motor rifle division in Gusev, based upon the 11th tank regiment, the 79th Motor Rifle Brigade, and the 7th Motor Rifle Regiment.[20] Furthermore, Russia bolstered its air defense capabilities in Kaliningrad.[21] This included rearming regiments and battalions with S400s and other defense systems such as the Bastion and the Bal system.[22]

In the Black Sea region, meanwhile, NATO’s Tailored Forward Presence, initiated in 2016, was focused on protecting NATO’s airspace and naval presence through military exercises and further troop and equipment deployments.[23] Since then, more NATO troops trained in Romania (Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast) and more exercises were carried out to support Ukraine’s contestation of Russian control of Crimea and Georgia’s of Abkhazia’s independence.[24] The exercises mainly focused on interoperability and NATO’s readiness in the Black Sea.[25]

In part, NATO’s posture was a response to the robust force Russia had built in Crimea since annexing the peninsula. Russia used the Black Sea region as a springboard for its major operations in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The peninsula hosts a wide range of sensory systems, surface to air missiles, and air defense systems.[26] Russia continued to modernize its Black Sea fleet, based in Crimea since long before the annexation, and planned to bolster it with a few guided missile frigates, six improved kilo submarines armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, and several missile corvettes.[27] After the start of the 2014 war in Ukraine, Moscow gave the 8th Combined Arms Army unit, centered in Rostov-on-Don and Novocherkassk, responsibility for deterring any initiative by Ukraine to retake the parts of its Donbas region that were controlled by the self-proclaimed republics that Russia had emplaced and backed.[28] The unit could also perform limited offensive operations.[29]

Troops from Czechia, Germany, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the United States took part in Strong Cohesion 2022 (September 20-22), an exercise designed to run the NATO Battlegroup Slovakia through its paces and prove its ability to work effectively, as a unified command. (NATO)

Military Signaling and Exercises

 In addition to deployments, NATO significantly increased its military exercises in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions since 2014. So did Moscow, which often timed its own drills to run at the same time as NATO’s and, despite the disparate nature of the activities, consistently described its exercises as a response to NATO’s drills.[30] For instance, in 2018, the alliance announced plans for its Trident Juncture military exercise, to involve all NATO members along with Sweden and Finland.[31] Just a few days before the exercise, Russia notified the Allies that it would launch simultaneous missile drills in international waters near the Norwegian coast.[32]

Russia also engaged in GPS spoofing and what NATO sees as highly provocative activities, such as buzzing ships and flying close to aircraft with NATO forces, often alongside the mirroring exercises. For instance, during the 2018 drills described above, NATO personnel participating in Trident Juncture accused the Russians of jamming their GPS signals.[33]

Russian responses to NATO’s annual BALTOPS exercises offer something of an illustrative chronology of how Moscow’s approach has shifted over time. Before 2014, Russian forces sometimes took part in BALTOPS.[34] In 2014, at the height of the Crimean crisis, Moscow ran its own exercises parallel both to BALTOPS and NATO’s Saber Strike.[35] In 2015, it shifted shadowing BALTOPS from a distance, albeit with proximate corvettes and close overflight from Su-24 fighters. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, it observed the exercises.[36] In 2019, Russia’s Baltic fleet simulated a missile strike on an enemy ship in Kaliningrad as BALTOPS took place.[37] In 2020, Russia’s Baltic fleet conducted air exercises close to NATO forces.[38]

Some of the same patterns showed up in the Black Sea region. The annual Sea Breeze exercise, which brings together NATO and partner states, was co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine in 2020. Three days before it began, Russia’s Black Sea fleet conducted snap exercises.[39] Once Sea Breeze was underway, Russia commenced a series of snap exercises across its Southern (including Crimea) and Western Military borders, with the Defence Ministry insisting that it was doing so in preparation for its Kavkaz 2020 exercises.[40]

The 2021 itineration of Sea Breeze was also co-hosted by Ukraine and the United States. A few days in advance, the HMS Defender, a British destroyer (Type 45) en route to the exercise, made its way through Russian-claimed waters near the Crimean Peninsula, in part to demonstrate that the United Kingdom found Russia’s claim to Crimea unacceptable.[41] Russian forces fired warning shots as a signal to the HMS Defender.[42] Then, after Sea Breeze began, the Black Sea fleet and Southern Military District undertook a flurry of activity in Crimea and the Black Sea: a Russian navy submarine held comprehensive drills from its position, deck-based helicopters practiced daytime and night time flights, aircraft trained with the S-400 system, and Pantsir crews held missile drills.[43]

Russia mirrored exercises in other parts of Europe, as well. For instance, in May 2021, Russia conducted exercises with Serbia alongside US-led training in neighboring Balkan states and NATO’s Defender 2021, which spanned the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea—showcasing the NATO’s military mobility across the continent.[44]

Ukrainian servicemen raise the Ukrainian flag in Vysokopillia, the Kherson region, after the village was liberated from Russian occupation. September 4, 2022. (Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine)

A New Invasion and its Repercussions

Russia foreshadowed its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine in March and April of 2021. At that time, it beefed up forces in Crimea and near Ukraine, ostensibly in preparation for exercises, with total numbers reaching over 100,000 personnel.[45] While many subsequently returned to their bases, the infrastructure remained.

This infrastructure provided groundwork for a second build-up of forces and equipment in the fall. Western and Russian experts debated whether or not Moscow was preparing a significant military action, signaling, exercising, or doing something else.[46] Meanwhile, Russian forces kept coming. By mid-February 2022, Russia had roughly 200,000 troops in Belarus and Russia, massed around Ukraine.[47] This was the force that invaded Russia’s neighbor from the north, east, and south starting on February 24.   

Russia calls its invasion and continuing war against Ukraine a “special military operation.” Moscow says that its goals are the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. Although it has never specified what either term means, it initially likely hoped to see Ukraine’s government shift to one more in line with Moscow’s wishes and to impose limits on Ukraine’s military capacity and relationships with NATO member states. There is no reason to think that these goals have changed.

Russia’s military aims, however, have shifted since February 24. Its multi-axis attack was soon flummoxed, as much by its own poor tactics and planning as by brave Ukrainian resistance. The plan, such as it was, relied on a fairly warm welcome from Ukraine’s population. Once it was clear that this was not forthcoming, that Russia’s initial approach had failed, and that Kyiv was not going to fall easily, Russia’s Defence Ministry pulled forces out of Ukraine’s northern and central regions and declared it would focus its military efforts on securing the Donbas and Ukraine’s south. Since late March, fighting has been concentrated in these areas. Russia has been successful in holding much of the southern territory it took in the war’s early days over the summer made incremental progress in Donbas, where it took full control of Luhansk region in early July. But a Ukrainian counteroffensive from late August into October regained most of Kharkiv region and made inroads on all other fronts. Russia responded by announcing both a substantial mobilization and the annexation of unspecified portions of Ukrainian territory. It has also attacked Ukrainian infrastructure and, intentionally or not, civilian areas and made new nuclear threats.

A UK Army M720 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) fires a training rocket on July 18, 2022 in Grafenwhöhr, Germany during Exercise Dynamic Front 22. (NATO)

The war has meanwhile galvanized NATO. Member states have sanctioned Russia and are sending a variety of weapons, humanitarian aid, and other supplies to Ukraine, as well as training Ukrainian forces on Western equipment.[48] But they are also bolstering their own posture. In 2020, a NATO official told the authors that the alliance intended to further increase its troop presence in both the Black Sea and Baltic Sea regions.[49] Now, this is coming to pass, multifold. With Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, numerous European nations increasing their defense expenditures, and Eastern Europeans upgrading from Soviet-era equipment as they donate the latter to Ukraine, a larger, more modernized NATO Eastern front is taking shape.

NATO members have already substantially increased the number of fighter jets they have on alert across Eastern Europe. Since February 24, the alliance has doubled the number of multinational rotational battle groups, from four to eight, in Black Sea region member states Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia. During early February 2022, the battle groups in the Baltic Sea region totaled to up to approximately 5,000 troops.[50]

At the Madrid summit, the alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, promised to beef up eastern battle groups to a brigade, and to increase the size of NATO’s joint action task force from 40,000 personnel to “well over” 300,000, assigned to specific locations. [51] Currently, there are about 40,000 troops under direct NATO command as part of the NATO Response Force, a multinational rapid reaction land, sea, and special operations force. US deployments consist of approximately100,000 troops under Operation Atlantic Resolve. [52] This means, according to the Congressional Research Service, that the United States deployed an additional 15,000 troops since February 2022.[53] NATO members also increased their naval and air presence in Eastern Europe with over 130 allied fighter jets on high alert and more than 200 allied ships in the seas. [54] Once Sweden and Finland join, their ground and air capabilities will boost NATO’s Nordic and Baltic posture substantially.

Back in March, the US Defense Department assessed that Russia had committed about 75 percent of its military “to the fight in Ukraine” and it continues to concentrate a substantial amount of its fighting capacity there.[55] This has meant reduced presence elsewhere: For example, since mid-May, about 100 vehicles, including dozens of personnel carriers, were spotted leaving the Alakutrtti military base near the Finnish border.[56] By fall 2022, Russia had diverted as many as 80 percent of its estimated 30,000 ground forces in the Baltic Sea to Ukraine, although, notably, its northern air and naval posture remained largely untouched.[57] Russia has, however, removed some S-300 air-defense systems that had been protecting St. Petersburg while satellite imagery suggested that four anti-aircraft bases had been emptied out of military equipment. [58]

Yet Russia has also made some notably public promises of new deployments, such as suggesting that it might transfer the Iskander-M tactical missile system, which is capable of firing both conventional and nuclear ordnance, to Belarus.[59] But although Belarus removed a nuclear neutrality clause from its constitution in 2021, basing nuclear weapons there would require new infrastructure and security measures.[60]

A U.S. soldier participates in Strong Cohesion 2022. (NATO)

Moreover, Russian troops in the Baltic Sea region have remained fairly active. In April, Russian bombers practiced surgical strikes and its Baltic fleet conducted live fire exercises with air support, tested the air defense capabilities of Kinzhal surface to air missiles, and conducted anti-terror drills.[61] In May, Russia rehearsed Baltic fleet long-range artillery fire against surface targets during naval maneuvers, and test-launched a Tsirkon cruise missile from the Admiral Groshkov frigate in the Barents Sea (the White Sea) at a target 1,000 km distant.[62]

Russia’s ally Belarus, meanwhile, carried out a sudden check of troop readiness and command training task performance on May 4, 2022, against the backdrop of US-led military exercises in Poland. The Belarus Ministry of Defence noted that its exercises would not pose a threat to Belarus’ neighbors.[63]

NATO has maintained its previously planned exercise schedule. This included the 18,000 personnel Defender 2022 and Swift Response in the Baltic Sea region and Poland in May (referenced above) and BALTOPS 2022 in June, with Swedish and Finnish participation. NATO spokesperson Oana Langeascu underlined that regularly scheduled exercises are not a response to Russia’s invasion but are meant to “help to remove any room for miscalculation or misunderstanding about our resolve to protect and defend every inch of Allied territory.”[64] Russia, for its part, launched its own Baltic fleet exercises contemporaneous with BALTOPS 2022.[65]

Opening plenary of the 25th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in July 2016. (Flickr/@oscepa)

Why Worry About Exercises and Activities?

The military buildups in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions and simultaneous and proximate military activities of both Russia and NATO in Europe between 2014 and 2022 were largely driven by each side’s desire to project power and deter the other.[66] An immediate result, though, was an uptick in “incidents,” that is, events in which NATO and Russian forces interact during proximate operations and activities.

Incidents were a feature of the NATO-Russia relationship even before 2014 but have increased since. Ralph Clem and Ray Finch assembled a database of documented proximate encounters between NATO and Russian military forces. Between 2013 and 2020, inclusive, they identified some 2,900 cases, some of which were routine air intercepts. Others, however, involved dangerous and/or unprofessional behavior.[67] About 40 percent of these incidents occurred in the Baltic Sea region, but the North Sea, Black Sea, and Northeast Pacific also had their share.[68] Clem believes that the 2,900 number is a substantial undercount, because not all such events are reported.[69]

Like exercises, incidents have continued since February 24. NATO sources reported that member state planes had to scramble increasingly in response to Russian aircraft approaching alliance airspace in April, particularly near Poland and the Baltic and Black Sea regions. Russian pilots, they said, had failed to transmit transponder codes, file flight plans, or communicate with traffic controllers.[70] Sweden also reported that a Russian reconnaissance plane had briefly violated its airspace late in the month.[71] This led to a diplomatic exchange about the issue between Danish, Swedish, and Russian representatives in May.[72] Fast forward to late June, the Estonian Foreign Ministry announced that it had summoned the Russian ambassador over a Russian Mi-8 which flew over southern Estonia for two minutes without a flight plan, with its radio transponder disabled, and unresponsive to communications from Estonian flight control.[73] The Estonian armed forces also reported a similar violation on August 9, 2022. The Estonian Foreign Ministry again summoned the Russian ambassador and handed him a note.[74]

Clem and Finch’s data prior to February 24, 2022 indicates that incidents were growing more frequent over time.[75] One likely reason is the higher rate of activity on both sides. This suggests that as forces build-up, and exercise and operational tempos increase, more incidents will likely follow. But another factor may be growing hostility, which may help drive the less professional actions such as the buzzing of ships. These may also, however, be intended to strengthen deterrence by sending a message of unpredictability. If so, they are now also likely to increase, particularly if Russia wants to overcome perceptions of its conventional weakness based on its performance in Ukraine. Sweden and Finland, as first prospective and then new NATO members, may also be in for additional harassment. This said, a statistical analysis of incidents between 2010 and 2018 by the RAND Corporation indicated that overall, Russian coercive signaling through incidents such as these was, in fact, fairly predictable.[76]

In and of themselves, incidents are unlikely to spark a war between Russia and NATO, which neither wants. Indeed, since February 24, both the Kremlin and NATO governments have taken pains to avoid direct military interaction for fear of such a conflict, and the attendant escalation risks. Western states have avoided putting troops, trainers, or weapons suppliers on Ukrainian territory, and while Moscow has targeted storage and training facilities in Ukraine, it has made no moves against NATO members.

But even if they do not pose a high risk of inadvertent escalation now, incidents risk the lives and limbs of military personnel and civilians involved. They also feed both sides’ narratives of the other’s aggressive intent. In an environment of growing tension, that could increase the dangers of inadvertent escalation at a later point, should one or both parties perceive the other as eager to start a fight. New crises may well arise as both sides send each other signals which may or may not be clearly understood. [77]

The 2013 “Vienna Document” Delegation on a June visit to Baumholder, Germany. (Flickr/Craig Knapp)

The Withering of Conventional Arms Control in Europe

If incidents and buildups are dangerous, the solution would seem obvious: limit them and mitigate the risks. In Europe, this approach has a long and rich history. A wide variety of conventional arms control instruments, often termed confidence and security building measures, or CSBMs, have been developed in and applied over the years with just this intent. At present, however, all such measures that exist are defunct, inadequate to modern technologies and needs, or both.

The most far-reaching arrangement, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), limited deployments and included notification, data exchange, and inspection provisions. Decades in negotiation, it was signed in November 1990 by the then-members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It was thus out of date within a year of its signature, having delineated limits for countries and alliances that no longer existed once the Warsaw Pact dissolved in summer of 1991 and the Soviet Union that winter. Updates in 1992 and 1996 were rendered obsolete in 1997, when the first former Warsaw Pact members joined NATO. A 1999 adjustment was never ratified by NATO members because Russia failed to withdraw its weapons and personnel from Moldova and Georgia, where they helped prop up the breakaway territories of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. In 2007, Russia “suspended” its participation in the treaty and in 2011 the United States cut back on its obligations vis-à-vis Russia. In 2015, Russia “halted” compliance entirely, although it never formally withdrew, citing US plans to put bases in Romania and Bulgaria as a breach.[78]

Another treaty that limited deployments, and not only in Europe, was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Despite its name, it prohibited Russia and the United States from building and deploying both nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. INF formally died in 2019, when first the United States and then Russia withdrew. Prior, the United States had accused Russia of building a noncompliant new missile system. Russia complained that US missile defense systems could violate the treaty if used for other purposes. The United States has not yet deployed INF weapons in Europe, although it accuses Russia of fielding that same new system it says undermined the treaty. Russia denies having INF systems deployed in Europe.

The Open Skies Treaty of 1992 aimed to increase transparency and accountability. It allowed for overflight and surveillance of member states’ territory. The treaty remains in place, but without US or Russian participation. Both Russia and the United States accused the other of violations for several years, and Washington announced it was pulling out of the deal in 2020, under then-President Donald Trump. The Biden administration confirmed that it would not reverse this decision, and Russian withdrawal followed that of the United States.

In addition to the treaties, several bilateral and multilateral mechanisms have historically provided a space to exchange perspectives and information. Most of those, too, have disappeared. NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia. The NATO-Russia Council, established in 2002 to give Russia and alliance members the tools to engage as a single body at both working and senior levels, was reduced to only the highest-level meetings, at the ambassadorial level and above. Even these were largely theoretical. Until January 2022, given Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine’s borders, the NATO-Russia Council had not met since 2019. Prior to 2022, NATO officials blamed Moscow for the unwillingness to engage.[79] Russia indicated that the NATO-Russia Council had little value unless paired with resumption of regular military-to-military contacts.[80] In fall 2021, NATO cut Russia’s mission to the alliance in half, citing espionage concerns.[81] Russia responded by withdrawing it entirely.

Bilateral exchanges in the North have also shrunk. In 2014, Russia suspended its Kaliningrad inspection agreement with Lithuania, which allowed the latter to inspect Russia’s forces in the enclave, and Russia to inspect Lithuania’s armed forces.[82] Some agreements, including with Finland and Norway, remain formally in force, but are not being actively implemented.[83]

In the Black Sea region, agreements remain on the books but have been rendered ineffective since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Under the 2003 Document of Confidence and Security Building Measures in the Black Sea Naval Area, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine agreed to the: (1) maintenance of contacts, (2) reciprocal visits to naval bases, (3) exchanges of information of naval vessels depending on size, and (4) joint participation in Confidence Annual Naval Exercises.[84] But since 2014, war in Ukraine has put an end to naval visits and joint drills.[85]

The President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the frontline positions of the military in the Donetsk region. (

2014 also added a tremendous new challenge for Black Sea interaction: Russia’s claim to Crimea’s territory and adjacent waters as its own, even as Ukraine, NATO member states, and most other countries view them as Ukrainian territory. Incompatible interpretations of maritime boundaries mean that agreements and mechanisms are seen very differently by different parties.[86]

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which brings together NATO member states, Russia, and non-NATO states in the broad Eurasian region, encompassing a total of fifty-seven countries, has long been a forum for risk reduction issues. However, Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine has rendered its conventional dialogues largely moribund.[87] The majority of member states have openly stated that they consider Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine to be, among other things, an assault on OSCE values. Russia, for its part, tends to use the OSCE as a platform to espouse its grievances about Western security assistance to Ukraine and claim that the United States and its allies have been preparing Ukraine for war.[88]

The exception to this rule is the OSCE Structured Dialogue. This initiative was spurred by comments by then-German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank Walter Steinmeier in 2016, when he was also serving as the OSCE chairperson in office. Steinmeier called for a restart of arms control in the OSCE. He noted that Europe needed agreements that defined ceilings, minimum distances, and transparency measures that could inter alia involve the establishment of regional deployment limits, particularly in sensitive regions like that around the Baltic Sea.[89] Steinmeier proposed that these agreements should also take into account new military capabilities and strategies, integrate new weapon systems, and permit effective verification that is rapidly deployable, flexible, and still function during a crisis. Finally, he said, new deals would need to be concluded in a way that made it possible to apply them in areas where territory was disputed by member states. [90]

While new agreements did not emerge, the Structured Dialogue did. Although not strictly speaking itself a confidence or security building measure, some states see the initiative as supporting the same goals by serving as a preparatory tool “to foster a greater understanding on these issues that could serve as a common solid basis for a way forward.”[91] Topics on the OSCE Structured Dialogue agenda to date have included risk reduction and potential new mechanisms to prevent and manage dangerous incidents.[92] Today, even since February, the OSCE and its participating states continue to view the Structured Dialogue as mechanism that at least permits informal discussions of regional security issues, although it cannot, at present, do much more.[93]

The OSCE also hosts the Vienna Document on Confidence and Security Measures in Europe, which is perhaps the only one of the old (adopted in 1990) security and confidence building tools that has survived the tumult, although its value is much diminished. The Vienna Document governs information exchanges and consultations between member states regarding forces, exercises, and so forth, which continue under OSCE auspices. It establishes limits for troops and equipment participating in military exercises and requires that a party holding military exercises with more than 13,000 troops invite observers from other signatory states. Since 1992, states must also notify one another of any military activity involving more than 9,000 troops.[94] It also mandates and governs evaluation and observation visits, inspections, and presentations of new weapon systems.[95]

The Vienna Document has been updated several times, but not since 2011, in large part because Russia conditioned its modernization on changes in NATO behavior, specifically an end to force buildups and “provocations.”[96] NATO members, for their part, accuse Russia of noncompliance with the agreement and of exploiting its loopholes.[97]

The Vienna Document requires notification only of individual activities in specific zones, only by ground forces, and only under a single operational command. Many exercises therefore go unnotified.[98] For this reason, in an effort to make the arrangement a bit more relevant, the OSCE’s Forum for Security Cooperation, determined in 2012 that any state that does not carry out a notifiable military exercise in accordance with the Vienna Document in a given calendar year is required to notify one below-threshold military exercise or activity for that year.[99]

Even if the agreement itself is partly to blame, NATO has long argued that Russia’s approach to exercise notification under Vienna Document terms is opaque. Specifically, Russia frequently breaks down its large exercises into smaller components, classing them as a mix of regular and snap exercises, each of which falls under the 13,000-troop limit.[100] NATO members see this as Moscow circumventing the treaty to hold very large, unobserved exercises. But Russia insists that the “snap exercises” are surprise tests of military readiness for their participants and notifying other countries would undermine their value.[101]

NATO members also complain about Russian unresponsiveness when asked to be more transparent and reassure others of its intentions, whether through the Vienna Document or otherwise.[102] This dynamic was in sharp evidence in 2021 as Russia built up forces near Ukraine. When the buildup began in spring, the allies supported Ukraine’s Vienna Document request that Russia clarify its military activities.[103] Russia insisted that it was under no obligation to notify or inform anyone of training of its armed forces on its own territory and did not attend the scheduled meetings.[104] Moscow did, however, accept a Swiss OSCE inspection under the Vienna Document framework in March, and a group of Swiss specialists conducted an inspection in the territories of Voronezh and Belgorod to determine the scope of Russia’s military activity.[105]

Russia, which worries about NATO capabilities near its borders, consistently described NATO members’ military exercises as provocative and has put forward its own set of concerns about the Vienna Document’s insufficiencies. Specifically, it has previously asked for a conference on military doctrines and defense policy, suggested notifications of large trans-border redeployments, requested a simplification of procedures regarding unusual military activities, proposed information exchanges on multinational rapid reaction forces, and championed the expansion of existing measures to cover naval assets.[106]

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has irreparably damaged not only Moscow’s credibility, but also the spirit of the Vienna Document. Nonetheless, the agreement helped NATO members and Ukraine to see through Moscow’s excuses, document their suspicions, and raise the alarm as 2021 turned to 2022. To be fair, it was sometimes most useful in underlining Russian obfuscation.

In January, Russian and Belarus authorities announced a joint two-stage military exercise named Allied Resolve.[107] The first part of the exercise, they reported, would run until February 9 and focus on regrouping and transferring troops to their operational decisions. The second part was to feature combat training drills from February 10 to 20.[108] Latvia requested an OSCE inspection in line with the Vienna Document to ascertain the scope of the exercise and establish if Russia should report its activities. Although Russian news reporting indicated that the inspection would go forward, Latvian authorities reported that Russia had declined their request, citing coronavirus concerns.[109] Meanwhile, Belarusian authorities pledged that the exercises would be too small to trigger either Vienna Document mandatory observation requirements or those of Belarus’ bilateral agreements with Poland and Ukraine.[110]

On February 11, 2022, Ukraine posed its own Vienna Document queries about Russia’s troop movements near its borders.[111] Russia refused to attend the meeting called in response.[112] Its ally Belarus was similarly tight-lipped. When Baltic states called for an OSCE session with Minsk to get clarification about Allied Resolve 2022 they found Belarus’ responses inadequate.[113] Belarus did, however, agree to a mutual inspection of military activities with Ukraine, promising that a defense attaché of the Republic of Belarus would visit Ukraine to observe its planned Zametil 2022 exercise and a Ukrainian defense attaché was welcome to observe Allied Resolve 2022.[114]

According to Ukraine’s Minister of Defence, Oleksii Reznikov, a Ukrainian defense attaché did indeed visit Belarus the day after Belarus and Ukraine agreed to the mutual inspection.[115] The defense attaché was also invited to the final events of Allied Resolve on February 19, 2022.[116] Reznikov also confirmed that a Belarusian defense attaché observed Ukraine’s military exercises in the Rivne region on February 16, 2022.[117] Moreover, in a move that would have been promising but for the simultaneous deterioration of overall security and the full-scale Russian invasion that soon followed, both Ukraine and Belarus agreed to establish permanent channels of communication between chiefs of staff and ministers.[118]

Over thirty ships participated in NATO’s Breeze 2021 exercises in the Black Sea. (Flickr/NATO)

Proposals, Ultimatums, and War

Experts and analysts have produced a number of suggestions for how the states of the region might limit deployments and force sizes in the context of a changed security environment, modern military technology, and evolving approaches to warfare in order to increase stability.[119] Western governments, meanwhile, have tended to emphasize the need to update the Vienna Document, although other ideas, not all publicly available, also occasionally appeared. For example, during bilateral consultations between Russia and Latvia on military exercises in the border regions in 2017, Latvia reportedly proposed an initiative in the framework of the Vienna Document that Russia refused. However, this proposal was never made public, although the two countries agreed to expand dialogue between military specialists.[120]

Russia, meanwhile, had played up risk reduction, which it said NATO ignores.[121] Since 2014, Moscow had emphasized the need to resume military-to-military contacts, curtailed that year in response to the war in Ukraine.[122] Its preferred next steps for new arrangements included limits on military activity (specifically, since 2016, on the scope and size of military exercises) and troop concentrations along borders between Russia and NATO member states. In 2020, it suggested a total cessation of drills to help limit the spread of COVID-19.[123]

In the Black Sea, Russia long sought new maritime constraints, consistently and publicly worrying about increased NATO activity which it deemed provocative and destabilizing.[124] In 2008, at the OSCE Annual Security Review Conference, Russia distributed a proposal that, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), suggested “prior notification and observation of naval activities tailored to the size of the naval formations present in the ‘waters adjacent to the OSCE region.”[125] However, the parties could not find a common definition of “adjacent waters,” and never developed the proposal.[126]

In 2018, a Russian military expert reportedly suggested that if past naval confidence and security building measures focused on prior notification based on vessel size and numbers, future agreements could include operational details related to the capacity of naval forces, such as the presence of deck aviation or the ability to carry cruise missiles or perform complex air defense missions.[127]

NATO member states, particularly (but not only) those in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, have tended to distrust Russia’s proposals and complaints and view them as ploys to limit NATO’s capabilities and capacity to deter Moscow in border regions.[128] These views are shared by NATO partner states such as Ukraine and Georgia, whose experience with Russia leaves them nervous about further aggression, to say the least. Moreover, some members of the alliance suspect both Russian and European proposals on risk reduction of being tactics aimed at lowering the US military presence in the region, which they believe would weaken their own, and thus European, security.[129]

Their fears seemed confirmed by the two draft treaties, one to be signed with the United States and the other with all NATO member states, put forward by Moscow in late 2021, even as it built up troops near Ukraine, and NATO members demanded it withdraw them. The drafts included a variety of measures, among them NATO commitments to reverse all military deployments on the territory of states that were not alliance members in May 1997 (that is, before the first round of NATO expansion). They would have also banned further NATO enlargement, military activity by NATO member states on non-member state territory in the OSCE region, and military exercises or activities above the brigade level in a to-be-defined zone along the borders between Russia and its allies and NATO members.[130] Other components included a moratorium on intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe and the prohibition of nuclear deployments on other countries’ soil.[131]

Moscow’s proposals underlined that Russia saw Ukraine’s future and the future of European security as inseparable. NATO, seeing its maximalist aims as a negotiating position, responded with offers to get conventional arms control back on track: the alliance as a whole and the United States individually responded to Russia’s draft treaties with willingness to renew contacts and talk about force limits, including a moratorium on intermediate-range missiles.[132] The allies refused to forego future NATO expansion, however, and called on Russia to withdraw its own troops from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.[133]

But Moscow, it turned out, was uninterested in slow negotiations on deals to limit risk. As a price for eschewing an invasion of its neighbor, it sought instead a fundamental reversal of NATO and US force deployments and activities. When that was not forthcoming, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. NATO, as discussed above, responded with more of a buildup, albeit one that built on plans already in the works.

Polish soldiers engage in a sequence of tests with their short-range air defense anti-aircraft missile and artillery system during exercise Ramstein Legacy 22 (June 6-10, 2022). (NATO)

The Art of the Possible

 For the time being, as rockets and artillery rain down upon Ukraine, deals on deployment and activity limits in Europe are unlikely. Currently, OSCE priorities are appropriately focused on dealing with the consequences of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.[134] But as guns fall silent and a new status quo begins to evolve, limits may not only start to make sense, but may be crucial to making peace stick. Depending on the situation at war’s end, Russia may well seek time and space to rebuild its forces after the war, given that fighting to date has degraded capacity and suggested significant cracks in the edifice of Russia’s military power, including when it comes to control and command, planning and tactics, morale, targeting, and joint operations.[135] Western states, Ukraine, and other regional countries may well want to make sure Russian forces cross no more borders uninvited, and thus prevent, or at least constrain, Russian rebuilding. Although these goals are at cross-purposes, in the aftermath of war, with the risks of escalation well-understood, countries may be more willing to accept constraints in order to limit adversaries, particularly if doing so brings cost savings. Conversely, even if war continues, the countries of Europe and Eurasia may want to mitigate escalation risks, increase transparency and visibility of adversary activities, and simply make aggression harder.

Although it is outdated and a poor fit for the post-February 24 world, any effort to move forward on European security would do well to begin by amending the Vienna Document through the Forum for Security Cooperation. For all its problems, the Vienna Document has the tremendous advantage of already existing, whereas negotiating a new transparency mechanism would take years. Even now, when inspections and evaluations seem difficult to fathom, Vienna Document data exchanges continue at the OSCE. Thus, while participants should surely explore new arrangements to replace it, in the meantime, amendments are likely the way to go.

These amendments should focus on improving information flow and transparency, as the Vienna Document’s greatest asset is perhaps that it enables NATO members to inspect and observe Russian exercises, and vice versa, helping each better gauge the other’s capabilities. Parties could increase mandatory notification requirements for exercises not currently subject to the Vienna Document’s calendar year requirements. They could also develop a quiet notification mode for snap exercises and multinational forces on a short notice transit. This would allow either side to provide a high-level military information notice to counterparts without warning troops participating in the drills.[136]

Thinking bigger, if NATO is in a position to do so when negotiations commence, it will surely push Russia to reduce any remaining force presence in Ukraine (including Crimea), Moldova, and Georgia (Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh may remain acceptable to NATO and its partners, depending on how that situation evolves). If Russia does maintain forces in neighboring states, but the countries of Europe are willing to reassure one another, it might be worth considering monitoring missions, perhaps under OSCE auspices, to provide some transparency into what those forces are doing. Again, depending on how things evolve, Russia, for its part, might seek to establish multinational monitoring missions that have access to NATO forces and equipment in non-NATO member countries, should those be deployed.

When it comes to negotiated limits, arrangements do not need to involve all the countries of the OSCE region but can instead focus on affected parties. This is to say that constraints on exercises and deployments in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea regions, where build-ups and concentrations of forces have been highest and incidents most frequent, can be agreed upon separately.[137] Usefully, many sub-regional limits on exercises, activities, and deployments do not require revision of past agreements. The Vienna Document’s Chapter 10 explicitly allows for bilateral and multilateral agreements at a sub-regional level.[138]

While critics argue that sub-regional deals can lead to tension between partners fearful that others will use them to increase their own security at a cost to others, a strategic approach by NATO can lead to a constellation of reinforcing deals across the continent. For instance, NATO members could agree to impose limits on troop numbers for specific countries (including the United States) forces in military exercises in the Baltic and the Black Sea regions in exchange for ceilings on Russian naval and air deployments (e.g., of systems such as the Kalibr) in and around Crimea and Kaliningrad. In time, this may facilitate a broader arrangement built on smaller feasible building blocks rather than efforts to cut several Gordian knots at once.

To reach sub-regional agreements, the countries affected could work through the OSCE and the NATO-Russia Council, if that is ever revived. Indeed, because some affected states are neither Russia nor NATO members, the OSCE may be a better fit.[139] They could also simply develop their own multilateral deals to, for instance, exchange reciprocal briefings on military exercises in addition to those required by the Vienna Document. To the extent all parties wish to, they might want to invite observers from outside their sub-region to take part in some, if not all such activities. Indeed, countries outside each sub-region, such as Germany, the United Kingdom, or France, could help facilitate discussions. Other arrangements could establish time limits for military drills and snap exercises in specific subregions.[140] If so, they should specifically include joint air-ground-air exercises. They could also create time slots for simultaneous drills. All of this could be voluntary and unilateral/reciprocal at first, and perhaps codified over time.

In the Baltic Sea region, NATO members will surely seek limits on Russian forces and activities in Kaliningrad, and in the Black Sea region in Crimea, assuming Russia retains control of the Ukrainian peninsula. The question is whether it would offer anything in return? If the combination of war and sanctions leaves Russian capability degraded, the appetite in Europe to continue to spend money to deter might wane. If this is the case, better to trade any drawdown in forces for guaranteed limits on Russia than to simply give them away.

What could the trades look like? Limitations on NATO member states and Russian forces within certain geographic areas near borders (which for Russia could mean limitations on what can be placed by Russia in Crimea, Kaliningrad, Transnistria, and/or Pskov) are an obvious target for negotiations. Reciprocal limits could be applied in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and/or Bulgaria.

Polish soldiers engage in a sequence of tests with their short-range air defense anti-aircraft missile and artillery system during exercise Ramstein Legacy 22 (June 6-10, 2022). (NATO)

In most plausible futures, NATO will not eschew military deployments on the territory of member states as Russia requested in late 2021. As a sort of corollary to the NATO-Russia Founding Act, NATO has in the past pledged not to permanently deploy “substantial combat forces” on the territory of new members.[141] Thus far, the alliance has not entirely walked away from this or the Act as a whole, although officials have pointed out that Russia’s war on Ukraine is a stark violation of the Act.[142] The force buildups announced to date do not include large-scale permanent stationing of other countries’ troops on Baltic members’ territory, although they do include plans to permanently forward deploy the V Corps Headquarters Forward Command Post, an Army garrison headquarters, and a field support battalion.[143] Thus, if the Act and associated commitments survive this crisis, a first step would be to define “substantial,” perhaps as one brigade per country, a formulation Moscow has reportedly proposed in the past.[144] This does not require a formal agreement and could be the product of a meeting, where limits on Russian activities are, perhaps, also negotiated. NATO members should also consider trading limits on deployments and activities by other states on the territory of Sweden and Finland (where they may anyway not intend to introduce permanent or rotational deployments), if Russia accepts limits on forces in and near Kaliningrad, for example.

The United States and its allies can also consider taking up Russia’s proposed moratorium on intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe (including Russia’s 9M729/SSC-8 missile, which the United States has alleged violated the INF agreement), paired with verification measures that enable inspections, including both at Russian missile locations in Kaliningrad and elsewhere and, as the United States has offered, at Aegis Ashore missile defense locations on NATO member territory as a starting point for a future arrangement. Although this will not substantially degrade anyone’s capabilities (both sides’ air and sea-launched systems were never thus limited, and thus exist in these ranges), since it prevents, rather than reduces, deployments, it too, can offer transparency that would not otherwise be available. It can also help reduce worries about future force postures and perhaps even nuclear escalation by eliminating some systems from the European mix.

This constellation of arrangements and deals seems largely fanciful in the shadow of a continuing and brutal war. It may be years before any of them are plausible. But even now, escalation mitigation calls for risk reduction. Perhaps the easiest form of this is simply communication. Some channels are already in place. The United States and Russia established a deconfliction hotline between the US European Command and Russia’s Ministry of Defence on March 1, 2022.[145] Such hotlines have proven valuable in the past for ensuring incidents do not become crises, as witness US-Russian deconfliction in Syria.[146] Since February 24, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have spoken once. So have US Joint Staff Chief General Mark Milley and Russia’s General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov. States should keep these in place, and they should use them productively.

As the situation in Europe evolves, other mutual agreements to cap certain types and numbers of capabilities within certain areas, with verification and clear delineations of implications of violations, may become possible. Together, these may effectively form the building blocks of what will essentially be a new Conventional Armed Forces in Europe arrangement. While the war in Ukraine will yet define both what is possible and what is desirable, both analysts and policymakers can set the stage for a more secure future by thinking ahead, even as the war continues, to identify ways to make the continent safer from more major wars.



[1] The authors would like to thank Dr. Alexander Graef, Daryl Kimball, Stephen Pomper, Dr. Chris Miller, Maia Otarashvili, an anonymous reviewer, and all of those who took the time to review this paper and/or helped with the research process.

[2] Sergey Radchenko, “Nothing but humiliation for Russia’: Moscow and NATO’s eastern enlargement, 1993-1995,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2020),


[3] “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation,” President of the Russian Federation, Published by the Federation of American Scientists, June 28, 2000,


[4] E.G. Ponomareva and A.V. Frolov, “NATO Aggression Against Yugoslavia: International-Legal, Military Strategic and Geopolitical Consequences,” MGIMO Review of International Relations (2019) (In Russ.) (

[5] For a discussion of Russian exercises and activities as deterrence, see Samuel Charap, Andrew Stravers, John J. Drennan, Dara Massicot, Sean M. Zeigler, Gregory Weider Fauerbach, Mark Stalczynski, and Melissa Shostak, Understanding Russian Coercive Signaling, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2022.

[6] NATO, “Prospects for NATO-Russia relations,” February 6, 2015,


[7] “Perceptions in the Euro-Atlantic Region,” United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (2020), p. 3,


[8] Samuel Charap, Alice Lynch, John J. Drennan, Dara Massicot, and Giacomo Persi Paoli, A New Approach to Conventional Arms Control in Europe: Addressing the Security Challenges of the 21st Century, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2020), p. 37, (

[9] Ibid.

[10] Stephan Frühling and Guillaume Lasconjarias, “NATO, A2/AD and the Kaliningrad Challenge,” Survival, vol. 58, no. 2 (2016), DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2016.1161906; “Military Strategy and Force Structure in Kaliningrad,” FOI, May 2017, (

[11] “Military Strategy and Force Structure in Kaliningrad,” FOI, May 2017, (

[12] “Boosting NATO’s presence in the east and southeast,” NATO, April 2020,


[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Charap et al., p. 29.

[16] Goble, 2020; “Military Strategy and Force Structure in Kaliningrad,” FOI, May 2017, (

[17] “Russia deploys Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad,” Reuters, February 5, 2018,

(; “Russia’s Baltic Fleet missile units to hold drills in Kaliningrad region,” TASS, July 29, 2015, (

[18] “The Military Group in the Kaliningrad Region is Reinforced with New Tanks,” INTERFAX, October 7, 2021, (

[19] Konrad Muzyka, “Russian Forces in the Western Military District,” CNA, June 2021, p. 43, (

[20] Ibid., p. 44.

[21] “Russia deploys additional air defences in Kaliningrad,” Lrt, October 31, 2019, (

[22] Muzyka, “Russian Forces in the Western Military District,” CNA, June 2021, p. 42.

[23] “Boosting NATO’s presence in the east and southeast,” NATO, April 2020, (

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Petersen, Michael, “The Naval Power Shift in the Black Sea,” War on the Rocks, January 9, 2019,


[27] Ibid

[28] Muzyka, Konrad, “Russian Forces in the Southern Military District,” CNA, August 2021, pp. 6–7,


[29] Ibid.

[30] See Saber Strike 2014, BALTOPS 2014, BALTOPS 2015, Saber Strike 2015, BALTOPS 2019, Trident Juncture 2018, BALTOPS 2020, Sea Breeze 2020, and Sea Breeze 2021.

[31] “NATO’s Trident Juncture Exercise as a Deterrence Signal to Russia,” Russia Matters (2018), (

[32] “Russia to hold live missile drills outside Norway amid massive NATO drills,” RT, October 30, 2018,


[33] Mark Episkopos, “Russia Jammed GPS Signals During a NATO Military Exercise. That’s a Really Big Deal,” National Interest, December 1, 2018, (,Peninsula%20during%20Exercise%20Trident%20Juncture).

[34] Mehta, Aaron, “In the Baltic, shadowed by Russia, NATO allies focus on great power competition,” Defense News, June 12, 2018,


[35] “Russia Responds to Annual NATO Maneuvers with Surprise Exercise of First Strike Forces,” RT, June 11, 2014, (

[36] Olevs Nikers, “Baltic Region Holds Multiple NATO Exercises in Anticipation of Russia’s Massive Zapad 2017 Drills,” Jamestown Foundation, June 14, 2017

(; David Larter, “NATO runs massive Baltic exercise, with little Russian meddling,” Navy Times, June 15, 2016, (

[37] “NATO and Russia: Maneuvers and countermaneuvers in the Baltic Sea,” DW, (

[38] “Russian Baltic Fleet pilots crush enemy ships in drills as NATO holds Baltops exercise,” Tass, June 11, 2020, (; “Three Russian warships to keep NATO Baltops-2019 exercise under observation,” Tass, June 7, 2019, (

[39] “Russian Black Sea Fleet ships deploy to designated areas in snap combat readiness check,” TASS, July 17, 2020, (

[40] Tom O’Connor, “U.S. Warship Holds Black Sea Drills Amid Surprise Russia Military Exercise,” Newsweek, July 20, 2020, (

[41] Dmitry Gorenburg, “The HMS Defender Incident: What happened and What Are the Political Ramifications?,” Russia Matters, July 1, 2021, (

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Pilots of the naval aviation of the Black Sea Fleet and aviation of the Southern Military District checked the air defense system of the Crimea,” Russian Ministry of Defence, June 20, 2021,

(; “Russian Navy sub holds drills off Crimea as NATO warships enter Black Sea,” TASSs, June 20, 2021, (

[44] “US, Russia hold parallel military drills in the Balkans,” Military Times, May 20, 2021, (

[45] Rob Lee, “Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy: Why did the Kremlin Mass Its Forces Near Ukraine This Spring,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 23, 2021,


Samuel Charap and Scott Boston, “U.S. Military Aid to Ukraine: A Silver Bullet?,” January 21, 2022, (;

Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage. “What If Russia Wins?,” Foreign Affairs, June 8, 2022, (;

Jeff Hawn, “Russia’s Military Reshuffle Isn’t Preparation for Invading Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, November 17, 2021, (; Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds, “Russia’s Shock and Awe,” Foreign Affairs, March 22, 2022, (;

Dara Massicot, “Ukraine Needs Help Surviving Airstrikes, Not Just Killing Tanks,” RAND, January 19, 2022, (; Alina Polyakova and Daniel Fried, “Putin’s Long Game in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, March 14, 2022, (

Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel, “Putin Cannot Erase Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, March 9, 2022, (

[47] Baker Sinead, “US says Russia has deployed 190,000 troops around Ukraine — almost doubling its strength in 2 weeks while claiming to withdraw,” Business Insider, February 18, 2022, (

[48] “War in Ukraine Driving NATO Revamp,” Arms Control Today, June 2022, (

[49] Interview with a NATO official, Brussels, September 2020.

[50] “NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence,” February 2022, (

[51] “Pre-Summit Press Conference,” NATO, June 27, 2022, (

[52] “NATO Response Force,” NATO, July 11, 2022, (

[53] “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: NATO’s Response,” Congressional Research Service, March 21, 2022, (

[54] Ibid.; “NATO’s Military Presence in the East of the Alliance,” NATO, July 8, 2022,


[55] “Senior Defense Official Holds a Background Briefing,” Department of Defense, March 16, 2022, (

[56] “Satellite Images Show Emptied Russian Military Base near Finnish Border,” Yle, 5 July, 2022. (

[57] Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, “Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine.” Foreign Policy, September 28, 2022, (

[58] “Exclusive: Russia Moves Missiles from St Petersburg to Ukraine,” Yle, September 18, 2022, ( This is unlikely to have affected the air-defense of St. Petersburg given the fact that Russia removed the oldest armament from its bases. Most of the remaining anti-aircraft systems surrounding St. Petersburg are S-400s.

[59] “Meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,” President of Russia, June 25, 2022, (

[60] “Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of Belarus,” Government of Belarus, December 27, 2022,


[61] “Over 1,000 Russian Baltic Fleet Troops Practice Anti-Terror Measures in Drills,” TASS, April 29, 2022, (; “Over 10 Russian Naval Ships to Hunt down Enemy Sub in Baltic Drills,” TASS, April 10, 2022, (; “Russian Fighters, Bombers Practice Pinpoint Strikes in Baltic Drills,–” TASS, April 14, 2022, (; “Russian Naval Ship Test-Fires Air Defense System in Shipbuilders’ Sea Trials,” TASS, April 20, 2022, (

[62] “Russian Navy Missile Ships Practice Artillery Fire in Baltic Drills,” TASS, May 12, 2022, (;

“Russia Announces Hypersonic Zircon Missile Test,” Radio Free Europe, May 28, 2022, (

[63] “Belarus Begins Snap Combat Readiness Drills,” Reuters, May 4, 2022, (

“В Беларуси Началась Внезапная Проверка Сил Реагирования,” Sputnik, May 04, 2022, (

[64] “Des exercices OTAN prévus de longue date débutent dans toute l’Europe,” NATO, May 13, 2022, (

[65] Luis Linares Petrov, “Russian Baltic fleet launches military maneuvers,” Prensa Latina, June 9, 2022, (

[66] Charap, et al.

[67] Ralph Clem and Ray Finch, “Crowded Skies and Turbulent Seas: Assessing the Full Scope of NATO-Russian Military Incidents,” War on the Rocks, August 19, 2021, (; Email exchange with Ralph Clem, February 14, 2022.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Email exchange with Ralph Clem, February 14, 2022.

[70] “NATO Jets Scramble in Response to Russian Aircraft over Baltic and Black Sea,” NATO, Accessed August 10, 2022, (; “NATO Scrambling More Often in Response to Russian Jets Near Poland,” Air Force Magazine, April 29, 2022, (

[71] “Sweden Says Russian Plane Violated Airspace as NATO Application Looms,” BNO News, April 30, 2022, (

[72] “Denmark, Sweden Summon Russian Envoys Over Airspace Breaches,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 1, 2022, (

[73] “Estonia Summons Russian Ambassador Over ‘Very Serious’ Airspace Violation,” Overt Defense, June 22, 2022, (

[74] “Estonia Reports Airspace Violation by Russian Helicopter,” Anews, August 10, 2022, (

[75] Ralph Clem and Ray Finch, “Crowded Skies and Turbulent Seas: Assessing the Full Scope of NATO-Russian Military Incidents,” War on the Rocks, August 19, 2021, (

[76] Charap, et al.

[77] See discussions in Thomas Frear, et al, “Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014,” European Leadership Network (ELN), November 2014, (; “Lessons Learned? Success and Failure in Managing Russia-West Military Incidents 2014-2018,” ELN, April 12, 2018, (; “Making Conventional Arms Control Fit for the 21st Century,” ELN, April 29, 2017, (; “Modernising Conventional Arms Control: An Urgent Imperative,” ELN, March 9, 2020, (; “Outlines for Future Conventional Arms Control in Europe: A Sub-Regional Regime in the Baltics,” ELN, September 3, 2019, (

[78] A good overview of the treaty’s history is available at “Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe” Nuclear Threat Initiative, updated August 31, 2020, (

[79] Chernenko, Elena, “Mission is reducible,” Kommersant, October 7, 2021, (

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Jeremy Bender, “Russia Will No Longer Tell Lithuania About Its Weapons in The Russian Enclave Next Door,” Business Insider, May 7, 2014, (

[83] “The Finnish Defense Forces has an arrangement with Russian Federation concerning visits to naval bases. The arrangement is based on the Vienna Document 1999 of the Negotiations on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures. However, the arrangement has never been implemented in practice.” Russia and Norway also possess a bilateral hotline for coast guard and border control cooperation and their bilateral Incidents at Sea Agreement remains active.

[84] Ian Anthony, “Reducing Military Risk in Europe,” SIPRI, June 2019, p. 22 (

[85] “Document on Confidence and Security Building Measures in the Black Sea Naval Area,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 2020, (

[86] Other agreements such as INCSEA (Incidents at Sea) and the Montreux Convention do exist and remain active although compliance with the spirit of the latter agreements is questionable.

See: “Russia Is Violating the Spirit of Montreux by Using Civilian Ships for War,” Middle East Institute, (; “Russia Slams ‘Unacceptable’ NATO’s Violations of Montreux Convention — Senior Diplomat,” TASS, accessed October 10, 2022, (

[87] Interview with German risk reduction expert, September 2, 2022.

[88] “Speech by the Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation at the Talks in Vienna on Military Security and Arms Control K.Yu.Gavrilov at the 1019th Plenary Meeting of the OSCE Forum for Security Co-Operation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, July 27, 2022, (

[89] “More security for everyone in Europe – for a restart of arms control,” German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 26, 2016, (

[90] Ibid

[91] “From Lisbon to Hamburg: Declaration of the Twentieth Anniversary of the OSCE Framework for Arms Control,” Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ministerial Council Hamburg, 2016, (

[92] “The OSCE at a Crossroads: Recognizing and Seizing Opportunities; Reflections and Recommendations” OSCE, 2018, p.10, (

[93] Interview with an OSCE official, September 2, 2022; “Statement in Response to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia,” Norgesportalen, September 1, 2022, (

[94] Wolfgang Richter, “A Framework for Arms Control. Current Status of and Requirements for Conventional Arms Control in Europe,” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) and Austria Institut für Europa- und Sicherheitspolitik (AIES), p. 39-40, 2022, (

[95] Ibid.

[96] “Alexander Grushko: Not Sure That NATO Will Refrain From Provocations During The Victory Parade,” TASS, 2020, (

[97] Interview with an anonymous expert, August 2020; “Press Point by the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council,” Press Release, NATO, November 2, 2017,


[98] Interview with a German expert, Brussels, November 2020; Interview with an anonymous expert, Virtual, November 2020.

[99] Ibid. OSCE 695th Plennary Meeting FSC Journal No. 701, Agenda Item 3, October 17, 2012, (

[100] Alexander Graef, “Getting Deterrence Right on NATO’s Eastern Flank,” Berlin Policy Journal, 2020,

(; Dominik Jankowski, “With Russia, Transparency No Silver Bullet,” Berlin Policy Journal, 2019,


[101] Interview with an anonymous expert, July 2020.

[102] Interview with a German expert, August 2022.

[103] “Meeting Requested by Ukraine under Vienna Document Chapter III Regarding Unusual Russian Military Activity,” US Mission to OSCE, April 10, 2021,

(; “US Statement for the meeting under the Vienna Document Chapter III 16.2,” US Embassy Ukraine, February 15, 2022, (

[104] Ibid; “Ukraine’s request for consultations under Vienna Document groundless-Russia,” TASS, February 15, 2022, (

[105] “Swiss specialists to inspect specified area in Russia under 2011 Vienna document,” TASS, March 2021; (; Interview with a German expert, January 2022.

[106] Olivier Schmitt, “The Vienna Document and the Russian challenge to the European Security Architecture,” p. 278, (

[107] “Belarus-Russia military exercise named Allied Resolve 2022,” Belta, January 17, 2022, (

[108] Ibid.

[109] “Latvian Inspectors Will Inspect Russian Military Facilities,” RIA Novosti, January 24, 2022,; Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Latvia, “Russia’s Defence Ministry declines Latvian OSCE inspection and publishes false statements about arrival of Latvian inspectors to its neighbouring country,” January 25, 2022, (

[110] Andrei Babinich, “Russian troops arrive in Belarus – how much, with what and why?” Reform, January 25, 2022, (; “Allied exercises: the Republic of Polissya and the Northern Federation against the Western,” Sputnik, January 27, 2022, (

[111] Sebastian Sprenger, “Ukraine Joins Baltic Nations in OSCE Query of Russian Troop Movements,” Defense

News, February 11, 2022.

[112] “Grushko: Russia Will Not Participate in the Vienna Document Meeting,” Novaya Gazeta, February 15, 2022, (

[113] “Baltic states call OSCE meeting over Belarus’ military exercises,” ERR, February 16, 2022, (; “Ukraine joins Baltic nations in OSCE query of Russian troop movements,” Defense News, February 11, 2022,


[114] Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, “Oleksii Reznikov held a phone conversation with Minister of Defence of Republic of Belarus Viktor Khrenin,” February 14, 2022,


[115] Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, “Speech of Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov during the hour of questions to the Government,” February 18, 2022,


[116] Ibid..

[117] Ibid.

[118] Ibid..

[119] Among others, see “Towards a More Stable NATO-Russia Relationship,” ELN and RIAC, 2019, (; “Conventional Arms Control: A Way Forward or Wishful Thinking,” FOI, 2018, (–4586–SE); “Modernizing Conventional Arms Control in the Euro-Atlantic Region,” Clingendael, 2018, (; “Outlines for Future Conventional Arms Control in Europe: A Subregional Regime in the Baltics,” ELN, 2019, (; “The Future of the Vienna Document,” PIR Center, 2019, (; “Sub-Regional Arms Control for the Baltics: What is Desirable? What is Feasible?” Deepcuts 2016, (; “Dilemmas of Arms Control,” ICDS, 2020, (; “Conventional Arms Control in Europe: Some Thoughts About an Uncertain Future,” Deepcuts, 2015, (; “Conventional Arms Control in Europe: Where Are We Going?” PIR Center,

[120] “Latvia and Russia talk over military activities near border,” Latvian Public Broadcasting, 2016 (;

“Dilemmas of Arms Control,” ICDS, 2019, (

[121] “NATO is imposing a Cold War security scheme on us,” Kommersant, December 26, 2019, (

[122] “NATO is imposing a Cold War security scheme on us,” Kommersant, December 26, 2019, (

[123] Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russian General Decries Provocative NATO Drill Near Its Borders,” Defense News, June 1, 2016, (; “Russia expects NATO’s constructive response to proposals on reducing risks,” TASS, June 7, 2017, (; “In the field, the strains rumbled,” Kommersant, April 25, 2020, ( _

[124] Ibid.; “Shoigu Spoke About the Provocations of the United States and NATO in the Black Sea,” RIA Novosti, April 20, 2021, (

[125] Anthony, p. 21,

[126] Ibid; I.V. Kasatonov, “Recalling the lessons of the past (on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Soviet-American negotiations on the prevention of incidents at sea,” Military Thought, Issue 11, 2021 p. 11–15, (not available online).

[127] Anthony, pp. 21-23.

[128] Interview with a NATO official, Brussels, September 2020; Virtual expert interview, August 2020.

[129] Expert interview, August 2020

[130] “Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Russia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 17, 2021, (

[131] “Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Security Guarantees,” Russia Ministry of Foreign Afffairs, December 17, 2021, (

[132] “Press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,” NATO, January 26, 2022,

[133] Ibid.

[134] “Belgium Announces Priorities as FSC Chair amidst Russia’s War against Ukraine,” OCSE, September 2022, (; “North Macedonia’s 2023 OSCE Chairmanship to Focus on Safeguarding OSCE Principles and Commitments, in Times When They Are Seriously Challenged,” OSCE, September 2022, (

[135] Robert Dalsjö, Michael Jonsson, and Johan Norberg, “A Brutal Examination: Russian Military Capability in Light of the Ukraine War,” Survival, vol. 64, no. 3 (2022); Michael Kofman and Rob Lee, “Not Built for Purpose: The Russian Military’s Ill-fated Force Design”, War on the Rocks, June 2, 2022, (

[136] “Recommendations of the Participants of the Expert Dialogue on NATO-Russia Military Risk Reduction in Europe,” German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), December 20, 2022, (

[137] Neil John Melvin, “Rebuilding Collective Security in the Black Sea Region,” SIPRI, 2018, p. 3, (

[138] “Vienna Document,” OSCE, Chapter 10.

[139] On venues for conventional arms control negotiations, see Zellner et al, “A Little of the Old, a Little of the New: A Fresh Approach to Conventional Arms Control in Europe,” September 2020.

[140] Interview with experts, Brussels, September 2020–May 2021.

[141] “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation Signed in Paris, France,” NATO, May 27, 1997, (

[142] “NATO Strengthens Eastern Flank, Eyes Russia, China, Arms Control Today, July/August 2022, (

[143] “FACT SHEET – U.S. Defense Contributions to Europe,” US Department of Defense, June 29, 2022, (

[144] Alexander Vershbow, “NATO and Russia: Why Transparency is Essential,” NATO, August 16, 2016, (

[145] Nancy A. Youssef, “U.S., Russia Establish Hotline to Avoid Accidental Conflict,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2022, (

[146] “US, Russia Agree to Deconfliction Hotline as Putin’s Attack on Ukraine Escalates,” Defense One, March 3, 2022, (