Ukraine conflict surge raises risk of clash between US, Russian forces
As US and its allies rush to back Ukraine in its bid to fight Russia’s military operation, US military officials say there is a growing risk of a clash between NATO and Russian forces that may lead to a major escalation.
The US-led efforts to support a Ukrainian military confrontation with Russia mean that more American and allied aircraft will be operating near Ukraine amid the presence of Russian military jets, and their close proximity raises the chances of a potential face-off clashes between the rival military powers, the US-based Business Insider reported Saturday.
The US "retains a number of channels to discuss critical security issues with the Russians during a contingency or emergency," said a US military official as quoted in the report.
But they were without a de-confliction line to manage their air operations until March 1, when the US Defense Department set up such a hotline with Russia's Defense Ministry, "for the purposes of preventing miscalculation, military incidents, and escalation," the official explained.
According to the report, NATO air forces already have a sizable presence across Eastern Europe, conducting air-policing operations over the Baltic and Black Sea regions as more US jets headed to the Baltics in the weeks prior to the start of Russia's military intervention.
In the hours and days after it, the alliance’s fighter jets patrolled NATO’s eastern flank as the US and its allies deployed more aircraft to the region.
With Russia's military buildup and NATO's reinforcement efforts, "there's a lot of steel in the Black Sea" and in Poland, but under the current circumstances an incident leading to escalation was less of a concern, said Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
"The two sides have professional militaries," Stein noted. "As of now, it appears that the Russians have their hands full in Ukraine, and the US and NATO itself has been very clear that they're not coming across the border."
Under those conditions, confusion could be mitigated "by just an increased ability to transmit information between the two sides," which a basic de-confliction line provides, he added.
The report then cites another unidentified US military official as saying that the de-confliction channel was "basically an open phone line" run out of US European Command headquarters in Germany and had been used at least once.
"The Russians have acknowledged it. In our initial test of it, they answered the phone, so we know that they know who's calling," he emphasized as quoted in the report.
The risk of close encounters and clashes is likely to grow as the conflict grinds on, particularly if Russia increases its operations in western Ukraine, which borders four NATO countries.
The US and other countries continue to provide security assistance, which includes weapons, to Ukraine through overland routes. Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, told lawmakers Tuesday that the Pentagon was "looking absolutely hard at" keeping those routes open as Russia takes control of more of Ukraine.