Amid rising tensions over the war in Ukraine, the U.S. military has established a communications hotline with Russian forces to prevent an accidental clash between the two nuclear powers, two U.S. defense officials say. The so-called de-confliction line is intended to ensure that the two countries’ pilots or warships do not mistakenly fire upon one another as they conduct daily missions in eastern Europe.
The military-to-military channel, which will run out of U.S. European Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, was set up March 1 after the Russians responded to the Pentagon’s request. Maintaining communications to avoid accidental confrontations between the forces is critical, officials say, so hostilities don’t spiral out of control. “It’s really important that we don’t risk accident or miscalculation,” said a U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
American forces are not fighting inside Ukraine, where Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops and is carrying out daily bombing runs, but both militaries are now operating near each other along Ukraine’s borders. The U.S. has sent fighter jets to multiple countries on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastern flank for air policing flights in solidarity with the transatlantic alliance. Now that the hotline is in place, it may prevent a collision or an accidental shoot-down in eastern Europe, U.S. officials said.
It is not the first time the two nations have created such a mechanism. The U.S. and Russian military established a back-channel after Russia entered Syria’s multi-sided civil war in 2015. Russia was there to prop up its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, while the U.S. flew sorties to bomb ISIS strongholds and deployed special forces for targeted missions on the ground. At the time, the de-confliction line consisted of an insecure phone line and a Google mail account, but it proved useful in avoiding a catastrophic accident.
The situation in Eastern Europe is different. The U.S. and its allies are not operating over the same country as Russia, but the Biden Administration recognized the potential for miscalculation. U.S. officials said the channel in eastern Europe will include a phone line, but they declined to provide additional details.
Communication has been a concern since late last year when Russia began moving aircraft, warships and more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine. The administration was initially reticent to set up the channel ahead of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials said, out of concerns that it could appear as though Washington would abide and unprovoked assault by Russia on its smaller neighbor.
As the blood-soaked military campaign enters its second week and Russia moves on cities throughout the country, a communication channel became essential. “We understand the importance of de-confliction, particularly now that the airspace over Ukraine is contested, and some of that airspace butts right up against NATO territory,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.
NATO has mobilized thousands of troops, more than 100 aircraft and more than 120 ships since Russian Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion. In recent weeks, U.S. and European allies have increased air-policing missions over allied nations, including regular sorties of F-35 stealth fighter jets along with F-16 and F-15 fighters across Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania.
“The presence and rapid re-positioning of aircraft in Europe, including F-35s and B-52s, not only strengthens NATO’s eastern flank countries, but demonstrates our ability to adapt to a dynamic warfighting environment,” General C.Q. Brown, the nation’s top Air Force officer told TIME, adding that de-confliction is critical, “given the proximity of NATO nations to Ukraine.”
Ukraine is not a NATO member, but it borders four nations that are: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The U.S. and other NATO allies have pledged to protect their eastern and central European members under the alliance’s defining Article 5 mutual defense commitments, which establish that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Avoiding an accident is critical because if an allied service member is killed, the U.S. and all of Europe could be drawn into the conflict.
The back-channel comes as tensions between Washington and Moscow have escalated sharply over Ukraine. Putin has raised the specter of nuclear weapons several times during the crisis in an attempt to warn off the U.S. and its allies from interfering in the war on Ukraine. On Wednesday, the Biden Administration postponed a long-planned military test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile out of concerns it might be misinterpreted as escalatory.
Less than a month ago, on Feb. 12 and 13, Russian Su-35 fighter jets came close to U.S. P-8A surveillance aircraft on three separate occasions over the Mediterranean Sea in international airspace. No one was hurt, but the Pentagon called the incidents “unprofessional intercepts” and the U.S. expressed concerns through diplomatic channels. “The U.S. retains a number of channels to discuss critical security issues with the Russians during a contingency or emergency,” a senior U.S. defense official said.
But communication between the U.S. and Russia—nations commanding the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals—has been limited since American intelligence agencies discovered that the Kremlin had engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to meddle in 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In addition, Congress passed a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act in late 2014—and renewed since then—which restricts the Pentagon’s ability to work with Russia. The law was passed in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued support for pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country.
During the Cold War, a series of treaties between the U.S. and Soviet Union were designed to avoid miscalculation and keep communication channels open – even though Washington and Moscow were sworn adversaries. Many of those treaties (The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas, Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities) no longer exist.