Clouds of Suspicion: Airspace Arrangements, Escalation, and Discord in U.S./NATO-Russian Relations

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How have cooperative airspace arrangements contributed to cooperation and discord in the Euro-Atlantic region? This study analyzes the role of three sets of airspace arrangements developed by Euro-Atlantic states since the end of the Cold War—(1) cooperative aerial surveillance of military activity, (2) exchange of air situational data, and (3) joint engagement of theater air and missile threats—in political-military relations among neighbors and within the region. These arrangements provide insights into the integration of Central and Eastern European states into Western security institutions, and the current discord that centers on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s place in regional security. The study highlights the role of airspace incidents as contributors to conflict escalation and identifies opportunities for transparency- and confidence-building measures to improve U.S./NATO-Russian relations.

The study recommends strengthening the Open Skies Treaty in order to facilitate the resolution of conflicts and improve region-wide military transparency. It notes that political-military arrangements for engaging theater air and missile threats created by NATO and Russia over the last twenty years are currently postured in a way that divides the region and inhibits mutual security. In turn, the U.S.-led Regional Airspace Initiatives that facilitated the exchange of air situational data between NATO and then-NATO-aspirants such as Poland and the Baltic states, offer a useful precedent for improving air sovereignty and promoting information sharing to reduce the fear of war among participating states. Thus, projects like NATO’s Air Situational Data Exchange and the NATO-Russia Council Cooperative Airspace Initiative—if extended to the exchange of data about military aircraft—have the potential to buttress deterrence and contribute to conflict prevention.

The study concludes that documenting the evolution of airspace arrangements since the end of the Cold War contributes to understanding of the conflicting narratives put forward by Russia, the West, and the states “in-between” with respect to reasons for the current state of regional security. The long-term project of developing a zone of stable peace in the Euro-Atlantic must begin with the difficult task of building inclusive security institutions to accommodate the concerns of all regional actors.