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‘Wired so tight right now’: How the US and NATO are preparing against errant drones and the unintended conflict with Russia


The trio of drone incidents have amplified concerns that Russia’s war in Ukraine could spill over into NATO nations, even unintentionally, forcing the alliance to decide how to react – if at all – to the incidents that occur within its borders.

US defense officials say the errant drones that entered NATO territory appeared to be largely unintentional. Since the start of the Russian invasion, the US military has established a deconfliction line with Russia to reduce the risk of miscalculation and to ensure that the two armies operating so close to each other do not do not clash inadvertently. The United States has tested the line “once or twice a day”, according to a senior defense official, but so far it has not been necessary.

But NATO tried unsuccessfully to connect with Russia via a deconfliction hotline and written letters, raising concerns about Russia’s willingness to engage as the invasion of Ukraine unfolded. extended further west into NATO territory, senior NATO military officials said on Wednesday.

“We try to communicate with them of course,” one of the officials told reporters during a briefing at NATO headquarters. “But it takes two [sides] communicate.”

Russia brought the fight closer to NATO’s doorstep last weekend with precision-guided missile strikes near Lviv, western Ukraine, targeting a military training center just 10 miles away from the Polish border. The attacks came a day after Russian officials threatened convoys supplying weapons to Ukraine from the West, although a senior US defense official said the facility was not being used for security expeditions.

The US military has surveillance tools and sensors to help mitigate a potential escalation, including the ability to pick up radar emissions and infrared signatures of missile launches from Russia or Belarus. US officials can then analyze the expected trajectory and try to keep tabs on it — so if it turns away, there’s an understanding of whether it’s deliberate or accidental, defense officials said.

While the United States and NATO have stopped surveillance drone flights inside Ukraine, the United States military is flying surveillance drones and U-2 planes along the border, while using overhead satellites, officials said. NATO also regularly flies its Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft near Ukraine. Patriot air defense systems have also been deployed in Poland to help respond to projectiles that may enter NATO airspace.

“There are lots and lots of drones flying around and so everyone is nervously looking over their shoulder at what’s going on,” said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Given the scale of what Russia is undertaking here, this kind of thing is not surprising. It’s one of the reasons why everyone is so tightly wired right now.”

A risk of accident

Tensions over the prospect of Russian drones or bombs pouring into NATO territory come as the Biden administration has drawn a cautious line on what it is willing to do to help Ukraine fight the Russians . The United States and NATO have provided Ukraine with hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, but the Biden administration has opposed a plan that involved the United States delivering Polish fighter jets to Ukraine via a German airbase. , warning that it would be an escalation.

US and NATO officials have also made it clear that they do not plan to deploy troops to Ukraine. But amid pledges by President Joe Biden and other top officials to defend “every square inch” of NATO territory, US and NATO officials are stepping up surveillance and patrols near the border of alliance with Ukraine and to guard against any unintentional escalation.

“We are strengthening our vigilance, our presence, the way we monitor our airspace,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference this week. “We are increasing both the capabilities that we need to monitor to track, but also to ensure that we are able to react if necessary.”

Stoltenberg pointed to new Patriot air defense missile batteries that have been deployed along the alliance’s eastern flank. The drone incidents, he said, “show that with more military activity in the air, with drones and planes, there is a risk of, for example, accidents.”

“Therefore, we have to be extremely vigilant, we have to react when needed and we have to make sure that we have the communications, the line of communication also with the Russians to prevent an instance from really creating dangerous situations,” said Stoltenberg.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a national security and military analyst for CNN, said drones can veer off course if a pilot loses control, and the unguided missiles Russia uses can miss a target, with a range that increases the possibility of entering. NATO territory, especially if Russian forces penetrate further into western Ukraine.

But in any incident that might involve NATO airspace or territory, Hertling said, the key to avoiding escalation is communication.

“Details matter, and when a NATO country is hit, we better get the details from Russia,” he said. “And it’s better to be fast, because it’s also an escalation.”

eyes on the sky

The Russian drone that the Ukrainian military said it shot down after coming in from Polish airspace appeared to be monitoring the military training center that Russia attacked on Sunday, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Croatian Defense Minister Mario Banozic said the drone that crashed in an urban part of Zagreb flew over three NATO countries after leaving Ukrainian airspace, according to The Associated Press. While the defense minister said the drone was armed with an explosive device, Stoltenberg told reporters it appeared to be unarmed.

“There are indications that it could come from both” Ukraine and Russia, Bonozic said.

Stoltenberg said NATO air and missile defenses were tracking “the flight path of an object” that entered Romanian airspace on Sunday, and Romanian fighter jets rushed to investigate. He said NATO was looking at both the Romanian and Croatian incidents.

NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander’s current assessment, officials said, is that “at present there is no threat to NATO as such. Not a deliberate threat from Russia. . Russia is currently occupied by Ukraine.”

But there are of course risks, the officials added, which is why there are now talks of moving NATO’s defensive systems further east.

“As we have now seen that Russia is ready to use military means again, in the middle of Europe, to achieve political goals, it is worth, and will be discussed, to advance the integrated defense system air and anti-missile to cover the areas adjacent to Russia,” one of the officials said. Those areas include Belarus and potentially Ukraine, he added.

Jeff Edmonds, senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security and former director for Russia at the National Security Council, said the risk to NATO territory will only increase as Russian forces move further. to the west – and closer to the delivery of weapons that NATO supplies to the Ukrainian forces.

“If and when they advance west, the more likely they will feel they have the freedom to engage things that cross the border,” Edmonds said of Russian forces. “A scenario here is that Russia strikes – not really caring which side of the border – as long as they hit the target, thinking they can call the US bluff and NATO don’t call to a full-fledged war.”

Asked Wednesday about Poland’s call to send NATO forces to Ukraine for a “peacekeeping” mission, NATO military officials suggested such a plan would be untenable.

“We are looking at two nation states at war. If they agree on a reliable and solid peace settlement, I don’t necessarily see the need for a peacekeeping mission,” one of the officials said. . “And if you look at the other version of ‘peacekeeping,’ which is actually ‘peace enforcement,’ I mean, it’s war with Russia.”

“We should then ‘protect,'” the official explained, “then shoot, then kill, then destroy.”

CNN’s Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.


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