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The Coming Unintentional War With Russia

Nobody wants a NATO-Russia war but that's no guarantee it's not happening. With the heightened military posture of both actors it could happen even just by accident

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This article originally appeared in Ottawa Citizen

A couple of months before he retired in July, the head of Canada’s air force provided a blunt assessment of what might emerge from the current military mission to Ukraine.

“We pray that our ongoing NATO mission isn’t accompanied by the escalation of deadly force and the shedding of blood,” Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin wrote in the magazine RCAF Today.

“We have everything to lose and nothing to gain through a show-down with our former Eastern Bloc foes.”

It was an unusual and candid observation from a veteran Canadian officer about the increased tensions and worsening situation in Ukraine. But Blondin’s warning also reflects an increasing concern among some in the United States and Europe about the possibility that the standoff in eastern Europe between Russia and the West could somehow end in war.

Political and military analysts don’t believe that either side would deliberately start such a war. But with large numbers of military forces operating in such close proximity, anything could happen, they warn.

Bloodshed could be spurred by something as simple as miscommunication between military units, for instance.

Or it could involve an accident, such as what almost happened in April when a Russian SU-27 fighter jet came within an estimated three to six metres of a U.S. military surveillance plane over the Baltic Sea. (The Pentagon complained to the Russians about the pilot’s aggressive flying but the Russians countered that the U.S. spy plane was flying towards their border with its identification transponder turned off.)

Over the last year, tensions have increased to the point where Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkevics warned that Russian-Western relations had sunk to their lowest level since the Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960s.

NATO vessels, including Canadian frigates, now regularly patrol the Black Sea, closely monitored by Russian warships. American, Canadian and other NATO troops are training on Russia’s doorstep. In October, NATO will launch one of its biggest exercises in years, with up to 36,000 personnel involved in war games designed to send a message to Russia that the alliance is ready to respond militarily if required. Some 1,600 Canadian military personnel, along with aircraft and five warships, will take part.

NATO has given much publicity to the exercise because it doesn’t want any misunderstandings with the Russians that could lead to a confrontation. NATO hopes Russia will do the same for its own training exercises but so far that hasn’t happened.

In March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg raised concerns that the tensions have hurt communications with the Russians, who have launched a series of unscheduled, large-scale military exercises in eastern Europe. He worried the result could be miscommunication, sparking an incident between Russian and NATO forces that could spiral out of control.

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