Innovation and Catastrophic Risk

The Role of Crisis Communications in the Russo-Ukrainian War

By Leah Walker on May 18, 2022

Disclaimer: the following analysis is solely based on open source, unclassified information. Additional supportive or contradictive non-public information may exist. 

As the United States and NATO continue efforts to avoid direct kinetic engagement in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, crisis communication systems are consistently highlighted as critical to reducing escalation risks. The war has viscerally demonstrated the value of dedicated and reliable crisis communication systems, while simultaneously underscoring the inadequacies of the current communications capabilities between the US, NATO, and Russia. 

Crisis communications (including nuclear hotlines like the Direct Communication Line (DCL) or “Red Telephone” between the American and Russian Heads of State) are measures that offer leaders the ability to quickly and clearly communicate to avoid misunderstandings, accidents, and inadvertent escalation. While crisis communications have risk-reducing and stabilizing value, they are less easily established and maintained than often portrayed. 

For starters, while dedicated, direct, secure communications lines can be set up between friends (for example, the U.S. and India established a National Security Advisor-level option in 2015), these lines are more often established between competitors, or even adversaries—providing alternatives when opposing forces are operating in a space of distrust, or even open conflict, in order to provide an outlet to reduce the risk of miscalculation or escalation.

As communication technologies and malicious digital tools continue to evolve, crisis links must be updated accordingly and made more resilient to new and emerging threats to maintain their value. If Heads of State are accustomed to the speed and casual security of encrypted text messaging, for example, they are unlikely to opt for a slow teletype system, even in moments of extreme crisis. Novel threats to crisis communications in the 21st century include cyberattacks and highly sophisticated tools electronic warfare, as well as the need to operate in operationally degraded environments. The glaring Russian communications vulnerabilities in the Ukraine war perhaps brings this into the fore in ways thought previously overcome in an era of ubiquitous and powerful commercial end-to-end encrypted communications. 

Hotlines also require willing and cooperative participants. The proper mechanisms to dial-in and the modes of utilization must be painstakingly negotiated, and the staff involved need to train and rehearse those mechanisms. Such systems have to be used regularly, not just for testing and training reasons, but also to continually ensure the lines remain available and updated. 

Additionally, and perhaps most critically, Heads of State actually have to be interested in communicating with each other—and convinced the benefits outweigh the inherent risks. One can design the best crisis communication network in the world—and a participant might decide to simply not pick up the phone. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, as well as in the U.S.-China military relationship, this particular concern is top of mind. 

By all indications, the crisis communication lines between the U.S. and Russia, as well as those between Russia and NATO, are working—and with the addition of dedicated deconfliction line(s), might even expand in number. However, the question of actual use remains—as does the dynamism inherent to these options, as they remain constrained to bilateral communications only. 

Encouragingly, the U.S. and Russia agreed in the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine to set up a tactical military deconfliction communications line, likely inspired by the success of a similar  deconfliction line used during the civil war in Syria. A deconfliction line like the one used in the Syria context (further detailed below) is being used by Russia to notify the U.S. ahead of potentially major military actions, so as not to surprise its competitor. 

Given the importance of crisis communications in reducing nuclear risk and avoiding escalation, it is well worth examining the existing communication lines between Russia, the U.S. and NATO. 

The following are the publicly known communication links that either side may use to de-escalate, warn, negotiate, or even threaten, as of May 2022. 

Head of State Hotlines

While there remain no multilateral crisis communication systems active today, several NATO members maintain bilateral hotlines with Russia. They include the three nuclear powers in NATO: France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each link was established between the heads of the respective countries in the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis and have remained in place and in sporadic use ever since.

The United States and Russia maintain a modernized version of the hotline established after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Direct Communication Link (DCL or MOLINK), allows the Heads of State of each country to speak directly. This hotline was used several times, including (but not limited to) after the assassination of JFK, during the Six Days War, during the Indo-Pakistan War of ‘71, and the ‘73 Arab Israeli War. The hotline appears to have been updated multiple times to ensure its reliability and security, and to incorporate new communication technologies. There are no public indications that this hotline has been used during the war on Ukraine.

Domain Specific Hotlines

The U.S. also has a “space junk” hotline and a “cyber” hotline with Moscow. The space hotline links STRATCOM’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) with Russia’s Space Surveillance and System Command Center. The cyber channel was famously used by President Obama to warn Russia to not intervene in the 2016 elections. 

During the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. and Russia established a military deconfliction line to avoid escalation and kinetic mishaps as the two countries supported different sides of the war and had troops operating in close proximity. The idea of the deconfliction line in Ukraine was likely borne out of the tactical effectiveness of the Syrian case.

Informal Channels

According to public reporting, there are informal channels between the U.S. and Russia as well. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov reportedly maintain good relations and in the past have met and spoken with each other on several occasions. U.S. Defense Secretary Austin and his Russian counterpart reportedly speak less often, but also maintain a means of communicating—the form of which remains publicly unknown.  

On May 13th, 2022, Austin and his counterpart, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, spoke for the first time since the start of the war. Per the U.S. Department of Defense readout, Secretary Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication”. The last time the senior officials communicated was prior to the war, with Austin and Shoygu speaking on February 18th and Milley and Gerasimov speaking on February 11. 

NATO and Russia Communications

While some NATO members have bilateral crisis communication lines with Russia, NATO-Russia communication ties are lacking and inconsistent. NATO suspended practical cooperation with Russia in 2014 after the seizure of Crimea and last fall Russia suspended its NATO mission after the expulsion of Russian officials accused of espionage. The NATO-Russia Council, however, continues to exist and met in January 2022 to discuss Russia’s troop build up surrounding Ukraine. 

In December 2021, Russia published draft U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia agreements which included calling for an establishment of a NATO-Russia hotline. NATO has also called for a hotline between the two. Those calls suggest that there is still no dedicated crisis communication line for political leaders in the NATO context. However, on the military side, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR) has a secure channel of communication with the Russian Chief of Defense Gerasimov.

The Russo-Ukrainian War has not been tempered nor solved by the existence of crisis communications between nuclear weapon states. Nor was the Syrian Civil War. However, the existence of the senior and tactical level deconfliction lines may have had, and continue to play a role in limiting escalatory action between these adversaries with nuclear weapons in the midst of violent conflicts that could easily spillover into broader escalatory engagements. At the very least, these communication lines provide a mechanism for negotiations, alerting, and other information sharing, at a time where misperception, misunderstanding, and the fog of war could lead to dramatic and devastating consequences. That the U.S. and Russia are able to speak, and that both sides know that in critical times they can send near instantaneous messages to each other, is undoubtedly a stabilizing tool. 

Further, the move to add a tactical military deconfliction line to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict should be lauded, and should be seen as a model that can be followed in further conflicts. Adding avenues of communications during a crisis are low-hanging fruit which often appeal to all sides, and should be part of the initial response to any geopolitical conflict.

For more, see Nuclear Hotlines: Origins, Evolution, Applications by Steven E. Miller