The mid-air collision over the Black Sea on Tuesday that resulted in the loss of a US surveillance drone was the first known direct confrontation between Russian and US militaries of the war in Ukraine, raising fears of a dangerous escalation.
But the rival powers have experience of managing flashpoints through conflicts from Korea to Syria, and established methods to avoid doomsday scenarios.
“There are mature deconfliction mechanisms in place for these incidents,” said Dara Massicot, a researcher of the Russian military at US think tank the Rand Corporation.
Among these is a deconfliction hotline between Washington and Moscow, which the US announced shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine “for the purposes of preventing miscalculation, military incidents and escalation”.
US officials have acknowledged use of the line, without specifying when, while also revealing wider communication with Russian counterparts, such as around President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv last month.
A White House spokesman confirmed that communication with Russia had taken place on Tuesday following the Black Sea incident without offering further details. Russia’s ambassador to the US later offered assurances that “we do not want any confrontation”.
The US and Russia have also relied on Cold War conventions to manage hostilities, such as the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement, which requires “aircraft commanders to use the greatest caution and prudence in approaching aircraft”.
Russia abandoned that convention in favour of “coercive signalling” on Tuesday, Ms Massicot said, in an effort to compel a change in US behaviour.
This was probably in response to aggressive US intelligence gathering to supply Ukraine with targeting information, according to former US Colonel Mark Cancian, now senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies – which he believes Russia would have raised in subsequent talks.
“That drone was up there to collect intelligence on Russian forces so that Ukrainian forces could attack,” he told i.
“I suspect that informally the Russians have said “This is too close. Back off”. And I suspect we will back off a bit.”
Mr Cancian suggests “the fact that there have been no serious incidents of US and Russian forces shooting at each other” shows that deconfliction mechanisms are effective.
Such mechanisms serve to cool domestic demands for escalatory steps to avoid looking weak in the wake of incidents such as the drone crash, he added.
But the conventions are likely to be tested further as the US continues to supply weapons and intelligence to Ukraine, in a war that Russian President Vladimir Putin describes as “existential”, and increases its presence in the region.
The risk of direct clashes is increasing for several reasons, says Ralph Clem, a former US Air Force General.
“Among other things, Nato ramped up its intelligence collection flights over the Black Sea and along Nato’s eastern flank to surveil Russian military ops,” he told i.
“This, combined with the evidence of Russian incompetence in conducting aerial encounters, made this sort of incident inevitable.”
Few analysts believe that the loss of a drone could prompt a major escalation. But a clash between Russian and Nato pilots, such as an incident last September when a Russian jet released a missile close to a British spy plane, could be harder to control.
“What keeps me up at night is a meeting with manned aircraft gone wrong,” says Mr Clem.