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NATO and Russia aren't talking to each other. Cold war lessons forgotten?

Several times during the cold war, miscommunication almost led to nuclear conflict. Now, amid tensions over Ukraine, Russia and the West are showing a new failure to communicate.

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US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Ross sets sail in the Bosphorus strait, returning from the Black Sea following a mission, in Istanbul on June 3. Russian military aircraft were scrambled to head off a US warship that was acting 'aggressively' in the Black Sea, state news agency RIA reported on Saturday, but the Pentagon denied any unusual behavior.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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Knowing your enemy doesn't just win the war. Sometimes, it also can be critical to keeping the peace.

Such was the case in 1983, during a massive NATO drill to test the alliance's capabilities to respond to a Soviet invasion of western Europe. Unknown to its planners, however, "Able Archer," which envisaged using nuclear weapons to halt the enemy advance, looked to Soviet eyes exactly the way Soviet intelligence had predicted a US nuclear "first strike" would unfold.

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Though many of the details of how war was averted remain undisclosed, experts on both sides say the world came to the very brink of nuclear Armageddon through a chain of preventable misunderstandings. It was one of several cold war close calls that convinced Moscow and Washington to step up military contacts and establish formal, as well as informal, channels of communication that might make all the difference in an emergency.

Those old tales are taking on urgent new relevance as the crisis over Ukraine drives East-West tensions to levels unseen since the cold war.

Military machines on both sides are engaged in nearly non-stop war games aimed at displaying their readiness to their jittery publics, and scary near-misses between warplanes are multiplying as Russia's Air Force tries to return to its Soviet-era pattern of global patrolling. All this is happening at a time when dialogue, even at the highest levels, is almost nonexistent.

"Not just communications, but other mechanisms that used to exist are simply not working anymore," says Viktor Baranets, a former Russian defense ministry spokesman. "I don't want to sound alarmist, but judging by the rapid pace of events and growing aggressiveness on all sides, we may be moving toward disaster. It's like we're all priming a bomb, but no one knows when or how it will explode. Gradually, we are moving from cold to hot war."

'We should be having these conversations'

The disconnect between the Russian and American militaries is in part a natural result of the end of the cold war. Most of the old coping mechanisms were scrapped after they became unnecessary 25 years ago. That has left fighter pilots and ship captains today without the experience of their cold war predecessors, who were steeled by regular encounters with the enemy.

But as NATO and Russia broke off relations last year amid the escalating spat over Ukraine, communications at lower echelons virtually ended.

Last month NATO announced that it would set up a cold war-style "hotline" with the General Staff in Moscow. But that came even as NATO kicked out dozens of Russians formerly stationed at its Brussels headquarters.

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Pentagon officials say the US decision, alongside NATO, to slash military relations with Russia was the right thing to do "in light of Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine." Virtually all bilateral engagements were shut down, including military exercises, bilateral meetings, port visits, and planning conferences. They say they continue to maintain "open lines of communication with Russia."

But some experts worry that the hotline may prove far too little as tensions spiral, snap war drills become larger and more frequent on both sides, and genuine efforts to see the other guy's point of view dwindle.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno says the fall-off in communications is indeed of concern.

"I’m a big believer in no matter how big your disagreements are, it’s important that you continue to have discussions," he says. "In my mind, when you’re not talking, relationships can deteriorate faster because you can misinterpret – you don’t quite understand exactly what’s being said, and you don’t have the opportunity to discuss the most difficult issues," he told defense reporters on May 28.

"I believe we should be having these conversations, but we’re not."

Nuclear troubles

Strategic nuclear weapons are still subject to strict controls. Five years ago Russia and the US signed the New START treaty, which holds the two sides  to defined numbers of warheads and delivery systems. The treaty has its own apparatus for mutual verification and consultation.

But the late-cold-war treaty that banned all medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe is under new strains, with the US accusing Russia of violations and some Russian politicians openly calling for the accord to be scrapped altogether. Russia is also warning that it might deploy nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to its western enclave of Kaliningrad and the newly-annexed territory of Crimea, which could add a nuclear dimension to the standoff.

In the worst case, there is still the "red phone" – not actually a phone, but a priority connection – between the White House and the Kremlin, established in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. But that's not enough to offset the shift in attitudes.

"Relations are changing in the worst possible direction. We're in a propaganda war, and the realization has dawned that we are not friends," says Viktor Kremeniuk, a veteran Russian America-watcher and author of a new book, "Lessons from the Cold War."

"If something should happen in an area not covered by a specific, preexisting agreement, it's not clear how it would be handled," he says. "Basically, the normal channels of diplomacy are all we've got now."

Growing risk of accident

An air-to-air encounter turned bad is one of the  nightmares that plague officials on both sides. Pentagon officials point to an April 2014 incident, in which a Russian fighter plane buzzed a US reconnaissance aircraft and "put the lives of its crew in jeopardy."

"During the cold war, it was routine anytime our reconnaissance aircraft was looking at them, or them at us, that we would be flying in formation in a very predictable way," says Christopher Harmer, a retired naval officer who served as former deputy director of future operations at the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. That tight formation flying helped keep miscalculations to a minimum, Mr. Harmer says.

But the sort of "reckless" flying demonstrated by the Russian fighter jet represents a shift in tactics. There is little chance it was the act of a show-off pilot, he adds. "Russian pilots don’t do rogue."

The US Navy complains of similar close and "provocative" Russian approaches toward its ships in the Black Sea, including an incident last week involving the guided missile destroyer USS Ross. Russian media accounts of the same event stress the defensive actions of Russian military forces in the face of US "aggressive" moves.

Odierno says that he has endeavored to arrange meetings to discuss rules of engagement. "I’ve actually tried to meet to meet with my Russian counterpart on two separate occasions, and both times they’ve refused to do that in neutral settings. So it’s concerning," because the lack of communication "definitely increases the danger of miscalculations" between the two countries, he says.

"It's depressing to find ourselves back in this situation. Trust is ebbing, tensions are spiking, there's the constant feeling that something could go badly wrong," says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the independent PIR Center in Moscow, a think tank specializing in nuclear security issues.

"We need to work out a new set of rules. The way we've been doing things for the past 25 years isn't working in this new situation, so people really need to start talking."