The Romanian hamlet of Plauru is not the sort of place that hits the headlines. But the broken windows caused there by the recent Russian missile strike on port facilities across the Danube in Ukraine rattled nerves, not only among its few dozen inhabitants. Officials deny that a Russian drone actually crossed Romanian territory, though at least two local inhabitants insist they witnessed this. 

But the fact that a Russian attack caused even minor physical damage on NATO territory underlines something that should have been clear for a long time. The Kremlin does not treat NATO’s deterrence seriously. A Russian warplane flew into Danish airspace in 2020. A Russian military helicopter violated Estonian airspace last year. More recently, Belarusian helicopters have intruded into Poland. Russia and Belarus have also breached borders with weaponized migration, leaving aside many other instances of kidnappingmurder, and sabotage.

Seen in isolation, each individual provocation can be dismissed as an accident, overlooked, or met with a wrist-slapping diplomatic protest. Drawing an arbitrary line and responding with military force risks looking disproportionate. Would NATO air defenses really shoot down a Russian helicopter that strayed off course briefly? Many political decision-makers would flinch at that—and the Kremlin knows it. 

But as part of a pattern, these episodes quickly become sinister. If we allow a broken window on NATO territory, what about damage to livestock, or to people? If airspace can be violated by a few meters for a few minutes, what about intrusions that go a little longer and further? Once you normalize minor breaches of your sovereignty, you pave the way for more serious ones, and will be in a worse position when they happen.

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To see the danger, look at how the Chinese Communist Party has used systematic, creeping provocations. Over the past decade it fortified uninhabited reefs and rocks of the South China Sea, creating, in effect, unsinkable aircraft carriers. On many occasions, the United States could have intervened forcefully to stop this. But it chose not to until it was too late. A similar process is underway now with Taiwan’s airspace. The size and frequency of the mainland’s air forces’ approaches to this border are increasing. The incremental pressure gains intelligence exhausts the Taiwanese military and corrodes deterrence. 

The answer to these “salami slicing” tactics is not necessarily to fight over a particular incident. A better option is to cut bits off the other side’s sausages. Instead of following our foes’ agenda, we set our own. Poland, for example, has not just beefed up its military defenses on the border. It has also started referring to Kaliningrad by its historic Polish name, Królewiec (other countries could follow suit). This territory—a trophy of the Soviet victory in 1945—is now a hostage, accessible only with the consent of its NATO neighbors. Lithuania rightly tried to curb road and rail transit of sanctioned goods to the exclave last year, but was arm-twisted into backing down. It is time to revisit that. We could also start slicing Russian kolbasa in the Black Sea region. 

Some already use these tactics against the Beijing regime. The chairs of the foreign affairs committees of the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian parliaments have just paid a joint visit to Taiwan, fraying further the mainland regime’s once-solid taboo on political contacts between Western politicians and the self-governing island democracy. 

Salami-slicing is not risk-free. Cut too thickly, and you prompt escalation. The trick is to do enough to set a precedent and to flummox the adversary’s decision-makers but without giving them cause to retaliate dangerously. Just like they do to us. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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