Both U.S. and NATO military sources are reporting that Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive in challenging surveillance aircraft in international airspace. A number of analysts have pointed out that this kind of aggressive behavior, which started to ramp up again back in mid-2012, was typical of the Soviet/Russian military during the Cold War.
Statement from military analyst
“A chill has returned,” notes Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a interview with the Washington Post earlier this week. “It’s not a full blown Cold War but we are starting to see some new and troubling signs of Russian aggression.”
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Conley also said that the Arctic and Baltic regions have seen the most activity from the Russian military.
“Immediately following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in the subsequent months, we’ve seen a real uptick in Russian air incursions and maritime incursions,” she commented. “Yes, nations periodically perform exercises and test things. That’s normal. But the numbers that we have seen just in this 12-month period [are not normal]. Some of the air incursions have doubled. They are coming into airspace, or coming extremely close to airspace.”
More on Russia’s military confrontations
The U.S. has lodged an official complaint regarding an April 7 flyby incident where a Russian jet came within 20 feet of an American surveillance aircraft over the Baltic. Experts point out this was only the latest in a long string of military confrontations by Russia. There was a similar incident on April 23 of last year, when a Russian fighter jet intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance plane in international airspace close to Japan. On July 18th, 2014, an American surveillance plane was flying near Kaliningrad when Russian fighter jets forced the plane into Swedish airspace. Around seven months ago, Russian bombers had an exercise where they made simulated cruise missile strikes on the U.S. from international airspace close to Canada.
In October of last year, Sweden deployed several ships and helicopters in an attempt to catch a Russian submarine that entered into Swedish waters. Although the sub was not caught, in November, the non-NATO Scandinavian country announced that it had proof of the presence of the sub. Analysts note that Putin’s aggression is driving officially non-aligned Sweden into closer defense cooperation with NATO.
Norway has also seen a big increase in Russian jets coming close or entering its territory, up a notable 27% from 2013 to 2014 “Russia has created uncertainty about its intentions, so there is, of course, unpredictability,” Norwegian defense minister Ine Eriksen Soreide noted in a recent interview with The New York Times.
Projecting Russia’s military power
Conley went on on to say that: “For many years, we kind of discounted Russia’s conventional military. This is sending a message that Russia has not only modernized its military but is capable of projecting its power, so that we understand they see themselves in parity with the United States and NATO.”
Worryingly insecure and arguably unstable Vladimir Putin has made projecting power a priority since 2012. He has disingenuously invaded eastern Ukraine while claiming the U.S. is the aggressor. “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction,” Putin claimed said at a conference on Thursday. He also recently announced that Russia was planning to have its own space station functioning by 2023.
Conley was particularly perturbed by Putin’s recent claim that he was seriously considered deploying nuclear weapons to Crimea if Russia had met stronger resistance. “It’s this bravado and brinkmanship that is extremely concerning,” Conley noted.
Fear of an accident
The biggest worry for Conley is that “we’re going to have an accident here if we’re not careful.”. She specifically highlighted the two recent cases where Russian military jets turned off their transponders, making them effectively invisible to civilian traffic, which resulted in close calls with commercial airliners in the skies above Sweden and Denmark. Of note, NATO central command reported they saw 19 Russian military aircraft flying over international airspace in Europe in a two day period earlier this month.