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NATO Came Within 20 Feet Of War With Russia

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Reports claim that last month the world avoided what could have turned into World War Three by a matter of just 20 feet.

An Estonian military official told Ahmed Rashid of The New York Review of Books just how close we came to catastrophe when he revealed that a Russian fighter jet only just avoided a mid-air collision with a U.S. military plane. The narrowly avoided incident could have set off a chain of events which led to the invasion of Estonia and a descent into World War Three.

Near misses now all too frequent

Near misses between Russian jets and Western military and civilian aircraft have been occurring with alarming regularity. Dozens of incidents have been recorded by the European Leadership Network (ELN) since Russia annexed the Crimea in March 2014. The organization claims that at least 11 were “serious incidents of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature,” and some, like that of April 7, had a “high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and Western states.”

Incidents have taken place across Europe, as well as near to the coastline of the U.S. and Canada. The situation is particularly worrying for the small Baltic state of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which Russian jets can reach within minutes of takeoff from the nearby Russian territory of Kaliningrad. The idea of an accidental plane crash is what worries the Baltic states the most, given the fact that many Russian military planes fly with their transponders turned off.

Dangerous incursions into the airspace of the Baltic trio occur almost every day, and Russian pilots are said to be “almost kamikaze” in their behavior. Despite having the highest standard of living of the states of the former Soviet Union and becoming the only ones to join the European Union, the worry of the Russian threat weighs heavily on the Baltic republics.

NATO officials and national presidents alike are concerned by the threat that Russia poses to world peace, and worried how the Baltic states now constitute the front line in an increasingly risky conflict. In such a tense standoff, the thought of a plane crash causing all-out war is not so far-fetched.

The specter of nuclear weapons

If the threat of conventional warfare was not bad enough, talk then turns to the issue of nuclear weapons. Russia has increased its defense budget by around 50% in recent years, with a significant proportion of that money being invested in nuclear weapons. Officials such as Radoslaw Sikorski, Marshal of the Polish parliament, have voiced concerns that Russia’s military strategy now appears to allow the first use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons have become an acceptable subject of debate within Russia thanks to the Kremlin’s portrayal of the conflict in Ukraine as a question of Western aggression against a pro-Russian population. Media outlets are now pushing the idea that nuclear weapons are just another part of the Russian arsenal, and worrying new opinion polls reveal that around 40% of young Russians believe that Russia would emerge victorious from a nuclear war against the U.S. and Europe.

Russian public opinion on nuclear war evolving

According to NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, the alliance has been preparing for Russia’s nuclear threat for a long time. Military officials are worried that Russia might use small scale tactical nuclear weapons against a European city or a tank division in order to bring an end to a conflict without risking all-out nuclear war.

The new rhetoric on nuclear weapons that is emerging from Russia is disturbing, and highlights a worrying progression towards the normalization of nuclear warfare as a viable military strategy. Last year Russian media carried statements which claimed that Russia is “the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.”

Increasingly tense standoff in the Baltics

Despite the chilling threats, the greatest danger at the present moment is presented by Russian fighter jets, and it is not clear whether NATO has a strategy for managing these provocative incursions. Up to this point the main response has been to scramble the alliance’s own fighter jets to show Russia that it will defend Baltic airspace.

Over 100 intercepts were made in 2014, and the situation appears to be deteriorating. Neither diplomacy, sanctions, veiled threats or appeasement have had any effect on the unpredictable Putin, and military exercises by both side only serve to exacerbate the situation. Baltic politicians are pressing the U.S. to permanently deploy its troops in the region, but so far Washington has resisted the idea.

Deliberate near misses by Russian pilots look set to continue, and we can but hope that a plane crash doesn’t send the world spiraling into World War Three.

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Brendan Byrne

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