It’s happened again. Last Friday, a Russian Air Force fighter jet intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea, in international airspace, and engaged in a dangerous game of high-speed intimidation. The message was clear: get out of here. At one point, the Russian jet did a barrel roll over the American plane at a distance of just 25 feet, a hazardous act that risked the lives of all the aviators involved on both sides.
This was the fourth such provocative incident between the Russian and American militaries in the Baltic in as many weeks. The April 29 encounter featured a Russian Su-27, a single-seat fighter capable of flying at twice the speed of sound and famed for its impressive maneuverability. Its quarry, a U.S. Air Force RC-135, was its opposite in every way: slow, lumbering, unarmed and incapable of evasive maneuvers. The military equivalent of the Boeing 707, the venerable RC-135 is neither fast nor lethal but carries a crew of electronic intercept specialists. In layman’s terms, it’s a spy plane.
Many militaries worldwide use spy planes like the RC-135 to collect electronic intelligence and, as long as they stay in international airspace, dangerous encounters are rare. However, last Friday’s incident was very hazardous indeed. Executing a barrel roll on top of the American four-engine jet at a distance of just 25 feet—half of the Su-27’s wingspan—ran a serious risk of a collision, which would have happened if either aircrew lost control of its plane for a mere fraction of a second. In the event of a mid-air collision, the Su-27’s pilot in theory could escape his wrecked plane by ejecting out of it, but the RC-135’s crew of as many as two dozen would likely be doomed.
Something nearly identical happened over the Baltic on April 14, when another Su-27 intercepted an RC-135 in international airspace, approached it aggressively, closed to within 50 feet of the American plane’s wingtip, then executed a barrel roll over it. One week before that, another Su-27 got dangerously close to an RC-135 over international waters in the Baltic. Such hazardous moves were castigated by the Department of Defense as “unsafe and unprofessional,” far more aggressive than the normal encounter of this kind. When NATO fighters intercept Russian spy planes and bombers, which frequently come right up to national airspace (and sometimes over the line), they come close—but not so close as to risk a collision—to send a message. However, hot-dogging and similar dangerous maneuvers, which incur a risk of mid-air catastrophe, are banned by NATO air forces.
The Russians play by different rules, as was evidenced on April 11 and 12, when the Russian Air Force tried to intimidate the USS Donald Cook, a destroyer on a training mission in the Baltic Sea with Polish NATO partners. Two Su-24 attack jets made repeated passes at the Cook right “on the deck,” some as close as 30 feet from the destroyer, rattling its crew. One of the Russian planes flew so close to the sea that its engines created a surface wake. Needless to add, one false move by either Su-24 pilot would have sent his plane hurtling into the Baltic—and possibly right into the USS Cook. While neither Russian jet was carrying visible bombs or missiles, the Pentagon considered the incident to be a “simulated attack” on an American warship.
Such incidents send an indelible message that the Kremlin wants us out of that contested region.
Although the Kremlin protested that it was the Cook, not its air force, that was acting aggressively, in truth the destroyer was more than twice as close to Poland than it was to any Russian territory, in this case the Kaliningrad exclave, part of what was once Prussia, nested between Poland and Lithuania, that has been controlled by Moscow since 1945. Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin wanted to send a message to the Americans and NATO that they need to stay far away from any Russian cities or military bases, no matter what international law may say about freedom of navigation.
That message was reinforced by last month’s RC-135 incidents. In response, the Russian Ministry of Defense blamed the Americans for these problems, asserting about the April 29 incident that it had done nothing wrong, alleging the RC-135 was flying with its transponder turned off to hide its presence from civilian radar (something which Russian military aircraft do routinely). “The U.S. Air Force has two solutions: either not to fly near our borders or to turn the transponder on for identification,” stated the Kremlin pointedly, adding piquantly: “We are already starting to get used to the insults of the Pentagon.”
We’re now in Cold War 2.0 with Mr. Putin and his regime, as I’ve explained in this column, and such dangerous airborne encounters, as well as the diplomatic trash-talk that follows them, inevitably invoke the last Cold War, when such cat-and-mouse games were a regular occurrence. Sometimes people died. Of particular concern is the fact that these reborn Russian antics are not confined to the Baltic Sea. The USS Donald Cook was buzzed by Russian warplanes in the Black Sea in April 2014, another provocative incident that took place in international water.
That same month, an RC-135 flying in international airspace north of Japan, 60 miles off the coast of Russia’s Far East, came alarmingly close to colliding with an Su-27 fighter that, in a move the Pentagon termed “reckless,” closed to within 100 feet of the American plane’s cockpit and showed off its missiles—a gesture the RC-135’s crew took as threatening. On April 21 of this year, a MiG-31 jet fighter of the Russian Air Force aggressively intercepted a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime patrol plane (a modified Boeing 737) off the Kamchatka peninsula, north of Japan, closing to within 50 feet of the navy jet while it cruised in international airspace.
That said, it’s clear that the Baltic region is where Russian touchiness has reached new heights. Neither is the Kremlin’s desire to send aggressive messages confined to American recipients. On several occasions in 2014, unarmed Swedish spy planes were intercepted by Su-27 fighters over the Baltic, in international airspace, with Russian fighter jets closing to between 30 and 50 feet of the Swedish aircraft, intimidating and reckless gestures that unnerved Stockholm.
Such incidents, particularly last month’s Baltic encounters between the Russian Air Force and the American military, send an indelible message that the Kremlin wants us out of that contested region, which Moscow considers part of its rightful sphere of influence—a viewpoint in no way shared by Russia’s neighbors.
The Obama administration has been willing to all but ignore them for the ‘greater good’ of peace with Russia.
There is calculation behind Russian moves, however, particularly a desire to keep Sweden and Finland neutral. Increasingly fearful of their hostile neighbor, both Stockholm and Helsinki are pondering joining NATO after spending the last Cold War as neutrals. The Kremlin’s reaction to this possibility has been nothing short of hysterical. Last week, a Finnish government study conceded that joining the Atlantic Alliance would cause a crisis with their huge neighbor. Yet since only something like a quarter of Finns favor NATO membership, based on recent opinion polling, that crisis may be averted.
Sweden is a different matter since these days more Swedes favor joining NATO than remaining neutral. Aggressive Russian moves have provoked deep fears, especially a 2013 probe by Russian heavy bombers that both Swedish intelligence and NATO assessed was actually a training mission for a nuclear strike on Sweden.
Last week, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, bluntly stated that Sweden, not Russia, was responsible for the current chilly relations between the countries and, if Sweden were so foolish as to join NATO, Russia would act—with its military, not its diplomats. This was a threat that nobody in Stockholm possessing open eyes could fail to understand.
Russian aggressiveness in the Baltic region has become the “new normal.” This goes beyond Swedes and Americans. Estonian intelligence has recently warned that Kremlin spy services, which have long spied on that small country aggressively, are now flying drones over Estonian territory, openly collecting intelligence inside the airspace of a NATO country. Estonia is the Atlantic Alliance’s front line against a resurgent Russia—and exactly where many fear a risky Russian provocation could go drastically wrong.
Small wonder that General Phillip Breedlove, the outgoing Supreme Allied Commander Europe, NATO’s military boss, has just pleaded with the Atlantic Alliance and with higher-ups, military and civilian, in Washington, to start taking the threat of Russian aggression and intimidation seriously, before it is too late. It’s no secret that Gen. Breedlove for years has all but begged the Obama White House to get serious about the threat to NATO posed by Mr. Putin, to no avail.
Aggressive Russian probes, including aerial provocations, have grown much more frequent since the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014. Since then, when Cold War 2.0 really commenced, Mr. Putin’s regime has used such risky games to intimidate NATO into inaction, and so far it seems to be working. While Warsaw demanded an explanation from Moscow of the USS Cook incident, since the Polish navy was on-site when Russian jets showed up, Washington offered mealy-mouthed words of protest, followed by zero action. Similarly, the Polish defense minister has described these Russian provocations as a dangerous effort to divide NATO, while the Obama administration has been willing to all but ignore them for the “greater good” of peace with Russia.
But does Russia actually want peace with NATO? While there is no evidence that Mr. Putin seeks great power war, much less a nuclear conflict with the West, it’s clear that he is willing to run truly serious risks to get what he wants. April’s aggressive games played by the Russian Air Force represent “an attempt to scare America and prove that the entire Baltic region, the whole Baltic, is ours” explained Pavel Felgenhauer, one of Russia’s premier defense experts. “This may ultimately lead to war,” he added, since this is a dangerous undertaking that risks death and armed conflict.
To see how that might play out, recall the Hainan Island incident of April 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E spy plane in international airspace off China’s southern coast. The Chinese pilot, who engaged the EP-3E aggressively and recklessly, was killed but the crippled American plane limped to Hainan, where it landed on Chinese soil, compromising its intelligence gathering gear but saving the lives of its 24 crew. An international incident resulted and the American sailors were detained for 10 days before being released, once Washington half-apologized for the spy mission.
That was a happy ending of sorts. Any similar incident with Russia now would likely have a less satisfactory outcome. The Chinese pilot who caused the 2001 crash was a known hot-dog and troublemaker, while aggressive Russian aerial games clearly reflect Kremlin policy, not aviators gone wrong. Moreover, American relations with China in 2001 were positively chummy compared to the frosty ties between Washington and the Kremlin today.
It’s frighteningly easy to see how an aerial collision between Russian and American warplanes could rapidly devolve into a genuine international crisis—one that Moscow seems unafraid of provoking. What happens then is anybody’s guess. What’s a near-certainty is that, if dangerous Kremlin aerial games continue, eventually some pilot, somewhere, will screw up and people will die.