Vladimir Putin is probably the most arrogant leader in the world—quite an accomplishment given that most world leaders fall into the extremely arrogant category.
Putin is ruthless and calculated. He leaves no move left to chance, and no act is without purpose. Spontaneity is not a part of the Putin gestalt. His actions speak as loudly as his words.
Russian aircrafts have taken to skirting close to U.S. airspace. It has become a game Putin enjoys.
In the most recent round of this game, four Russian planes flew very close to Alaska. Two of the planes were TU-95 Bear Bombers, planes so slow moving that they are considered dinosaurs in the aeronautics world, but they are still capable of carrying nuclear weapons. These old planes, however, were escorted by two brand new SU-35s, considered to be top-of-the-line Russian airpower. The planes are so new and so special that this was the first time the U.S. saw an SU-35 up close.
The U.S. sent two F-22 stealth jet fighters to escort the Russians away. It all took place about 50 miles from Alaska.
This is just the latest in a slew of similar Russian acts of arrogance, taunting and gaming.
Several weeks ago, for example, two of Russia’s TU-95 Bear Bombers, escorted by Russian IL-38 patrol planes, flew dangerously close to the U.S. and Canada. There were four separate Russian advances toward the U.S. in two days. In each case, like the most recent case, the U.S. responded by scrambling F-22 fighter jets. When the Russians came close to Canada, they were joined, and escorted away, by Canadian CF-18 Hornets.
Again, the Russian planes flew too closely and were escorted away without harm or incident. The Russians claim that their planes were close but still in international space. The U.S. concedes that the Russians never actually entered their space, but yes, they were very close.
According to an official statement issued by the Russian Defense Ministry, Russia “regularly carries out patrol missions above the neutral waters of the Arctic, the Atlantic, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean.” They also claim that, “All such missions are carried out in strict compliance with international regulations and with respect to national borders.”
Bear bombers are slow, cumbersome, huge planes. IL-38 planes are also very slow moving. They are the antithesis of the fighter jets the U.S. sent intercept and escort the Russians away from U.S. airspace. That gives us one clue that, for Putin, this is just a game. If the Russians were interested in serious warfare, they would have sent fighter jets. A second clue is that the Russians engaged in this game a total of five times.
By sending in their new SU-35s, however, Russia is escalating the tension. Putin is sending a message to the U.S. and, by extension, the rest of the free world. The message is that Russian military might has a long reach—it is not limited to regional conflicts.
A subtext of the message is that while the U.S. may choose to use Tomahawk missiles against Syria and deploy the mother of all bombs against terrorists in Afghanistan, Russia also has the capability of rallying their military might and reaching the entire world.
The Russians have argued that, when the U.S. attacked an air force base in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s use of sarin gas on civilians, the U.S. violated international law. Russia also argued that the bombing will have no impact. In a joint press conference with the foreign ministers of both Iran and Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “Attempts of this kind will never be a success. It will never happen.” He said, “We demand that the United States should respect the sovereignty of a state and avoid such actions that threaten the current world order.”
Putin is playing a game of cat and mouse. He is almost hoping that the U.S. will take the bait just as the Turks did when Turkey shot down a Russian bomber last year. The U.S. has not been taking the bait, just like they didn’t take the bait when the Russians repeatedly buzzed the U.S.S. Porter, a destroyer in the Black Sea and Persian Gulf.
Putin seems to be enjoying this game. He sent similar teases along the border of Japanese airspace in April. Much closer to home, the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov has recently been spotted twice off the coast of the U.S.
Remember, when Russia invaded Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, most of the world remained quiet. Now, they have entered the conflict in Syria and the Middle East and are building an infrastructure in Syria with a focus on the long term.
The Trump administration has taken umbrage with Russia’s actions and said that Russia should return Crimea and exit Ukraine. Trump has reacted very differently to world events than previous administrations did, and Putin is sending a message back.
Putin is saying “no way” to the United States. It is a loud and defiant “nyet.” Putin is warning Trump to not cross swords with the Russians, and it’s a classic example of Putin’s arrogance.
On the up side, cat and mouse is certainly a more controlled and calculated game than Russian roulette.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator, author the “The Micah Report,” online and host of the weekly TV show “Thinking Out Loud w Micah Halpern.” follow him on twitter: @MicahHalpern