On November 15, “NATO fighter jets intercepted two Russian military airplanes over the Baltic Sea, adding to a string of incidents amid a confrontation over Ukraine between the U.S., European Union and Russia”, Bloomberg reports. The incident took place “over neutral waters near Latvia’s territorial seas”, and Latvia’s armed forces said on their Twitter account that “Eurofighter Typhoons based in the Baltic region intercepted two Russian Su-27 fighter planes”[1]. Speaking about incidents of this sort, Alexey Muraviev, a Russia analyst from Curtin University, says Moscow had slowly increased displays of military might over the past six years, and sharply increased them since the crisis in Ukraine. “It’s a show of force”, Muraviev said. “[It sends the message] Don’t toy with us.  We are strong. We have the capability. We are there. What are you going to do at the end of the day?”[2].

A few days ago, the European Leadership Network (ELN), a group aiming at “building European capacity to meet challenges of the 21st century”, published a Policy Brief called Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014. the three authors of the ELN’s report – Thomas Frear, Łukasz Kulesa and Ian Kearns – say, in the opening statement of the Executive Summary of the text, that “since the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intensity and gravity of incidents involving Russian and Western militaries and security agencies has visibly increased. This ELN Policy Brief provides details of almost 40 specific incidents that have occurred over the last eight months… These events add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area”[3].

The same text clearly states that “apart from routine or near-routine encounters, the Brief identifies 11 serious incidents of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature, bringing a higher level risk of escalation. These include harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions. It also singles out 3 high risk incidents which in our view carried a high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation: a narrowly avoided collision between a civilian airliner and Russian surveillance plane, abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer, and a large-scale Swedish ‘submarine hunt’”[4]. The ELN’s text estimates that “even though direct military confrontation has been avoided so far, the mix of more aggressive Russian posturing and the readiness of Western forces to show resolve increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events”, and that “to perpetuate a volatile stand-off between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance and its partners in the circumstances described in this paper is risky at best. It could prove catastrophic at worst”[5].

Several dozen significant incidents of all sorts

The Policy Brief written by reports that “compared with the pre-March 2014 period, the situation has changed both with regards to the number of relevant incidents, and their gravity. Concerning the numbers, NATO officials indicated in late October 2014 that this year NATO states have already conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft, three times more than in 2013. Between January and September, the NATO Air Policing Mission conducted 68 ‘hot’ identification and interdiction missions along the Lithuanian border alone, and Latvia recorded more than 150 incidents of Russian planes approaching its airspace. Estonia recorded 6 violations of its airspace in 2014, as compared to 7 violations overall for the entire period between 2006 and 2013”[6].

Dealing with “serious incidents” which “go beyond the previously-established pattern of interaction and the near routine cases outlined below and involve close encounters of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature” and bring “a higher level of risk of escalation”, the text we are quoting here identified “11 such serious incidents. They include 4 separate cases of the harassment of U.S. and Swedish reconnaissance planes in international airspace by armed Russian fighters; 2 cases of Russian aircraft conducting close overflights over U.S. and Canadian ships in the Black Sea; Russian aircraft violating Swedish airspace on a mock ‘bombing raid’ mission; a mock attack on the Danish island of Bornholm; the practicing of cruise missile attacks against the US mainland; boarding and detention of a Lithuanian fishing vessel accused of illegal fishing in the Barents Sea; and a massive outburst of Russian aviation activity along NATO borders in late October. Each of these incidents could have evolved into a more serious situation, both in terms of possible casualties or broader political and diplomatic consequences”[7]. A few examples might be, we think, more than enough to better understand what we are speaking about: On April 12, 2014, a “Russian fighter made 12 passes” over “the American warship the USS Cook in the Black Sea.7 Such aggressive behaviour, if repeated by an armed aircraft, could have resulted in the ship commander targeting the aircraft in an act of self-defence”[8]. A few months later, in June, several “armed Russian aircraft approached the heavily populated Danish island of Bornholm before breaking off in what appears to have been a simulated attack. The Danish intelligence service described the incident as ‘of a more offensive character than observed in recent years’”[9]. And, in early September 2014, in what we think it was the most dangerous and overtly provocative of all these incidents, “Russian strategic bombers in the Labrador Sea near Canada practiced cruise missile strikes on the United States. The Russian aircraft stayed outside of Canada’s ADIZ but this was still a provocative move in light of the NATO summit ongoing at the time. Cruise missiles launched from the Labrador Sea would have Ottawa, New York, Washington, Chicago, and the Norfolk Naval Base in range”[10]. At sea, one of the most significant incidents occurred “on 7 August 2014”, when “anti-submarine forces of Russia’s Northern Fleet reportedly expelled an American submarine from the Barents Sea”[11].

Russian probable goals

The study we are speaking about also presents, with al necessary details, the most probable goals of such Russian actions. “The Russian armed forces and security agencies seem to have been authorized and encouraged to act in a much more aggressive way towards NATO countries, Sweden and Finland. Since this appears to be deliberate policy, Russia is probably pursuing multiple objectives”, clearly state the three authors. Speaking about different types of Russian goals, they say: “At the military level, it may be initiating and using such incidents to observe patterns of response and test the preparedness of specific elements of national and allied defence systems, as well as levels of cooperation between NATO Allies and partners”. But the actions of the Russian armed forces also have political goals: “Perhaps equally important, Russian actions may serve propaganda-related and political aims. They serve as a demonstration of Russia’s capability to effectively use force for intimidation and coercion, particularly against its immediate neighbours. With regard to non-NATO Finland and Sweden, they may bring home the message that further integration or membership in NATO would cause further Russian harassment”. And, mainly “For NATO countries directly affected, these incidents are meant to undermine the confidence that the Alliance would be able to support them during a crisis. Some Russian actions seem also to be synchronized with major diplomatic events in Russia-West relations, such as a visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Central Europe, the Ukrainian President’s visit to Canada and the U.S., or the NATO Summit in Wales. Other actions still, seem intended to send a more general message of deterrence and demonstrate that Russia has the means and willingness to confront NATO and U.S. forces and to retaliate against the latters’ territories in the event of a conflict”[12].

In our opinion, all these aggressive and overtly provocative incidents staged by Russia might have, at least in the long run, a major goal at the level we usually call ‘grand strategy’. This might be continuously testing – and continuously eroding, if possible – the political will of nations (or of public opinion) in NATO countries. The decision-makers in Kremlin know – and understand – that contemporary Western nations ‘get tired’, at least in some occasions, mainly if they are confronted with too long conflicts of all sorts. The ‘mood’ of the American and British voters as a result of the very long military involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq is an extensive example clearly proving, with all necessary details, such a hypothesis.



[1] Ott UMMELAS, “NATO Jets Intercept Two Russian Fighter Planes Over Baltic Sea”, Bloomberg, November 15, 2014, at the Internet address

[2] Patrick BEGLEY, “Why Vladimir Putin is escalating Russia's military aggression before G20”, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 14, 2014, at the Internet address

[3] Thomas FREAR, Łukasz KULESA and Ian KEARNS, “Policy brief: Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014”, European Leadership Network, November 2014, .pdf text accessed on November 16, 2014, at the Internet address, p. B (2 of 21)

[4] Ibidem, p. B (2 of 21)

[5] Ibidem, p. B (2 of 21)

[6] Ibidem, pp. 1-2 (3-4 of 21)

[7] Ibidem, pp. 3-4 (5-6 of 21)

[8] Ibidem, p. 4 (6 of 21)

[9] Ibidem, p. 4 (6 of 21)

[10] Ibidem, p. 5 (7 of 21)

[11] Ibidem, p. 8 (10 of 21)

[12] Ibidem, pp. 9-10 (11-12 of 21)

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