Putin's War Games Are Setting Off Alarms Worldwide

A Russian Tupolev Tu-95 long-range bomber aircraft is seen near the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in 2008 Photograph by U.S. Navy via AP Photo

Russia’s military is engaging in “dangerous brinkmanship,” according to a new report documenting dozens of recent incidents in which Russian warplanes and ships have taken aggressive or provocative actions, often in locations far away from the fighting in Ukraine.

The report by the European Leadership Network, a London-based group including former European political and military leaders, says the actions, taken together, present a “highly disturbing picture.” According to the report, the incidents include “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.”

On two occasions in the past week, NATO fighter jets have scrambled to intercept Russian spy planes flying near the Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania, both NATO members. NATO says it has intercepted 100 Russian fighter jets this year along Europe’s fringes, three times the total in 2013. The report notes a dramatic increase in actions by Russia since last March, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea touched off a showdown with the West.

An interactive map in the report describes nearly 40 “sensitive incidents” over the past eight months, most in Europe. On Oct. 31, Royal Air Force jets intercepted Russian aircraft that approached British airspace. Russian planes have violated the airspace of Estonia, the Netherlands, and Sweden in recent months, the report says, and on Oct. 3, a Russian fighter flew “within meters” of a Swedish surveillance plane in the Baltic region. Separately, a Canadian frigate was buzzed by Russian planes in the Black Sea, while a Russian submarine is suspected to have entered Swedish coastal waters during October.

However, other incidents took place thousands of miles away. For example, Russian bombers in the Labrador Sea off the coast of Canada practiced cruise-missile strikes against the U.S. in early September. Also in September, Russian military jets made repeated incursions into U.S. and Canadian air-defense zones in the Arctic. Last spring, a Russian military plane was spotted 50 miles off the coast of California, the closest such approach since the Cold War.

What’s Russia up to? Bloomberg’s Marc Champion, a longtime Russia watcher, says President Vladimir Putin wants to remind Europe “that Russia is a major nuclear power willing to use force,” and to show the U.S. that opposing Russian encroachment in Ukraine or other post-Soviet states isn’t worth the risk. Putin also wants to warn Finland and Sweden, which aren’t NATO members, “against trying to join the alliance,” Champion writes. Putin’s recent actions have a practical goal, too: to test NATO defenses and help upgrade Russia’s military by providing “real world training and flight hours.”

The result, according to the European Leadership Network report, is a “volatile stand-off” between Russia and NATO. With both sides possessing nuclear weapons, the situation “is risky at best. It could prove catastrophic at worst,” the report says. It calls on Russia to “urgently re-evaluate the costs and risks of continuing its more assertive military posture,” and says both sides should “improve military-to-military communication and transparency.”

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