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Putin's Top Gun Strategy Is Reckless

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Russia seems not to have learned the central lesson of the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine: That reckless strategies produce accidents, and the costs can be huge.

Sweden and Denmark hauled in their respective Russian ambassadors on Monday to complain that an airliner had to change course to avoid collision with a Russian spy plane after taking off from Copenhagen on Friday. The Russian aircraft had turned off its transponder to remain invisible to air traffic controllers. This incident followed a nearer miss in March, in precisely the same circumstances.

It's no mystery what would have happened had there been an accident: We know from MH17. The airliner was shot out of the sky in July, killing more than 300 passengers and crew. Moscow has spent the intervening months trying, and failing, to demonstrate -- contrary to the available evidence -- that the Ukrainian army or air force shot down the plane, rather than separatists using an anti-aircraft missile provided by Russia.

The damage to Putin has been enormous: Absent the MH-17 tragedy, and Putin's obstinate response to it, the European Union is unlikely to have achieved the unanimity needed to impose meaningful economic sanctions on Russia, less than two weeks later. But Russia hasn't backed down.

Russia’s response to Friday’s incident was to say that the two planes weren't dangerously close (which appears to be true) and that its spy plane wasn't in Swedish airspace (which may well also be true). Yet those defenses miss the point.

Russia has been repeatedly buzzing North Atlantic Treaty Organization airspace in recent months, especially in the Baltic region. The alliance says it has had to scramble to intercept Russian military aircraft 400 times this year. This inevitably creates the risk of an accident, as the Russian planes often have their transponders switched off. (And if that happens, Russia won't be able to pretend it wasn't involved -- one of its planes would go down, too.)

Of course, during the Cold War, Soviet aircraft engaged in this kind of behavior as a matter of routine. Yet those days were different in two ways. First, the skies were less crowded with civilian traffic. Fewer than 10 million air passengers took off or landed in Sweden annually until 1988. Today, that figure is three times higher.

Swedish domestic and international air passenger numbers, 1970-2009.
International Civil Aviation Authority

The other difference was that Soviet pilots, their commanders and their Western counterparts were used to dealing with these risks. They had established ground rules for dealing with them. But those protocols fell into disuse, while the pilots who used them have retired. Nor is it clear today how Russia would respond if one of its jets was shot down within NATO airspace.

That Putin is ready to take such risks is no doubt an expression of a broader strategy, which is to impress on the Baltic and Nordic countries that Russia is the region’s great power and that it holds their airspace and no doubt the territorial claims they are filing to resources in the Arctic in disdain. It is a risk-laden policy that, as MH-17 suggest, can end badly for innocent civilians as well as the Russian interests it is supposed to promote.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net