NATO cites 'unusual' Russian air activity around Europe
What is Vladimir Putin up to?
Nineteen Russian aircraft circled most of Europe yesterday in a demonstration of Russian air power that US officials say is a "show of force" by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The aircraft — at least 19 in all — offered reminders of Russian air power at a time of the worst relations between the West and Russia since the Cold War. Russian military aircraft have significantly increased their activity in Europe since the conflict in Ukraine began earlier this year, with NATO scrambling to intercept aircraft more than 100 times in 2014. But a NATO official said the scale of the latest incidents was the most provocative this year.
Over the Atlantic Ocean and the North, Black and Baltic seas, Russian bombers, fighter jets and tanker aircraft were detected flying in international airspace, NATO said. There were no incursions into national airspace, a violation of sovereignty that would have significantly amplified the seriousness of the four incidents, three of which took place on Wednesday.
“We’re raising it as an unusual level of activity,” said Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, a spokesman for NATO’s military command in Mons, Belgium. “The flights we’ve seen in the last 24 hours, the size of those flights and some of the flight plans are definitely unusual.”
U.S. officials regard the flights as a show of force by the Putin government. “It’s concerning because it’s moving in the wrong direction,” said one U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the air activity publicly. “It’s not helping to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. It’s not helping to improve relations between NATO and Russia. It’s not helping anybody.”
Smaller-scale incidents have also increased this year, approximately tripling from the same period in 2013, Janzen said.
In at least one of the four incidents, the aircraft had switched off their transponders and had not filed flight plans with civilian air traffic controllers. That means that civilian air traffic control cannot track them, potentially creating a risk for civilian planes.
Is Putin planning a military showdown with NATO and these flights are sophisticated probing operations designed to measure NATO response? It's a possibility that can't be dismissed. Putin has not tried to hide his hatred of the US and NATO in recent months. And he's been increasingly vocal about possible military moves into the Baltic states and eastern Europe. We've dismissed this kind of talk as bluster, but is it? If Putin thinks Obama and the west are so weak that they would stand aside rather than start a general European war over a Russian move into one of those countres, he may chance it. With the US engaged in Syria and Iraq, and most NATO country's militaries in poor shape. Putin may feel the time has never been better for Russia to recapture its former satellites.