Reset: Russia, West close to military confrontation?

A report by the European Leadership Institute chronicles 40 incidents in the last 8 months where Russian and Western military forces came dangerously close to a confrontation.

Taken individually and as they happened, it doesn't seem that alarming.  But the aggregation of incidents suggests that Russian president Vladimir Putin is testing Western defenses in much the same way his Soviet predecessors tested NATO during the Cold War.

It's a dangerous game with unknowable consequences.

New York Times:

“Bloodshed in Europe and the Middle East against the backdrop of a breakdown in dialogue between the major powers is of enormous concern,” Mr. Gorbachev said at the Brandenburg Gate in the German capital where President Ronald Reagan once urged him to “tear down this wall.”

“The world is on the brink of a new Cold War,” Mr. Gorbachev said. “Some are even saying that it’s already begun.”

While it does not use quite the same language, the report on Monday said that “to perpetuate a volatile standoff 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,” it said.

The report traced a turning point in the number and gravity of incidents involving Russian forces to March. By October, it said, NATO officials had already reported three times as many intercepts of Russian aircraft as in all of 2013.

Those included a close encounter on June 17, when warplanes of the British Royal Air Force were scrambled in response to the presence of “multiple Russian aircraft in international airspace.”

The incidents recalled encounters during the Cold War, when Russian long-range bombers routinely inspected Western defenses and when the United States and its NATO allies just as frequently conducted surveillance and exploratory flights along the Soviet periphery.

In the report, the European Leadership Network said the episodes had brought “a higher level risk of escalation” from maneuvers, including “harassment of reconnaissance planes, close overflights over warships, and Russian ‘mock bombing raid’ missions.”

But it singled out three episodes, including the close call with the Scandinavian passenger jet and the reported presence of a submarine off Sweden, as the events “carried a high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation.”

The third episode, it said, was the abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer in September, immediately after President Obama visited the region and repeated American security assurances to the Baltic States.

The question confronting our analysts and policy makers is, how far Putin is willing to go?  The Russian president would appear to have become more unbalanced and bellicose since the annexation of Crimea.  But does he want to go to war?  As a practical military matter, Putin may be unable to pull the trigger.  Russia cannot project its power very far from its borders and is a shadow of what it was in the heyday of the Soviet Union.  He can cause a lot of mischief in Ukraine, the Baltics, and other former Soviet satellites that border Russia, but seriously threaten NATO?  Not likely.

These overflights are Putin's way of throwing his weight around.  The problem is, he is dealing with amateurs in the U.S., and the two sides might blunder into a war neither wants.

Another reason 2017 can't get here soon enough.


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