Re-charging the superpower
While the U.S.-led coalition was busy bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces in Iraq and Syria, a recent probe by the Russian Air Force all over NATO air space and beyond brought back memories of the Cold War and further increased tension between Russia and the West. Last week, NATO officials reported an unusual increase in the activity of the Russian Air Force over the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as the Baltic, North and Black Seas. Since Oct. 28, NATO forces have monitored different groups of Russian combat aircrafts - consisting of long-range nuclear capable TU-95 bombers, a.k.a. the Bears, MIG-31 fighter jets and Ilyushin II-78 air-to-air refueling tanker aircrafts - over European airspace as far as Portugal.
While they occasionally filed flight plans with air traffic control authorities and used transponders, allowing them to be tracked, most of the time the Russian aircraft did not file flight plans or maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic controls and were not using transponders. Apart from the obvious strategic and military significance of this behavior, it poses a potential risk to civil aviation, as civilian air traffic controls cannot detect them or ensure there is no interference with civilian traffic. In each case, however, the NATO forces scrambled and intercepted them while they were entering NATO airspace, as standard operating procedure requires.
The large-scale Russian maneuvers have alerted all NATO members, as well as non-NATO states Finland, Sweden, and Japan, as such a wide scale probe has not been seen since the end of the Cold War. NATO forces have intercepted over 100 Russian aircraft this year, which is three times more than in 2013. Beside the sheer number of violations, particularly worrisome this time was the continuation of two TU-95 bombers on their way as far as west as Spain and Portugal on Oct. 29, after six accompanying fighter jets returned to Russia when tracked by Norwegian F-16s.
Though Russian intentions are yet to be made public, the simultaneous aggressive actions by Russian aircraft over European airspace are clearly an effort to probe the reaction times of NATO defenses. Russia wishes to convey a message to the U.S. and European countries, which have imposed sanctions against it in response to its annexation of Crimea, that it is capable of moving aircraft with nuclear weapons through the entire continent. It also challenges the decision of the NATO Summit in Wales on Sept. 4-5 to increase members’ defense budgets. Finally, it could be considered as a warning to Finland and Sweden, who are considering joining NATO, as well as reminding the Baltic States that they are still closer to Russia than the U.S.
Russia has been trying to regain its status as superpower and increase its presence in global politics since Vladimir Putin took over the presidency in 2000. His aim became apparent in discourse when he announced “the end of unipolar system” at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, and he recently reiterated his position challenging the U.S. domination of world politics on Oct. 24 in his speech to the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi.
Russian strong-arm tactics against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine this year, its involvement in cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007, as well as its creation of the Eurasian Custom Union, are all related to Putin’s goal. He has also been increasing the Russian military budget every year, despite economic troubles; the latest probes are just another theater for Russia to challenge NATO, more explicitly this time. However, they will no doubt tighten NATO resolve against Russia. What’s more, whether the Russian economy will be able to sustain the tension while energy prices are dropping significantly remains to be seen.