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Putin's dangerous game
Russia's Dangerous Adventures in NATO Airspace

Though the public’s attention is shifting to the Middle East, the standoff with Russia remains no less serious as it slips off the front pages. Even though the ceasefire appears to be holding, more or less, in Ukraine, Russia’s provocations in the region continue apace. As the FT reminds us, Russian military aircraft continue to conduct frequent incursions into NATO airspace—particularly over the wary Baltic states:

Nato fighters policing Baltic airspace were scrambled 68 times along Lithuania’s borders this year, by far the highest count in more than 10 years. Latvia registered 150 “close incidents”, cases where Russian aircraft were found approaching and observed for risky behaviour. Estonia said its sovereign airspace had been violated by Russian aircraft five times this year, nearing the total count of seven over the previous eight years. […]

“[We] can attribute some of these flights to an increase in Russian military exercises and activity along Nato’s eastern borders but in many cases the Russian military is being provocative by probing airspace they are not authorised to enter,” said one senior Nato military officer, who confirmed there was significant concern over the increased number of incidents. “As in Ukraine, Russian aggressiveness in the air adds to the tension between the international community and the Kremlin.”

Unlike Ukraine, of course,  the Baltic states are full-fledged NATO members—NATO members that nonetheless have sizable Russian minorities. Putin’s people have already shown a willingness to encourage an uprising of Russian-speakers in the Baltics, with a member of his foreign ministry telling Russian-speakers in Riga last week that Russia would provide “serious support” to those who feel themselves and their language threatened by “neo-Nazism.” (Sound familiar?)

The Western leaders’ biggest blunder during this crisis was talking a big game on Ukraine without being at all prepared to back up their promises with any concrete commitments. Putin has very successfully called their bluff. Does Putin now truly believe that NATO is in fact a paper tiger, and that it would stand idly by if armed Russian spetsnaz started showing up in restive areas of Latvia? Does NATO have contingency plans for dealing with the kind of slow-moving non-war disguised as an independence movement that has the full backing of Russia’s armed forces just beyond the border? These are the sorts of questions that, we hope, are keeping Western policymakers and strategists up at night. They certainly are doing nothing for our own beauty sleep.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The Western leaders’ biggest blunder during this crisis was talking a big game on Ukraine without being at all prepared to back up their promises with any concrete commitments.”

    No, Western Europe’s biggest blunder was to loot their militaries to fund their wasteful welfare states. Now their militaries can’t fight outside their own borders, because they are so weak.

    • Bruce

      We enabled the Europeans to do that by providing for their defense. The military will not give up power any easier than politicians. To close all the foreign bases that should be closed would deprive people of power. They will fight it and as we see, they win. That said, the point of this post was accurate. When you make false promises, there is a price to be paid for it.

      • Corlyss

        “The military will not give up power any easier than politicians. To close all the foreign bases that should be closed would deprive people of power.”

        I think perhaps you don’t understand how that degradation process works. First of all, you reorganize the military to tighten executive control over everything about the military, primarily thru the budget process. That began with the All-Volunteer Army, and really was cemented by the Goldwater-Nichols act when the Congress surrendered its fiefdoms over the military to the executive and OMB. Then you find junior officers who are malleable, perhaps reluctant at first to trade their warrior character for advancement guaranteed by cooperating with the executive’s ambition, but who “recognize the handwriting on the wall.” This is what happened under Carter and Clinton. Bush Sr. inherited Reagan’s defense build-up, much of which was really a domestic stimulus in disguise, and that build-up began to be dismantled by Clinton as soon a he entered office. Bush Jr. really didn’t have much impact on the military’s downward trajectory post-Gulf War I and post-collapse of the Soviet Union. You take away the principal rationale for the enormous defense structure, that leaves the military in a mission crisis, at which time it is relatively easy to plunder the defense budget to expand the welfare state and “improve” the delivery of its services. Now the Progressives have everything they need in place: lack of rationale for a large investment in the military, a pliant flag officer corps made up largely of unimaginative time-servers and bureaucrats, and no reason to prevent large transfers of money from defense to the welfare state.

        Jackson had it exactly right. The thing that makes it all particularly dangerous now is that the Europeans could play that game as long as America was a stable, predictable ally; but nobody is there to backstop the Europeans, or America, when America follows the Europeans. We’re in uncharted territory except that we know from the interregnum of 1919-1939 that things go badly for everyone when the cops don’t walk the beat.

    • Corlyss

      Well, they sure as hell won’t fight within their own borders, either.

  • adk

    “The Western leaders…”
    Can we please stop referring to this current bunch of pathetic Western presidents, prime ministers, chancellors as “leaders”? Take any of the current most important real world problems — slow economic growth, Islamic terrorism, disintegration of the Middle East, unfinished war in Afghanistan, Russian aggressive militarism, Iran’s nuclear program, illegal immigration– and name a single one of those “leaders” (or any group of) who leads anyone on anything.

    They are all very small men and by comparison Putin looks big and strong.

    • Duperray

      Exact: There is no Europe foreign policy, the Thatcher’s, De Gaulle’s,.. passed away. Haven’t you already noticed that present ex-Eastern Europe leaders are far better, convinced and resolute than the puppets of western Europe?

  • Xenophon

    I honestly think we should just cautiously ignore Russia. These air flights, at least to me, serve a duel purpose. They keep us kind of jumpy, and they play well for the folks at home. Fact of the matter is that Russia is a corrupt, autocratic mess. It has a negative birthrate. The only real export to speak of is its natural gas reserves. Power is being placed in the hands of a smaller and smaller circle of Putin supports. Nationalism as a force is potent for keeping people together and focused on an outside threat; but in the absence of those neo-nazis actually existing, I firmly believe its just a matter of time until Russia follows the footsteps of its predecessor state.

    • Duperray

      Just take opposite seat: In 1962, Cuba missile crisis, US airplanes made a hell of observation flights ! As it is stupid to raise a NATO base just along Russia baltic border, don’t be surprised about what occurs. From now on, these baltic states become obvious targets while before they were of no interest.
      What’s NATO or baltic states benefit?
      I understand why so much of US opinion does not understad Obama policy.

      • Xenophon

        I think that the situation has shifted between Cuba and now. I do take your point, but that was also at a time when both the U.S and the U.S.S.R were actively working towards keeping dominoes propped up

        • Duperray

          You are right, Cuba misiles were nuclear… Anyway, we seem to agree that each superpower needs to have around its borders a safety demilitarized composed of non aligned small countries, to keep everybody quiet. US has it with pro-US Canada, Mexico and so on.
          Now, I want to address the ticklish China Sea situation where this large country can ask same thing. Within enough years, Japan will be the Canada of China and Korea’s the Mexico for instance. After peace is settled there, probably with a global agreement to share undersea resources, arises the difficulty of US bases Okinawa, Guam,…
          It seems future is shaky there..

          • Xenophon

            I’m not so sure about the long term stability of China either, but that has more to do with my grounding in history than anything else. They are significantly more stable than Russia is at the moment, and appears to be ascendent in both economic and political spheres. They’ve achieved something of an economic miracle over the course of the last twenty years, and lifted a hell of a lot of people out of agrarian poverty. But this was accomplished at great cost.

            I look at what has happened when other societies have industrialized rapidly, and the general result has been an ascendent middle class who begins to desire both freedom, and participation within the political process. That’s why I’m watching what’s going on in Hong Kong, as well as the PRC leadership’s attempts to hold cronies accountable for their corruption with fascination.

            Either the PRC modernizes down the road of liberal democracy and stability, or they attempt to maintain their society as it stands now. The latter option will most likely come at great political cost, and start exasperating the little flair-ups of civil strife that are going on.

  • Corlyss

    “Dangerous Adventures in NATO Airspace”
    Surely you jest!

  • Rick Johnson

    Obama is more likely to be kept awake worrying about his golf swing than the fate of the Baltic States.

  • Oleg Babushkin

    The author forgot to mention that flying Russian aircraft, is a response to the flights of United States spy plane.

    • B-Sabre

      So, an American aircraft flying in international airspace, which then has to violate the airspace of a neutral, third-party country vaildates the deliberate entry of Russian aircraft into the airspace of a NATO country? Fascinating.

      I supposed that also justifies Russians violating Swedish airspace as well…

      • Oleg Babushkin

        The RC-135 Rivet Joint fled into nearby Swedish airspace without that country’s permission, a U.S. military official told CNN. The airplane may have gone through other countries’ airspace as well, though it’s not clear if it had permission to do so.

        The spy plane crew felt so concerned about the radar tracking that it wanted to get out of the area as quickly as possible, the official said. The quickest route away from the Russians took them into Swedish airspace. The U.S. official acknowledged that was done without Swedish military approval.

        • B-Sabre

          You’re avoiding the point – the US aircraft entered another’s country airspace when forced to by Russian actions. In other words, the actions of party A (Russia) led to party B (US) violating the airspace of party C (Sweden). As far as I know, that intrusion has not been repeated.
          Is somebody unknown chasing Russian aircraft into Baltic airspace? And you didn’t address the fact that last week the Swedes were complaining to the Russians about two separate instances of Russian aircraft violating their airspace. Did the US chase those planes into Swedish airspace?

  • Arkeygeezer

    In all probability, Russia will challenge NATO in Latvia. Latvia is a member of NATO Unlike the Ukraine, the U.S. has treaty obligations to Latvia. It will be interesting to see if the U.S. and Europe are truly interested in their own defense, or if they will try to further appease the Russians. It will be decision time.

  • Nevis07

    doesn’t seem like they have a plan. I’d suggest a mirrored foreign policy with each Russian provocation. If they start stirring up trouble via subversion in NATO countries, then we should do the same. If they have flight incursions, then oops we happened to do the same thing to them. I don’t want it to come to that, but Putin needs to know that his actions do have consequences.

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