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.