Portugal has once more had to scramble jets to intercept Russian strategic bombers off its shores today, following hot on the heels of a similar series of sorties by Russian planes off NATO allies’ shores this past Wednesday. NATO and Portuguese officials have been downplaying the significance of these events, according to Reuters:
“This means that the system worked again … The Air Force is ready to carry out these missions every time that the NATO air command requests this,” he said.Local media said the Russian planes involved were two Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers and that they flew near the approach path for commercial aircraft to Lisbon international airport.On Thursday, following a similar incident the previous day, Foreign Minister Rui Machete said the Russian attitude was “not very likeable”, but added that its “significance is not worth exaggerating”.On Wednesday, NATO aircraft, including Portuguese, tracked Russian aircraft over the Atlantic, the Black Sea and the Baltic. There has been no violation of NATO air space, but such high numbers of sorties and the fact that the planes are pushing further south are unusual, according to the Western alliance.
As we’ve noted, this is indeed not unprecedented behavior for Russia even in peacetime, but its increased frequency at a time of such heightened international tensions is an unwelcome development. David Sanger’s must-read piece in the Times yesterday highlights how these strategic probings by the Russian air force are also occurring in cyberspace, with Russian hackers having recently compromised the White House’s unclassified computer systems without anyone noticing. It’s all playing out like an update of a classic Cold War-era pantomime, Sanger writes:
In the Soviet era, both sides probed each other’s defenses, hoping to learn something from the reaction those tests of will created. In 2014, cyber is the new weapon, one that can be used with less restraint, and because its creators believe they cannot be traced and can create a bit of havoc without prompting a response.
In this case, the response was that the White House shut down use of some of its networks for lengthy periods — more an inconvenience than anything else, but a sign of the fragility of the system to sophisticated attacks.
Ugly stuff—and a healthy bucket of cold water for anyone still operating under the mistaken assumption that we have the luxury of time to get our cyber house in order. It’s a nasty new world we are living in, and there’s a depressingly large number of avenues by which a misunderstanding or miscalculation could spiral out of control—both in meatspace and now in cyberspace. We’re not yet at Cold War levels of brinksmanship by a long shot, but it sure is starting to feel a lot like winter.