Operation Strategic Trolling

NATO reported an “unusual burst of activity” by Russia’s nuclear-capable strategic bombers on its borders this week. While none of the flights violated NATO airspace, they are emblematic of the increasing tensions in Europe over the conflict in Ukraine:

In all, Nato said, its jets intercepted four groups of Russian aircraft in about 24 hours since Tuesday and some were still on manoeuvres late on Wednesday afternoon. “These sizeable Russian flights represent an unusual level of air activity over European air space,” the alliance said. A spokesman stressed there had been no violation of Nato air space, unlike a week earlier when a Russian spy plane briefly crossed Estonia’s border. But so many sorties in one day was unusual compared with recent years. … Nato said it had conducted more than 100 such intercepts of Russian aircraft this year so far, about three times as many as in 2013 before the confrontation with Moscow over separatist revolts in Ukraine soured relations.

Elias Groll adds:

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of kidnapping an Estonian intelligence agent. Swedish defense officials now speak of a fundamentally altered security paradigm in the Baltic after Russian planes carried out a mock bombing of Stockholm and violated Swedish airspace in the region.

Groll says such actions “bring relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.” Marc Champion also finds that “a version of the Cold War is returning, but its rules and parameters aren’t clear”:

A defining aspect of the Cold War was that, for the most part, deterrence kept each side from meddling in the other’s sphere: The U.S. and NATO stood by during the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Putin wants a similar kind of tacit agreement with the U.S. now. … So Putin may see testing NATO as a form of shoe-banging. The danger of this new Cold War is that there is complete disagreement between Russia on one side and the U.S. and European Union on the other as to the dividing lines are and the rules of the game.

Dave Majumdar solicits the opinions of some military experts, who see the Kremlin pushing NATO’s buttons but probably not rehearsing a nuclear attack:

Analyst Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research, said that the recent display of Russian air power was just another provocation in a long line of similar antagonistic moves by Russia. The Russian strategic bomber foray into the Atlantic is also reminiscent of a September incident where two nuclear-capable Tu-95s bombers, two Il-78 tankers and two MiG-31 Foxhound fighters were intercepted near Alaska.

“This reminds me of the exercises Russia has been flying in the Pacific for a few years now, just transferred to the European theater,” Grant said. “I don’t read this as a specific nuclear or conventional scenario practice, rather an exercise in long-range navigation and provocation. It’s clearly designed to annoy NATO but from a purely tactical perspective, this was still a pretty small display of airpower.”

In these circumstances, Keating worries less about deliberate acts of war and more about accidents:

This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia is preparing for war, and open conflict between Russia and NATO countries still seems pretty unlikely. It probably has more to do with Russia seeing how much it can get away with, and making it clear that it disapproves of Europe’s pro-Ukraine stance. But as June’s shootdown of a Malaysian airliner demonstrated, tragedies can happen when there are itchy fingers on the triggers of anti-aircraft missiles.