Russia’s announcement Wednesday that it plans to send long-range bombers to patrol the skies of America’s backyard over the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico may have sounded to many Americans like the stuff of the Cold War.
Anyone remember the 1960s comedy movie, “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming”?
The Pentagon sought to play down any provocative intentions behind the flights, and some Western officials chalked up Russia’s increasingly far-flung military activity to a retrenched power attempting to assert its global presence again.
Yet even if Russia has the right to carry out exercises in the international airspace of its choosing, its plans to patrol the skies around the US seem more consequential because of the context they would occur in: Across the Atlantic over recent weeks, Russia has increasingly pushed the envelope by regular incursions into the airspace of jittery former Soviet republics.
That has prompted NATO to scramble to intercept and in some cases to escort away Russian military aircraft at a rate well beyond that of last year.
Adding to visions of the Cold War’s return was the abduction in September by Russian agents operating inside Estonia of an Estonian intelligence officer who now sits in a Moscow jail. And this week US and European officials are discussing adding a new layer of economic sanctions on Russia in the wake of reports of Russian troops and arms – including artillery – moving across the border into eastern Ukraine.
Taken together, the events confirm that relations between Russia and the West are the worst they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
What worries NATO officials is that Russia’s increased – and increasingly provocative – activity in NATO-member airspace could accidentally cause an incident that leads to confrontation between the two sides.
“My opinion is that they are messaging us that they are a great power,” Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, said at a Pentagon briefing with reporters earlier this month at which he addressed what he called Russia’s “a little bit more provocative” flight activities.
So far the Russian incursions into sensitive European airspace have been uneventful, General Breedlove said, with both the Russian pilots and the NATO pilots going up to escort them back to Russian territory acting responsibly. But other NATO officials worry privately that the increased incursions could end up in some kind of incident – a mid-air collision, for example – that could ratchet up tensions.
At the Pentagon, officials responding publicly to Russia’s plans to send long-range bombers to patrol the Gulf of Mexico tried to convey a sense of normalcy. Emphasizing that the Russian Navy has operated in the Gulf’s international waters in the past, spokesman Col. Steve Warren said Russia has a right to fly in international airspace.
The important thing is for Russia to “conduct their operations safely and in accordance with international standards,” he said. The Russian patrols in Gulf of Mexico airspace would follow a recent flurry of Russian military flights off Canada’s coast and even along California.
The question that has US Defense Department officials and Russia analysts buzzing is, What is Russia up to?
In announcing the Gulf of Mexico patrols Wednesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the flights would be part of stepped-up training for long-range operations. “In the current situation, we need to secure our military presence in the western part of the Atlantic, eastern part of the Pacific oceans, and the waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico,” he said.
Russia under Vladimir Putin is out to prove to Western powers that Russia remains a global power, is not in retreat, and cannot be pushed around, Russia analysts say.
Noting that Russia has also sent warships to patrol the waters off Australia during this week’s gathering there of G20 leaders (including Mr. Putin) Russia expert Peter Zeihan says such shows of force are “good geopolitical strategy” for a leader out to rebuild a global power but who is also operating on borrowed time.
“If Putin has any chance of securing Russia’s place, he has to act now,” Mr. Zeihan says.
Noting Russia’s economic backsliding and its demographic decline, the former vice-president for analysis at Stratfor, the global strategic forecasting group, says Putin has “at most eight years of relative strength to act” to reverse Russia’s decline and secure the conditions that would allow it to remain a global power.
Awareness of that short timeframe explains Putin’s efforts to gain control over at least industrial eastern Ukraine, Zeihan says. The need to show Russia to be a power to be reckoned with explains the activities farther afield, he says.
But Zeihan, whose new book “The Accidental Superpower” dissects Putin’s Russia, says Putin is also at risk of going too far with his strategy of muscle-flexing.
So far Russia’s actions such as airspace incursions and cloak-and-dagger spy abductions are “a lot of smoke” designed to “rattle the Europeans” and scare the West into sitting back while Putin moves into Ukraine, Zeihan says.
But he says a miscalculating Putin could also overreach and end up provoking the US into taking steps, such as reinforcing troop levels in eastern Europe, that would be “catastrophic” for a Russia in decline.