The hallmark of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to reclaim parts of Russia’s lost empire in Central Europe has been the forceful denial of any Russian government role in the creeping annexation of territory. Moscow has rejected the notion that there is any official involvement of support for the separatists in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, advancing instead the fiction that any Russians present are volunteers acting without coordination with the Russian government.
That story was hard enough to swallow when first told, but Moscow’s credibility has been further eroded by increasingly assertive activity by the Russian armed forces on its borders.
In Europe and in Asia, recent Russian military behavior looks a lot like that of the darkest days of the Cold War, when Soviet forces routinely violated the territory of neighbors, tested their military readiness and signaled a barely concealed disregard for, if not hostility to, their sovereignty.
Putin’s pretensions are not intimidating those neighbors, however. Instead, it is only increasing suspicion of Moscow, pushing European governments to reduce interactions with — and potential dependence on — Moscow, and reinforcing the institutions that Putin seeks to undermine.
In 2014, NATO has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft, about three times as many as in 2013. Since the week before last, more than two dozen Russian aircraft, including fighters, bombers and tankers flying in four groups, were tracked and intercepted; the flights occurred over the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
Military aircraft from eight NATO member states scrambled in response. NATO acknowledged that the Russian planes did file flight plans and used transponders, but complained that the aircraft did not communicate with civilian air traffic controllers, posing a real risk of an accident.
Northern European nations appear to be bearing the brunt of the new Russian aggressiveness. Estonia has accused Russian aircraft of violating its airspace six times this year, three times the number in 2013. Latvia has reported dozens of Russian military vessels near its waters, along with violations of its airspace too. In September, an Estonian intelligence officer was taken by Russian security forces on Estonian territory; Russia denies the charges and says the man, still imprisoned, was in Russia and engaged in spying.
Early last month, Sweden was in an uproar amid reports that a Russian submarine was operating close to Swedish shores. A full search, reminiscent of those that occurred during the Cold War, did not turn up a submarine. Russian planes have reportedly violated Swedish and Finnish airspace in recent months.
Russia is also testing U.S. and Canadian air defenses by sending aircraft along the Alaskan and northern Canadian coasts, prompting scrambles by those two militaries as well.
Japan knows well Russia’s potential for provocation. The Ministry of Defense has said that Japanese Air Self-Defense Force jets have scrambled nearly twice as many times already this year in response to Russian military aircraft as they did a year ago; the number of scrambles is up 73 percent — jumping from 308 in 2013 to 533 this year.
At this rate, the number of intercepts will become the highest number in nearly a quarter of a century.
It is not clear what Russia hopes to accomplish. Putin could be trying to intimidate his neighbors, but that does not seem to be working. The Baltic states are NATO’s newest members and an aggressive Russia has only reinforced their inclination to seek shelter under the trans-Atlantic alliance. The United States and other NATO members have given no indication that their commitment to the defense of these new allies is slackening. The Ukraine fiasco has led NATO to focus on the prospect of an immediate threat in their neighborhood after years of drift — characterized by shrinking defense budgets and attention on more distant problems, such as Afghanistan — and revitalize that organization. At the same time, those European governments are increasingly wary of their dependence on Russian energy supplies and actively exploring alternative strategies to reduce their vulnerability.
The cat-and-mouse game on Japan’s northern borders is antagonizing a government that had hoped to forge a new relationship with Moscow and come to some ultimate resolution of the territorial problem that stands to this day in the way of a complete peace agreement after World War II.
More troubling still for Moscow are future prospects. Russia plans to spend 20 percent of its national budget on defense by 2018. To reach that goal, military spending will grow 18 percent in 2015 and 33 percent over the next two budgets.
But the Russian economy is already being squeezed by Western sanctions imposed as a result of the aggression against Ukraine, and plummeting oil prices will increase the pressure on Moscow.
Putin seems to be betting that the West is a paper tiger, unable to stand up to a Russian government with a focused and hungry eye on its former territories. That bet looks to be an increasingly long shot. Neither Europe nor NATO has folded, and now Russia faces increasingly difficult choices.