LONDON – In a single 24-hour period this week, Russia dispatched 19 combat aircraft — including “Bear” strategic bombers — to probe North Atlantic Treaty Organization air defenses. It also test-launched a ballistic missile in the Barents Sea, north of Sweden, that hit a target in Kamchatka in Russia’s Far East.
The flurry of activity recalls the bad old days of the Cold War; NATO has had to scramble to intercept Russian jets more than 100 times this year, three times more often than in all of 2013.
So what exactly are Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals trying to achieve? They aren’t saying, but they appear to have multiple goals, all related:
To remind Europe as a whole (four strategic bombers circled the continent to reach Portugal) that Russia is a major nuclear power willing to use force;
To remind Finland and Sweden in particular (a group of seven Russian jets forced NATO planes to scramble over the Baltic Sea twice) of the weakness of their defenses, and warn those two countries against trying to join NATO or defend the Baltic States;
To show the U.S. that opposing Russian encroachments in Ukraine or any other post-Soviet state wouldn’t be worth the risk;
To test NATO defenses and, as part of a major military upgrade, get real world training and flight hours after years of decline.
So, yes, 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.
He gave an idea of his approach to defending Russian interests in a question-and-answer session with foreign Russia analysts in Sochi last week:
True, the Soviet Union was referred to as “the Upper Volta with missiles.” Maybe so, and there were loads of missiles. Besides, we had such brilliant politicians as Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who hammered the desk with his shoe at the United Nations.
And the whole world, primarily the United States and NATO thought: This Nikita is best left alone, he might just go and fire a missile, they have lots of them, we should better show some respect for them.
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.
For Putin and for most Russians, the borders created by the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 aren’t a given. The new states that emerged include many ethnic Russians and, seen from Moscow, don’t look like real countries — they’re ex-republics that have been in transition for 20 years, their final characteristics remaining to be determined.
The Eurasian Union that Putin has pushed since 2012 is an attempt to bring that transition to an end that’s acceptable to Russia.
This is the core project of his third presidency and any attempt to thwart his plans is interpreted as an attack.
Nikolai Patrushev, the former director of Russia’s security service, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), recently laid out the reasoning behind this worldview in an interview that’s worth reading in full.
His basic propositions are false — if you accept that the ex-Soviet countries have a right to decide their own fates and that they are doing so free from U.S. pressure. If, like Putin and Patrushev, you don’t accept either of those premises, the case looks very different.
I suspect the Kremlin has overestimated Russia’s capacity to carry out these policies, but Putin seems committed to them and is realistic about the consequences. He appears ready to accept that Russia may be subject to sanctions for the long haul. He even seems to welcome the growing isolation of his country’s elites.
His challenges to NATO air space should be taken seriously, especially by the weak Baltic states.
Based in London, Marc Champion is an editorial board member at Bloomberg View and writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow.
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