Russia's long history of airspace violation
Russia's stealth fighters T-50 perform during the MAKS-2013, the International Aviation and Space Show, in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow. (AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev)
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Russia has a long history of violating airspace and territorial waters as a means of applying pressure to achieve political aims.
Russian jets violating Turkey’s airspace “does not look like an accident,” especially when we have seen two of them, [as they] were there for a long time,” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General, said Tuesday.
There have been two incursions by Russian aircraft into Turkish airspace, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Each time Turkish F-16 jets intercepted the Russian fighters forcing them to turn back. Turkey has formally protested against the incursions.
“The first objective is the expulsion of the rebels from Aleppo, forcing them to the Turkish border, with the consequence of frustrating Ankara’s plan to establish a no-fly zone in the area to protect the refugees and to support anti-Assad forces,” wrote the noted Italian political commentator Maurizio Molinari in the newspaper La Stampa on Wednesday.
“But Russia’s strategy is aggressive and risky,” Molinari said. “Russia is seeking leverage for a tough bargain with the West on Syria, and on the survival of the Assad regime.”
Putin cannot appear to bow to Western pressure to topple the Assad regime, wrote Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel in a note published on Monday.
“Assad's regime has also alienated its own population, driven millions into exile and murdered thousands more. It cannot regain control of the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities. But the Assads have been Russian clients since 1970 and their defeat is apparently unacceptable to Putin.”
NATO officials have reported a list of violations by Russian military aircraft trespassing in European airspace. According to those statistics, there were six incidents with Estonia, three with Finland, and one each with Denmark and Poland. Against Sweden there were ten in 2014, up from eight in 2013, and seven in 2012. While there were no violations of Latvian airspace, there were over 180 incidents in which the Russian air force flew close to the borders in 2014. The Russian intruders turned off their transponders, electronic devices most aircraft are required to operate to make it easy to track them, in nearly all of the cases.
NATO fighters policing Baltic airspace were scrambled 68 times along Lithuania’s borders [in 2014], by far the highest count in more than 10 years. Estonia has said its sovereign airspace had been violated by Russian aircraft five times this year.
Tactics typically deployed by Russian pilots include a practice of deliberately failing to report flight plans, ignoring civilian air traffic controllers and switching off their on-board transponders that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg refers to as "flying dark" an approach which he said was inherently unsafe and poses a serious risk to civilian air traffic.
“Russia is seeking to ‘neutralize’ Sweden in the political and military sense. Its aggressive actions are intended to demonstrate Russia’s overwhelming military capabilities and emphasise the glaring gaps in Sweden’s defense system, and thus intimidating the public and influencing decision makers in Sweden and throughout the Baltic Sea region. This activity is so far part of the psychological war Russia is carrying out in the region. Its purpose is to influence Swedish security and defense policy, the direction of which – due to the country’s geographical position – is of essential importance for the security of the entire Baltic Sea region,” wrote Justyna Gotkowska, researcher for Poland’s Centre for Eastern Studies, in a report published in October 2014.
According to a report by European Leadership Network (ELN) published in November, the strategy can work for Russia, which uses such incidents to observe patterns of response and to test the preparedness of specific elements of individual nations as well as their alliance with NATO and other partners.
Russia also seeks to warn countries in its neighborhood that any steps taken towards integrating with Europe or seeking NATO membership would lead to further Russian harassment, according to the report. Such incidents are also meant to undermine confidence in NATO, demonstrating that the defense alliance would not be able to organize swift support for these countries. Moreover, these actions are “intended to send a message of deterrence by demonstrating Russia has both means and willingness to confront NATO and U.S. forces.”
Following increased tensions over Ukraine between Russia and NATO, there was an increase in Russian planes flying into NATO airspace and submarines venturing into its waters. Britain and other NATO members stepped up air policing missions as the number of interceptions over the Baltic States trebled in 2014, the Telegraph reported on May 15.
In 2014, Finland claimed five violations of its air space by Russian warplanes, RFE reported on June 27, citing Reuters and TASS.
Last winter, the Swedish Defense Minister complained about Russian military aircraft flying close to a Swedish commercial airliner with its transponders turned off, DW reported on Dec. 15. This spring, the semi-official Sputnik agency boasted of Russian jets penetrating NATO ships’ defenses in the Black Sea on March 4.
In autumn, four incidents were reported, one in Swedish airspace, the other in Swedish waters involving a Russian submarine, besides two other incidents of violation of airspace of Latvia and Norway.
In Sept 2014 the Swedish foreign minister lodged a formal complaint with the Russian ambassador after two jets flew close to the Swedish island of Oland. Last March, following the sighting of a Russian submarine, the Swedish government announced plans to supplement and upgrade the ships and underwater surveillance systems it uses to detect foreign submarines in its waters.
Polish researcher Andrzej Wilk wrote in September 2014 that the European part of Russia and the Arctic are witnessing other large-scale exercises by the Russian Federation’s armed forces, and their involvement in the conflict in Ukraine is also continuing. In total, these armed exercises involve over 200,000 soldiers and several thousand combat vehicles, hundreds of planes and helicopters, and about a hundred ships. Wilk also observed that “the increase in the Russian army’s activity and military spending is coupled with an information campaign which is becoming increasingly intense, which maintains that Russia must defend itself against Western aggression. In the near term, Wilk predicted, that “it should be assumed that the principal objective of Russia’s clear demonstration of power is to exert pressure on the West, to force it to make further concessions on the issue of Ukraine and to confirm the Russian Federation’s position as a superpower.”
According to one Western official, there has been a threefold increase in quick reaction alerts – the scrambling of fighter jets – because of Russian activity in the vicinity of alliance airspace reaching well over a hundred between January to September 2014. According to the Pentagon, in the two months from August to September 2014 alone, Russian nuclear bombers have made at least 16 incursions into U.S. and Canadian air defence identification zones. Two incursions –on Sept. 17 and Sept. 18 – coincided with the visit of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Ottawa and Washington.
Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Monday that “airstrikes are not enough to resolve the Syrian conflict, and Russia’s involvement could be most effectively applied in finding a plan for political transition in the country.” The minister suggested focusing on "specific goals, humanitarian corridors, disuse of cluster bombs" the best way to bring the belligerent factions to the negotiating table.
The ELN report recommends that the West, NATO leadership and the Russians should use their influence to prevent the warring factions from taking steps that “could trigger a new wave of escalation.”
By Zaki Shaikh and Andrew Jay Rosenbaum