During the spring of 2014, much of the world's attention was drawn to the crisis in Ukraine. While news of the conflict has been relegated to the back pages of the mainstream media, the situation over the past six months is far from "peaceful" and far from "routine". The Ukraine conflict has led to a significant increase in military tensions between Russia, its NATO counterparts and particularly Finland and Sweden. A policy brief, "Dangerous Brinkmanship" by the European Leadership Network (ELN) examines both the intensity and gravity of incidents that have occurred between Western and Russian military forces since Russia annexed Crimea. On top of what are considered relatively routine encounters, there have been some serious incidents that could be looked at as highly provocative. All of these incidents have taken place over a very wide geographical area as shown on this map:
High risk incidents are shown in red, serious incidents are shown in yellow, near-routine incidents are shown in blue and miscellaneous incidents are shown in green. A total of 40 "sensitive incidents" have taken place over the past eight months with 11 being considered serious. Most of the events involve violations of national airspace, close encounters at sea, mid-air near-misses and emergency scrambles of military aircraft. As you may have noted on the map, most of the incidents took place in the Baltic Sea area, however, they are very widely spread around the world including along the United States and Canadian borders and even in the Pacific Ocean area, far removed from the Ukrainian conflict.
If we compare the number of incidents since the Ukraine crisis began to the number of incidents prior to March 2014, there is a substantial increase. Between January and October 2014, NATO member states had conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft, a three-fold increase over 2013. Latvia recorded more than 150 incidents of Russian aircraft approaching its airspace and Estonia recorded six violations of its airspace in 2014, well more than the seven violations experienced between 2006 and 2013.
Here is a closeup showing the locations of the three most serious events flagged in red:
The authors of the report consider these to be "high risk incidents" that have a high probability of causing casualties or direct military confrontation between Russia and other states. Here is a brief description of the three most serious events:
1.) On March 3, 2014, an SAS passenger airliner (a 737 with 132 passengers on board) taking off from Copenhagen, Denmark nearly collided with a Russian reconnaissance aircraft because the Russian aircraft was not broadcasting its position. A collision was avoided only because of good visibility and an alert crew in the commercial aircraft.
2.) On May 9, 2014, an Estonian security service operative, Eston Kohver, was captured by Russian agents on Estonian territory. The raid involved the use of smoke grenades and communications systems jamming. The agent was taken to Moscow and accused of espionage This incident took place after President Obama assured the Baltic states, relatively recent members of NATO, that they would be secure.
3.) Between October 17 and 27, 2014, a major submarine hunt took place in Swedish territorial waters after there were reports of "underwater activity". Sweden's Supreme Commander was prepared to use armed force to bring the vessel to the surface. Russia issued denials and ridiculed Sweden's concerns. This was the largest anti-submarine operation in Sweden, a neutral country until the 1990s, since the Cold War.
As I noted above, there were also 11 incidents that the authors consider "serious" that fall outside of the routine interactions that normally take place between Russia and other nations. In these cases, the authors suggest that there is an increased risk of escalation. Here is a brief description of several of the incidents:
1.) On April 12, 2014, an unarmed Russian fighter aircraft made 12 passes of the American warship, the USS Cook, in the Black Sea. Had the aircraft been armed, the ship's commander could have targeted it in self-defence.
2.) On April 23, 2014, an armed Russian fighter undertook very threatening maneuvers in the vicinity of an American reconnaissance aircraft in the Sea of Okhotsk.
3.) In June 2014, armed Russian aircraft approached the heavily populated island of Bornholm in Denmark, simulating an attack.
4.) On July 16, 2014, an armed Russian aircraft intercepted a Swedish surveillance plane flying between Gotland and Latvia in international airspace. The Russian plane flew within 10 metres of the Swedish aircraft.
5.) In early September 2014, Russian strategic bombers in the Labrador Sea near Canada practiced cruise missile strikes on the United States. From that location, the cruise missiles could have targeted Ottawa, New York, Washington and Chicago.
6.) On September 7, 2014, a Canadian frigate, HMCS Toronto, was buzzed by Russian aircraft in the Black Sea with the plane coming to within 300 metres of the warship. This incident coincided with Russian naval exercises near Sevastopol, Crimea.
7.) From October 28 to 30, 2014, the Russian Air Force conducted a major exercise in the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Black Sea and Baltic Sea. NATO aircraft tracked Russia's long-range bombers conducting missions across the region including a large formation of Russian fighters and bombers in the Baltic Sea region. All missions were conducted in international airspace, however, the scale of the exercise was unusual.
While most of the remainder of the incidents would be considered "routine" or "near-routine", there is one that is of particular interest. On May 9, 2014, Russian aircraft approached the California coast, coming to within 50 miles of the American coastline. This is the closest incursion since the end of the Cold War.
What purpose do these incursions serve? It appears that Russian armed forces have been granted the option of acting with greater aggression toward both NATO and non-NATO countries, particularly Sweden and Finland. It seems that Russia is testing the responsiveness of non-Russian air and sea forces and may be using the exercises to boost morale within its own ranks. In response, NATO has increased its military presence along the eastern flank of Europe both on water and in the air, upping the odds that a non-routine incursion could result in a wider conflict. After all, it takes very, very little to end up in a state of war.