30 Oct 2014

Russian military flights: propaganda or precursor to war?

Why has Russia radically increased military flights on Nato’s borders – and how worried should we be?

Russian military flights - propaganda or precursor to war?

Whenever Russia flies its aircraft a bit too close to British borders for comfort, the RAF sends out its Typhoon jets to spook them, watch them and cordially guide them away from UK airspace.

This week Russia has been radically ramping up its military patrols near Nato’s airspace, forcing Britain, Germany, Norway Portugal and Turkey to scramble its jets in response.

Four groups of Russian aircraft were intercepted in one 24-hour period this week, described by Nato itself as an unusual and “large-scale” burst of military activity – including the Russian Bear bomber (pictured).

They forced as many players within Nato as possible to deploy intercepts Justin Bronk, aviation analyst for Rusi

Nato said far more Russian aircraft movements have been detected in the 10 months of this year compared to all of 2013: about 100 compared to around 40 last year.

The main worry is the motivation behind all this – whether the growing use of military force should be taken at its fearsome face value, or whether Moscow is trying to say something to a captive audience.

Tensions have continued to rise over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its desire to foment unrest in Ukraine and among its western allies, although Moscow’s ambitions have been frustrated of late.

Russian military flights - propaganda or precursor to war?

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, has been a particular irritant to Russia, so it may be no coincidence that Russian military aircraft violated North American airspace controlled by the US and Canada when Mr Poroshenko visited those two countries in September.

Power games

Justin Bronk, a research analyst for the Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Channel 4 News that Russia’s recent flights were “carefully co-ordinated attempt to display power”, but their purpose was “rather more a psychological than a military intelligence one”.

The amount of aircraft in each intercept – six to eight in each of these – that’s why it’s significant Nato spokesman

“It’s interesting the way these multiple violations have been quite carefully choreographed to show it can encircle Nato,” he added.

“They forced as many players within Nato as possible to deploy intercepts.”

That said, such flights “do probe the response time” of Nato’s aircraft and how long they can stick with their Russian counterparts, he said.

Russian military flights - propaganda or precursor to war?

Paul Beaver, an aviation consultant, told Channel 4 News that Russia may feel the need to prove its strength on the international stage for a domestic audience – and predicted the frequency of Russian flights was likely to resume its 1980s heights, when aircraft were intercepted on an almost daily basis.

But he rejected the notion that the errant flight of a Latvian cargo plane on Wednesday was related to the increase in Russian military activity.

The Antonov cargo plane was escorted through British airspace to its landing at Stansted airport after its flight “caused concern” to air traffic controllers, said the Ministry of Defence.

“I think that’s just one of those things, I don’t think it’s connected,” Mr Beaver said. “It’s just someone’s old cargo plane.”

Major Rob Phillips, a Nato spokesman, told Channel 4 News that escorting Russian aircraft through airspace as in recent days was “a standard procedure”, but added: “The amount of aircraft in each intercept – six to eight in each of these – that’s why it’s significant.”

New normal?

Despite Nato’s swift response, all of the Russian flights took place over international waters meaning that none breached national borders – unlike an incident last week when a Russian spy plane briefly crossed Estonia’s border.

Russian military flights - propaganda or precursor to war?

But international tensions can spiral out of control quickly, so does any of this really show what the opening blows of military conflict would look like?

Russia is wary of provoking conventional warfare with the Nato alliance because “the west has the advantage”, Mr Bronk said – Moscow would be more likely to replicate the kind of disruptive, “salami slicing” activity seen in Ukraine and Crimea.

In addition he said “Russia will always avoid tripping the Article 5 tripwire” – the provision that would require all Nato members to come to the aid of another if it was attacked.

But he warned of the main danger: that the west “underestimates the danger of this threat long term”, given Russia’s huge military investment and Nato’s poor investment in comparison during its “age of austerity”.

Which means we may need to get used to putting up with bizarre forms of self expression for a while yet.