The Baltic nations and Poland just got some long-awaited NATO boots on the ground, inaugurating new standing battalions last week amid multinational exercises along the Russian border. In the skies above, the Kremlin made sure everyone knew it was watching, sending its warplanes to "buzz" Baltic airspace and even, according to the Lithuanian ministry of defense, to illegally enter it on two occasions.
Finland and Sweden also noted incidents in their vicinities. In a dramatic encounter on June 21, a Polish F-16 approached the plane carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on his way to Kaliningrad, videotaped from aboard the Russian plane. Russian media reported a Russian escort plane intervened between the NATO jet and Shoigu's aircraft.
The same day the US reported a Russian jet flew less than two meters from one of its surveillance planes, which a Pentagon spokesman said was dangerous due to the Russian pilot's "high rate of closure speed and poor control of the aircraft." Sweden summoned Russia's ambassador after a Russian fighter jet flew unusually close to a Swedish reconnaissance plane in international airspace above the Baltic Sea.
NATO notes more Russian 'visitors'
NATO's deputy spokesperson Piers Cavalet confirmed to DW that there was an unusual spike in the Russian air presence over the Baltic Sea last week. "These included strategic bombers, fighters, reconnaissance, transport and other aircraft," Cavalet said, adding that planes operating as part of NATO's air-policing operations or from national air forces followed standard procedure in "scrambling" to monitor the aircraft.
Cavalet rejected Russian accusations that NATO planes are the ones creating tensions, saying "when NATO aircraft intercept a plane they identify it visually, maintaining a safe distance at all times. Once complete, NATO jets break away. All our pilots behave in a safe and responsible way."
Speaking Monday in Brussels, the chairman of NATO's military command, General Petr Pavel, added that it's not just the airspace over the Baltic Sea where the spike is evident, but also over the Black Sea.
"In most of these cases we haven't been observing [the flights] would be clearly hostile," Pavel said at an event hosted by Politico. "[W]e are mostly witnessing what we call unprofessional behavior in the airspace. When these rules are broken the chance of getting into an incident is pretty close."
With Russia beginning its own military exercises along its western border in September, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told DW he is concerned about an even higher risk of such accidents then.
World events warrant concern for air clashes
But Thomas Frear, a research fellow with the European Leadership Network, has been writing for years about what he calls the "escalatory potential" of encounters between Russian and Western aircraft and ships. After a decline in tension in 2016 following a 2014/2015 spike, Frear believes the situation has become more critical now, with the stand-off between the US and Russia in Syria.
"The unexpectedly hostile relations between [Russia and] the Trump administration, the ever increasing tempo of military exercises in Europe, and the closer proximity of Russian and coalition aircraft in Syria have combined to drive the number of incidents up again," he told DW.
Frear said that Western authorities are not taking the situation seriously enough, especially the risk to civilian aircraft. "I view this as a combination of complacency and a lack of understanding of the problem," he said, explaining that international regulations governing interaction between aircraft do not apply to military planes.
Neither are national air forces required to be transparent about their rules of behavior with respect to non-military aircraft, Frear said. "[C]ivilian pilots will be unaware of military patterns of behavior," he noted, "risking an accident."
While there are some efforts to change this, Frear said it would require amending the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, a global agreement, making the possibility of any quick action quite remote.
US-Russian tension over Syria worse than Cold War
Frear urges immediate attention to the potential NATO-Russia conflict brewing beyond the Baltics in Syria, where the status of the US-Russian air safety agreement in the country is now uncertain.
"Greater engagement by both Russia and the US-led coalition in Syria has certainly heightened the possibility of a lethal clash," Frear warned, pointing to the fact that NATO ally Turkey already shot down a Russian plane it said crossed into its airspace in 2015. In addition, he said, "Russian and US aircraft have already attacked ground forces allied to the other, leading to rhetoric from military leaders of a bellicosity not seen even at the height of the Cold War."
As well as the need for the Syrian deconfliction agreement to be preserved, Frear said joint groups of experts should be urgently examining how to craft a broader NATO-Russia agreement on avoiding and managing hazardous incidents. In the shortest term, he writes in his report, "there should be zero tolerance for reckless behavior of individual military commanders, pilots and other personnel, especially by the Russian leadership. Use of dangerous military brinkmanship tactics for political signaling is a high-risk strategy, which may backfire in case of an incident."