Thursday, October 30, 2014

NATO Tracks Large-Scale Russia Air Activity in Europe • NATO Says Russian Air Activity Poses Potential Risk to Civilian Flights

The Wall Street Journal
By Stephen Fidler
Updated Oct. 29, 2014 7:33 p.m. ET

BRUSSELS—Russian military aircraft conducted aerial maneuvers around Europe this week on a scale seldom seen since the end of the Cold War, prompting NATO jets to scramble in another sign of how raw East-West relations have grown.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that more than two dozen Russian aircraft in four groups were intercepted and tracked on Tuesday and Wednesday, an unusually high level of activity that the alliance said could have endangered passing civilian flights.

Military jets from eight nations were scrambled to meet the Russian aircraft, which a NATO spokesman said remained in international airspace and didn’t violate NATO territory.

However, NATO officials said such flights heighten the risks of military miscalculations. They also come at a time when U.S. officials have been voicing concern about Moscow’s actions in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, where thousands have been killed in months of fighting between the government and Russia-backed separatists.

“There is a troubling trend of out-of-area events being increasingly used by Russia along its periphery for political saber-rattling, with probing incursions by air and sea by the Russian military becoming more commonplace and flagrant,” a senior Obama administration official said. “The United States has repeatedly called upon Russia to respect international law and the sovereign territory of its neighbors.”

There was no immediate comment from Moscow, which has denied in the past that such flights were provocations.

NATO said it has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft so far this year, about three times as many as were conducted in 2013.

This month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel characterized Russia as “revisionist,” noting Russian President Vladimir Putin ’s apparent intentions to restore Soviet Union-like borders.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that Russia has continued provocative behavior in Europe.

“We have been keeping track of incidents and have noticed an increase in Russian flights close to NATO airspace since the start of the Ukraine crisis,” said Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We don’t think those flights help de-escalate the current situation at all.”

Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff, called the flights “Russian aggression” in an interview on CNN. “I think they are trying to reassert themselves,” he said. “I think we have to watch it very carefully. We have to reassure our allies.”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s new secretary-general, said more “transparency and predictability” was needed between NATO and Russia “to avoid that the crisis spirals into something worse [and] that misunderstandings create even bigger conflicts.”

Russian leaders have long portrayed NATO as a major threat to Russia, despite denials from Brussels. Mr. Putin explained his annexation of Crimea last spring—over Kiev’s objections—in part by saying he wanted to deny NATO access to Crimea’s naval bases should Ukraine ever join the alliance.

Russia’s recent aggressiveness has been particularly alarming for NATO’s new members from the former Soviet bloc, whose accession Moscow had vehemently opposed.

In September, Estonia said one of its intelligence officers had been seized by Russian security agents on Estonian territory and taken to Russia—just two days after a visit to Estonia by President Barack Obama. Russia has said the man, who remains in prison, was detained on Russian territory as part of a counterespionage operation.

This month, Sweden dispatched its navy to hunt for a possible Russian submarine plying the seas near Stockholm. Moscow denied it had sent any subs to Sweden, which although not a NATO member is a staunch Western ally.

NATO said this week’s flights were detected over the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea, Baltic and Black seas. The Russian aircraft included fighters, bombers and tanker aircraft, it said.

Such flights pose a risk to civilian flights, according to NATO, because the Russians often don't file flight plans or use onboard transponders, which mean civilian air-traffic control can’t detect them.

The spokesman at NATO military headquarters in Mons, Belgium, said he didn’t know whether Russia had notified NATO of any military exercises.

In a sign of heightened nervousness, U.K. Royal Air Force planes escorted a Russian-built plane into Stansted airport on Wednesday, but it was a civilian plane from Latvia unconnected with the Russian activity, the Ministry of Defense in London said.

Russia has been increasing its long-distance air patrols for the past several years, ostensibly for training and readiness purposes.

In the interview, Mr. Stoltenberg said there are five times as many NATO planes in the air on air-policing missions now than a year ago.

NATO leaders, at a summit in Wales in September, agreed to what Mr. Stoltenberg called “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” largely to reassure its eastern flank. NATO leaders also vowed to lift their military spending over the next 10 years to 2% of economic output; currently only a few members meet or exceed that level.

NATO said eight Russian aircraft were intercepted over the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean on Wednesday. Norway scrambled F-16 aircraft to intercept and identify the aircraft, which comprised four Tu-95 strategic bombers and four Il-78 tanker aircraft.

After the formation flew from mainland Russia over the Norwegian Sea, six aircraft turned back and two of the bombers headed southwest, parallel to the Norwegian coast, prompting Typhoon fighters from the U.K. to scramble.

The two aircraft then flew to the Atlantic, where Portuguese F-16s scrambled, before heading north to the west of the U.K. The bombers were still airborne, 13 hours after they were first detected.

NATO said two Tu-95 bombers and two Su-27 fighters were detected flying over the Black Sea on Wednesday afternoon. Turkish fighters intercepted them.

NATO radars also detected seven Russian aircraft flying over the Baltic Sea in international airspace, comprising two MiG-31s, two Su-34s, one Su-27 and two Su-24. Portuguese F-16 fighters assigned to the beefed-up NATO air-policing mission over the Baltic members—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—were scrambled in response, and the Russian aircraft returned to Russian airspace.

On Tuesday, seven Russian combat planes were also detected over the Baltic Sea. The Russian aircraft were intercepted over the Gulf of Finland by German Typhoon fighter jets from the Baltic air patrols.

Danish fighters, as well as aircraft from non-NATO Finland and Sweden, also scrambled and the aircraft continued toward the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. These planes did file flight plans and used transponders, but didn’t maintain radio contact with civilian air traffic control, NATO said.

—Philip Shishkin and Felicia Schwartz in Washington contributed to this article.

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