Monday, December 15, 2014

What is Vladimir Putin doing in the skies of the Baltics? A near-miss between a Scandinavian airliner and a Russian spy plane shows the Kremlin's war gaming

Being an airline pilot in the Baltics isn't an easy job these days. As well as freezing winter temperatures and heavy fogs, there's a growing risk of crashing into a Russian spy plane or military bomber.

That, at least, is the view of the government of Sweden, which protested over the weekend that a Russian reconnaissance plane had come dangerously close to an airliner flying from Copenhagen to Poland.

The near-collision occurred because the spy aircraft had turned off its "transponder" – the device that alerts commercial radar systems to a plane's presence. It is the second time a near miss has happened this year, and, according to Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish defence minister, it is only a matter of time before catastrophe occurs.

Mr Hultqvist's warning follows similar ones from Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's new secretary general, who told The Telegraph only last month that Russia was routinely despatching long range bombers to probe Europe's borders, again with scant regard for the safety of passenger jets.

So what is Russia playing at? Is this a dress rehearsal for an invasion, a scenario that the Kremlin feels it need to practice again given the fallout with Nato over Ukraine? That is certainly one way of looking at it: similar manoeuvres were practiced a great deal by both Russian and Nato military aircraft during the Cold War. However, when it comes to war gaming in the Baltics, Moscow sees it not so much as an invasion, as a case of taking back what rightfully belongs to Russia.

During Soviet times, the tiny but strategically useful Baltic states were subjected to a process of "Russification", whereby large numbers of Russians were sent to effectively colonise them. By monopolising many of the key positions in power, they ensured unquestioning loyalty to Moscow, but at the same time built up a growing sense of resentment among the ethnic Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians over whom they ruled. So when the Soviet Union began to collapse, all three states lost little time in declaring independence.

Two decades on, they are among the most enthusiastic new members of Nato, membership of which they regard as a guarantee that they will never live under Russian rule again.

The Kremlin, however, regards their membership of Nato as an act of gross betrayal, and since Vladimir Putin's rise to power, has frequently reminded them that in Moscow's view, they are part of Russia's backyard whether they like it or not.

In 2007, when ethnic Russians in Estonia rioted over plans to remove a Soviet era statue from the capital, Tallinn, Russian activists launched a large-scale cyberattack on the Estonian government websites, which experts believe was orchestrated directly by the Kremlin.

Kremlin-backed satellite TV channels also broadcast propaganda aimed at the large community of ethnic Russians still living in the Baltics. They make a up a third of the populations of Latvia and Estonia, and frequently complain of being second class citizens.

Security analysts believe that this could one day give the Kremlin just the excuse it needs for a military annexation, just as the invasion of Crimea earlier this year was carried out to protect the interests of "ethnic Russians" in Ukraine.

Since the Ukraine crisis, the provocation has stepped a gear. Earlier this year, an Estonian intelligence officer was abducted on the Russian border, while a Lithuanian fishing boat was also seized. Sweden also claims to have detected the presence of Russian subs in its territorial waters. Russia has also practiced military exercises in "relieving" Kaliningrad, a small Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland that is separate from the Russian mainland and serves as the only Russian port in the Baltic.

Its biggest show of muscle, though, has been in European airspace. According to Mr Stoltenberg, Nato fighters have intercepted Russian military aircraft more than 100 times so far this year, compared with 30 such incidents in 2013. Again, most were travelling without their transponders on.

So are such incidents as dangerous as they seem? The Kremlin insists that the Swedish claims are exaggerated, and that the spy plane involved in the most recent "near-miss" was in fact 42 miles away at the time. It also accuses Nato of sending its planes to probe Russian defences in exactly the same way.

Douglas Barrie, a military aerospace expert at Britain’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, told The Telegraph: "In general anything that potentially poses a risk to flight safety is something that has to be taken very seriously. Having said that, the most likely time for a collision is when it is between two military aircraft from either side, who will sometimes test each other’s mettle. In the Cold War these sort of incidents happened all the time, although generally they did not lead to collisions."

In similar fashion, he adds, most military aircraft of any sort usually take extra care when flying without a transponder on. After all, no pilot wants to be in a mid-air crash, and they are also equipped to fly in situations where radar is not available.

Still, whatever the likelihood of an accident, he believes that the Russian military presence is part of a long-term trend. "We are seeing an immediate tit-for-tat in terms of the Russian response over Ukraine, but it's also because in the last five years, the Russians have increased their military spending a lot. Twenty years ago, they didn't have the equipment to do what they are doing now, but now they are a lot more confident and assertive."


A handout photo released by the Dutch Defence ministry showing one of the two Russian SU-34 "Fullback" bombers being intercepted by Dutch F-16's over the Baltic Sea on December 8 
Photo: AFP

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