Russia And The West: Close Encounters Of The Cold War Kind

Nov 13, 2014
Originally published on November 13, 2014 6:58 am

As tensions mounted between Russia and the West over Ukraine back in March, a routine commercial flight had a close encounter with a Russian spy plane. The Scandinavian airliner had just taken off from Copenhagen on a flight to Rome when the pilots saw the Russian military aircraft in their path and had to maneuver around it.

This is one of the most dramatic examples of a growing number of close calls documented in a new report, "Dangerous Brinkmanship: Close Military Encounters Between Russia and the West in 2014."

One of the authors of the report, Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, says the Russian plane had its transponder switched off.

"This was an instance of the Russian military trying to move around European airspace without being detected but doing so in commercial airline corridors," Kearns says. "In this instance, there was very nearly a tragic accident."

The incident received only limited media attention at the time because it was seen to be an isolated one. In his report, Kearns highlights the increasing number of these incidents and the "irresponsible nature of some of the Russian military activity, "with some cases of Russian and NATO aircraft coming within [30 feet] of each other."

"We are talking about an attempt to intimidate ... in the air," Kearns says.

Russia's neighbor, Finland, a non-NATO state, has been raising alarms, too. Finland's ambassador to Washington, Ritva Koukku-Ronde, says there has been a lot more Russian military activity since tensions mounted over Ukraine.

"There has been some violation of our airspace," she tells NPR, describing it as "a testing of our reaction capabilities and our capabilities in general."

Finland shares an 800-mile-long border with Russia, and Koukku-Ronde says her country has boosted defense spending as it keeps an eye on this.

"The border is well-kept, from all directions: air, ground and sea," she says.

Other countries in Europe don't have as much contact with Russia, and that worries a former U.S. air attache in Moscow, Robert Berls.

"At times, when you have incidents such as aircraft intercepting other aircraft or incidents at sea, if you don't have the constant communications going back and forth and the understanding that comes from being in close contact, this significantly raises the risk," Berls says.

Russia's ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, shrugs off all of this talk about a newly aggressive Russian military posture. Over lunch last week, he told reporters that the Russians "fly a little more than we used to," but he said Russian crews have to train and not only in Russia's airspace.

Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, says no one has a problem with the fact that the Russians are training more actively.

But they're doing more than just that.

"They are flying into other countries' airspace unannounced and conducting simulated attack runs against other countries," Kearns says. "They also abducted an Estonian intelligence officer on Estonian soil — which is NATO soil; they used stun grenades and the jamming of local communications to make that happen."

According to NATO sources, he says, the alliance has flown more than 100 missions to intercept Russian aircraft so far this year — three times as many as it did in all of 2013.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now let's hear about what you might call close encounters of a Cold War kind. NATO's commander says more Russian troops and tanks moved into Ukraine this week. And ever since Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russia's armed forces have been showing up in unusual places. A new study out this week says there have been at least 40 military encounters in the air, on land and at sea involving Russia and NATO or its partner countries. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the rising tensions and the potential risks.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A Scandinavian airliner had just taken off from Copenhagen on a flight to Rome back in March when the pilot saw a Russian military aircraft in their path and had to maneuver around it. Ian Kearns, who runs the London-based security think tank called the European Leadership Network, says the Russian plane was not transmitting any identification signal.

IAN KEARNS: This was an instance of the Russian military trying to be moving around the European airspace without being detected, but doing so in commercial airline corridors. And in this instance, there was very nearly a tragic accident. And it was only the evasive action of the civilian airline pilots that avoided that.

KELEMEN: He says the incident received only limited media attention at the time because it was seen to be an isolated one, but in his report, Kearns highlights the increasing number of these incidents and what he calls the irresponsible nature of some of the Russian military activity.

KEARNS: We're talking, on some occasions, about Russian and NATO aircraft flying within 10 meters of each other. You know, we're talking about an attempt essentially to intimidate each other in the air.

KELEMEN: Russia's neighbor Finland, which is not a NATO member, has been raising alarms, too. Finland's ambassador to Washington, Ritva Koukku-Ronde, says there's been a lot more Russian military activity since tensions mounted over Ukraine.

AMBASSADOR RITVA KOUKKU-RONDE: There is increased activities which we have observed as well. And there has been some violation of our airspace. And of course this is a testing of our reaction capabilities and our capabilities in general.

KELEMEN: Finland shares an 800-mile-long border with Russia. And Ambassador Koukku-Ronde says her country has boosted defense spending as it keeps an eye on this.

KOUKKU-RONDE: And the border is well-kept also, from all directions - air, ground, sea. So we have a very functional border.

KELEMEN: Other countries in Europe aren't as used to dealing with the Russians. And a former U.S. air attache in Moscow, Robert Berls, worries about this.

ROBERY BERLS: At times where you have incidents such as aircraft intercepting other aircraft or incidents at sea if you don't have the constant communication going back and forth and the understanding that comes from being in close contact, this significantly raises the risk.

KELEMEN: Russia's ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, shrugs off all this talk about a newly aggressive Russian military posture. He told reporters over lunch last week that the Russians, quote, "fly a little more than we used to." But he said Russian crews have to fly for training, and not only in Russian airspace. Kearns of the European Leadership Network says no one has a problem with the fact that the Russians are more actively training.

KEARNS: But what they're doing is they're flying into other countries' airspace unannounced. They're conducting simulated attack runs against other countries, in NATO and elsewhere. They abducted an Estonian intelligence officer on Estonian soil, which is NATO soil. And they used stun grenades and the jamming of local communications to make that happen.

KELEMEN: He says NATO sources have confirmed to him that this year the alliance has had to fly three times as many missions to intercept Russian aircraft as it did in all of 2013. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.