The past week has seen what observers are calling an “unusual level of air activity” over European airspace. On October 28th, NATO detected and tracked seven Russian combat aircraft over the Baltic Sea. The 29th saw the Royal Norwegian Air Force scrambled to intercept eight Russian aircraft, six of which turned back towards Russia, while the remaining two flew on to Portugal before returning home. On Friday the British RAF scrambled typhoons to respond to a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bomber (Bear bomber) as it approached UK airspace. Overall, NATO has scrambled to intercept Russian jets more than 100 times so far this year, a threefold increase over the 2013 total. This flurry of activity, many argue, is indicative of Russian military (and political) resurgence and adventurism – it is testing NATO’s defenses and gauging reaction times (and resolve), contemplating its next move as the West tries to respond to the annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian rebels.
Of particular concern is the fact that the Bear bombers are a launch platform for the Raduga Kh-55 nuclear-tipped cruise missile (with a 1,600 nautical mile range), which has led commentators to speculate that Russia is rehearsing nuclear strikes (not a totally foreign concept – consider the 2009 Zapad exercises ending with a nuclear attack on Warsaw). The Russians also failed on at least some of these excursions to adhere to international air traffic norms – the Daily Beast reports that the Russians did not file a flight plan and did not activate transponders. Such actions prevent civilian air traffic controllers from seeing the Russian bombers – especially problematic in the busy airspace over the Atlantic – and thus increase the chances of a collision with a civilian airliner.
Furthermore, it is important to note that Russia has actually tested all three legs of its nuclear triad over the past few days. On Wednesday, the Yury Dolgoruky – a Borey-class submarine – launched a Bulava missile from its submerged position in the Barents Sea. This was its first operational test launch as part of combat training. And on Saturday the Russian Defense Ministry announced the successful test of a Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile, claiming that it demonstrated overall good performance and hit its designated target.
At the same time, states do not act in a vacuum. The U.S. Strategic Command’s Exercise Global Thunder 15 – STRATCOM’s largest annual exercise – ended on October 29th. This exercise includes a specific focus on nuclear readiness and includes flying B-52s and B-2s (both long-range multi-role bombers capable of delivering nuclear munitions) up to the Arctic and back, more or less simulating a one-day nuclear war. According to some observers, it is frequently followed by Russian long-range bomber exercises, which would suggest that recently observed activity is not as far outside the norm as some suggest. Arguably, Russia is simply responding to an American demonstration of military and nuclear might with one of its own, in keeping with normal patterns.
One also needs to seriously consider the intent behind the recent activity – conducting military exercises, test launches, and so forth are actions that should communicate a specific message of some kind. A key (and potentially dangerous) challenge in such messaging, however, is to understand the content and to correctly identify the intended recipient(s). For example, is Russia using its Bear bombers to warn Finland and Sweden away from NATO? To remind Europe in its entirety that Russia is a great and nuclear power willing to use force? To demonstrate to the U.S. that it is willing to go further in a game of chicken, ignoring international norms in conducting its exercises? These are all definite possibilities, but we cannot ignore the idea that the intended audience is the Russian population or security services. The Russian economy is struggling under the weight of international sanctions and (probably more importantly) the sustained low price of oil. President Vladimir Putin may be relying on sentiments of nationalism, inflamed by challenging a West bent on keeping Russia weak and subservient, to sustain legitimacy and power in the face worsening conditions. That is certainly one explanation for the presence of a television crew aboard the Yury Dolgoruky when it launched a missile on Wednesday: there is nothing quite like bringing the nation along with you to the successful launch of the very weapon that has for so long symbolized Russian power to stir national pride.
For the time being, while NATO may get a better measure of Russian capabilities thanks to their increased activity, Putin’s precise intent will likely remain unknown. This is not to suggest that the West should not respond, however. Increasing NATO’s presence in its East, scrambling to respond to Russian bomber flights, and similar actions are perfectly acceptable and perhaps even necessary replies to Russia’s activism. It Is important for the West to attempt to decipher, understand, and respond to Russia’s actions (and messages), but it is equally important to consistently send explicit messages of our own. The execution of Global Thunder last month is an excellent example of such messaging. While some argue that conducting nuclear exercises at a time when tensions are so high threatens to aggravate the situation, for the U.S. to cancel the exercise would have inevitably communicated the idea that the U.S. (and NATO by proxy) were backing down in the face of Russian aggression and power. This in and of itself has the potential to further incentivize Russian adventurism in its neighborhood. At the very least, it would weaken an important disincentive. Moving forward, the Atlantic Alliance should focus on decoding Russian messages and undertaking activities that explicitly communicate both its commitment to upholding its obligations and its willingness to resist and counter Russian aggression in all areas (preferably without inducing unintentional escalations).