Thursday, 14 April 2016

Russian aircraft buzz US warships and the Ukraine connection

Two Russian Su-24 fighter jets made extremely close passes over a US naval ship operating in international waters in the Baltic Sea.

The jets made 11 simulated attack passes near the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook, coming so close to the ship that they caused waves in the water as sailors looked on. A Russian Ka-27 helicopter also made seven passes around the US ship, taking photos. According to an anonymous US official, Russian pilots did not answer attempts by US sailors to contact them via radio.

The incident on April 12 followed another on the previous day, when two Russian jets made 20 passes over the ship, coming within about 914 meters. The ship had recently left the Polish port city of Gdynia with a Polish helicopter on board.

Imagery of Russian Su-24 over USS Donald Cook
The same US official told Reuters the ship's commanding officer called the incident unsafe and unprofessional, which is a bit of an understatement. Military tension between Russia and the West continues to grow in what both sides appear to view as a long-term standoff. To understand these manoeuvres, they must all be read within the framework of the Ukraine conflagration.

Recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry travelled with former-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to Moscow for talks with the Russians on the fate of Ukraine.

Later reports suggest the negotiations fell apart. The Americans are playing hardball over Ukraine because Washington is in a far stronger position than Moscow. The ideal scenario for both the US and Russia is a Ukraine that is at least neutral, rather than aligned to either power. But Kiev and the majority of its population wants closer ties to the EU and US, so is pressuring Washington to back it in negotiations.

There appear to be two schools of thought within the State Department about the final outcome of Ukraine: back its Western integration no matter what, or force Russia to accept limitations on influence in Ukraine. Neither option will result in the US pulling away from the region, which is clearly a goal for Moscow.

Buzzing US warships therefore not only signals to Washington that the Baltics is Russia’s backyard (US aircraft would do the same to Russian warships operating in the Gulf of Mexico), it shows that Russia is falling behind the US around the Ukraine table.

Russia considers the encroachment by NATO and other Western institutions into Former Soviet Union countries as an existential threat. So it pushes back, every time ratcheting up the aggression to send that message to Washington and Brussels.

Will its aggression lead to war? This is precisely the question Pentagon planners are asking. Such a threatening military show of force probably required sign-off from the Kremlin, and was unlikely to have been a local commander’s decision (if it was, dissent inside Russia is darker than previously thought). But with so many moving parts – some of which are nuclear – Eastern Europe runs a real risk similar to the South China Sea where a single mistake by a sailor, soldier or airman could escalate tensions into a shooting war.

Ultimately, the Russian aircraft must be viewed in the context of negotiation tactics centred on Ukraine. The process is standard: negotiators arrive, make demands, these demands are rejected and the parties go home. The cycle rinses and repeats. All of it is theatre until one side either loses its strategic initiative in the physical world or a mutually agreeable situation is reached.

By the way things are going, it appears the Americans believe they can leverage greater concessions from the Russians over Ukraine. And if the price of oil, the Kremlin’s shrinking coffers and the EU/US sanctions are all taken into account, Washington is probably correct in this estimation. Hence why it is playing tough at the table.

Russia isn’t in a good spot strategically or financially, so buzzing a guided missile destroyer while it prepares to ramp up its support for Ukraine separatism in the summer are two ways it can signal its intentions and limited power. Moscow still has some options to force its own set of concessions from Kiev and Washington, but those are dwindling. And as they dwindle, the Russians may get more desperate.

One more thread needs to be considered. Russia’s partial extraction from Syria last month was timed to assist the looming next round of Ukraine negotiations. From Washington’s perspective, the Russians did it a favour by assisting Syrian President Bashar al Assad. But the help hasn’t boosted Moscow’s position as much as it thought.

Since the US announced it wouldn’t support the Syrian regime, in late 2015 it faced a potential scenario in which the Islamic State (the strongest non-state group in Syria) was poised to take advantage of the failing regime to control the entire Syrian state. That was unacceptable for both the US and Russia.

So the Russians stepped in to assist their long-time ally Mr al Assad and avoid the regime’s collapse. Russia had its own reasons to make this move, but the cold facts of geopolitics were the true driving force. The Syrian regime was subsequently strengthened and even retook key strategic towns and roadways, pushing rebel and IS forces back. All with help from Russian advisors, special forces and airpower.

Whether the US and Russia came to an understanding about this is known only to those operating in the shadows. To discover exactly what was spoken between the two powers, the public will have to wait 50 years until the intelligence files are declassified – if they ever are. Yet geopolitically, Russia’s intervention gave the US breathing room and meant it wouldn’t need to intervene in Syria after all.

Again, this must be framed along the negotiations unfolding over Ukraine, since that country’s fate is in Moscow’s core interest, not Syria. Mr Putin thought the temporary stabilisation of Syria bought him some goodwill or at least better negotiating terms. Yet judging by the heat of the talks and the buzzing of US warships this week, Mr Putin will now be looking for more effective options to bolster Russia’s stance.

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