Over recent days there has been a rapid escalation of military and political tensions between Russia and the US/Nato, with a series of fraught aerial incidents involving warplanes, and ongoing and planned military manoeuvres on both sides in the Baltic region that risk sparking a confrontation.
Coming against a backdrop of a harsher package of US economic sanctions against Russia that is in progress and the EU decision to extend its sanctions on Russia by another six months, it remains to be seen what counter-sanctions threatened by Russia will now materialise. But the current spike in tensions already overshadows an anticipated first meeting of presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7-8.
While the early days of Trump’s presidency in January produced speculation that the two leaders could find common ground when they meet, the situation six months later suggests damage limitation and de-escalation could instead be the focus.
“Normally, leaders of countries have at least some low-hanging fruit to pick during their first meeting, in part to prove that their meeting has yielded concrete positive results for their countries,” Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center tells bne IntelliNews. “Given the current atmosphere, including the Russian side’s decision to cancel [the scheduled June 23] closed-door meetings of [US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas’] Shannon and [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei] Ryabkov to discuss normalisation of the relationship, I have begun to doubt whether there will be an opportunity for such low-hanging fruit picking when Trump and Putin meet in Germany.”
The developments mark a worrying stage in relations between Moscow and Washington, traditionally difficult over the decades apart from a period of relative detente during the 1990s following the Soviet collapse.
On June 20, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance’s military exercises with 11,000 troops and scores of ships and aircraft now underway in the Baltic republics and Poland aim to send a strong signal of deterrence to “a more assertive Russia”.
The deployments too of new battle groups to the Baltic region also underscore that “an attack on one Nato ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance”, Stoltenberg added. The military alliance has also tripled the size of its response force to 40,000 troops, including a group that could deploy within days.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the exercises by the military alliance illustrated the West’s reluctance to give up its “anti-Russian course”, while his country and China plan to hold large naval exercises in the region immediately after Nato’s drills end. Another joint show of force is also scheduled days after Trump visits Nato ally Poland in July on his way to the G20 summit.
And in the autumn, Russia will conduct with Belarus its Zapad (“West”) military exercises with 100,000 troops along Nato’s eastern border to simulate a full-scale conflict with the alliance, the first of these regular four-yearly wargames since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
But beyond these carefully calculated shows of military strength, it is the alarming brinkmanship in the skies in the past days that raises the most worries.
The June 18 shooting down of a Syrian government warplane by a US aircraft already brought the uneasy interaction between Russia and the US-led coalition in the Syrian conflict into the spotlight once again. Russia responded by severing communications channels designed to avert mid-air incidents, and said US jets flying in Syria west of the Euphrates River would be treated as targets.
On June 19, the US said a Russian jet had flown within 1.5m of a US spy plane in the Baltic, while Moscow responded by saying that the reconnaissance plane had made a “provocative” move.
Upping the ante further, on June 21 a Nato F-16 fighter jet flew close to Defence Minister Shoigu’s plane as he flew to the Russian Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, prompting a Russian fighter plane to intercept and show a Nato pilot that it was armed by dipping its wings. The Nato jet then flew off, according to footage that was aired later.
Russian fighter jets were scrambled 14 times during the past week to intercept foreign reconnaissance aircraft near Russian borders, the defence ministry in Moscow said on June 23. The previous week, the ministry reported 18 such incidents.
Russia and Nato quickly blamed each other for aggressive intercepts in the strategically important Baltic region, which saw similar incidents earlier this and last year. In April 2016, a Russian warplane came within 9m of the US destroyer Donald Cook conducting exercises in the Baltic Sea in what the US navy described as a “simulated attack”. This was one of the closest and riskiest encounters between the countries’ armed forces in recent years.
“Such fly-bys were not uncommon during the Cold War, but their numbers went down after the end of it,” says Harvard’s Saradzhyan. “However, a combination of the crisis in Western-Russian relations over Ukraine since 2014 and the longer-term trend of increases in Russia’s defence expenditures made them routine again. The more such fly-bys occur, the greater the chances they’d end up in a collision with losses of lives that would lead to a military confrontation.”
With Western-Russian relations already at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, any confrontation, even once contained, erodes chances that the sides can resume cooperation in areas of mutual benefit such as counter-terrorism.
“Moreover, such a collision can trigger off an escalation that could lead to an armed conflict even though the leaders on both sides do not desire such a war – recall all the close calls during the  Cuban Missile Crisis,” adds Saradzhyan.