TSG IntelBrief: The U.S. and Russia on a Conflict Heading
June 22, 2017

The U.S. and Russia on a Conflict Heading


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On June 21, there were reports that a NATO F-16 flew close to a plane carrying the Russian defense minister over the Baltic Sea.

• On June 19, A Russian Su-27 fighter jet reportedly flew within five feet of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the Baltic Sea.

• In Syria, Russian and U.S. jets are supporting competing ground forces, and tensions have peaked.

• While the U.S. and Russia have a long history of air-brinksmanship, relations between the two countries have reached historic post-Cold War lows.


As the congressional and criminal investigations continue into the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, tensions between the U.S. and Russia are mounting on several fronts. Despite the heightened tensions, the two countries have avoided direct military confrontation—as they have done for decades, given the consequences of such a war. Nonetheless, both the U.S. and Russia are finding new and old ways in which to pressure each other. From economic sanctions, support for rival proxy forces in international conflicts, election interference, disinformation campaigns, and dangerous fighter jet fly-bys, Russia and the U.S. are nearing full-spectrum conflict outside of direct combat. There are very few areas of agreement or perceived common interest, and from Syria to the Baltic Sea, the U.S. and Russian militaries are operating in increasingly close proximity to each other. 

Of all the ways in which the U.S. and Russia are competing, an accident or miscalculation involving military jets has perhaps the greatest potential to ignite a larger fight. Since the 1950s, the U.S. and Russia—then the Soviet Union—have flown provocative flights in the vicinity of each other’s airspace. Though these flights actually occur in international airspace, they are carried out with the implicit—or sometimes explicit—intention of measuring the reaction or provoking the other side.

Even within the boundaries of provocative fly-bys, Russia has continually pushed the limits of such encounters, engaging in behavior that goes beyond provocation to border on dangerous and foolish. Conventional military forces tend to move in obvious fashion to avoid mistakes, as well as to avoid the potential for opponents to misread non-hostile maneuvers or training exercises. Ground forces not wishing to confront a rival ground force tend to stay away from the other, though in Syria that task is getting harder to accomplish. Naval forces will sometimes get closer to opposing navies, since the speed and predictable movements of ships are well-suited to shows of force with less threat of actual force. It is in the air, however, that Russia and the U.S. are most likely to accidentally fly into disaster. The speed of an accident exceeds the safeguards to avoid conflict, and Russia in particular is pushing the envelope of normal provocations.

On June 19, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet flew within five feet of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft—leaving a dangerously thin margin for error. Even within the world of U.S.-Russian air taunts, getting so close is deemed unacceptable; such taunts are considered ‘unprofessional’ and ‘unsafe’, terms not lightly thrown around by the U.S. military. In February 2017, a Russian jet ‘buzzed’ a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea several times at high speed and close range, leading the U.S to lodge a complaint using those same terms.

On June 21, a NATO F-16 fighter flew close to a military plane over the Baltic Sea carrying Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. A Russian Su-27 armed with missiles essentially ‘shooed’ the F-16 away. The incident represented a somewhat common occurrence, but happened at a time of heightened tensions and involved a very high profile passenger. The Baltic Sea region and Syria are the two most likely areas where a mistake could occur between the U.S—or NATO—and Russia. NATO is operating at a high level to counter what it views as aggressive Russian moves in the area. In terms of both rhetoric and reality, the threat of direct Russia-NATO confrontation is as high now as it has been since the 1970s. With heightened tensions across the board, the trend of dangerous provocations between the U.S. and Russia exacerbates the real risk of an accident or miscalculation that could spark a larger conflict, in which both sides stand to lose far more than they stand to gain.


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