Why Russian Bombers Keep Skirting NATO Airspace

Why do Russian long-range bombers keep flying close to NATO airspace?  It seems that every other week there is another incident where a NATO member country scrambles its fighters in response to Russian bombers that are flying too close for comfort. The most recent instance of this happened over two weeks ago, when British typhoons scrambled to intercept Russian Tu-95 bombers.

Royal Air Force Typhoon escorting a Tu-95 "Bear" bomber. Credit: Ministry of Defense via Wikipedia

Royal Air Force Typhoon escorting a Tu-95 “Bear” bomber. Credit: Ministry of Defense via Wikipedia

To understand why this keeps happening, Aviation.com had a conversation with a Russian politics expert.

What follows is an email correspondence held with Andrew S. Bowen.  Bowen is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston College. He has a Master’s degree from NYU and is a contributing analyst at the political risk consultancy Wikistrat. He is also a columnist at The Interpreter, and his writings have appeared in Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, The National Interest, The Diplomat and The Daily Beast.

Russian aircraft keep flying provocative sorties around the U.S. and Europe.  NATO says that in 2014 their aircraft have intercepted over three times as many Russian military airplanes as in 2013. What’s going on and why?

The increased sorties are designed for two international audiences and one domestic. The domestic audience sees the return of long range strategic bomber patrols as a return to a lost historical claim to greatness that was lost in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. The sorties are a way of demonstrating that, from the Russian point of view, the period in which the West could take advantage of, and dictate to, Russia is over.

The second audiences are the smaller eastern European members of NATO and the Arctic states. The sorties are increasingly being flown over the Baltic states and are intended to send a message that ultimately boils down this: NATO will not come help you, and we, if we should so choose, can invade and occupy you. In that sense the sorties are meant to both destabilize the smaller member countries of NATO and to also sow discord amongst NATO itself, between the smaller countries nearer Russia that want increased troops presence/security guarantees, and the larger members of NATO who do not see Russia as an immediate threat and are more inclined to diplomatically negotiate with Russia (Italy, Germany etc…).

The sorties are increasingly being flown over the Baltic states and are intended to send a message that ultimately boils down to this: NATO will not come help you and we can, if we should so choose, invade and occupy you.

It is also really designed to assert Russia’s dominance over the arctic and the massive natural resources that global warming is starting to reveal. Russia is building and re-building airfields, search and rescue stations all over the arctic along with creating specially designed arctic warfare units, icebreakers and even a new military command to oversee the arctic. This is making Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden and Norway extremely nervous.

In January Aviation Week named Vladimir Putin as its Person of the Year. How would you describe his role in all of this? What might his political and military goals be?

This is the question that is driving most of the Russia analysts today. There are those who see him simply as a kleptocratic criminal who has built up Russia to allow him to plunder and pillage, those who tend to see Putin as an evil dictator hell bent on restoring the lost prestige and power of the Soviet Union, and others who believe he is more responding to, than acting against the west.

I fall somewhere in between all of those analysis. Yes, Putin and Russia are corrupt to almost unimaginable levels, but that is really more of an outcome than causal force. Corruption is present because that’s how you rule a country like Russia, and how the current political structure has been set up. I see Putin as someone who has really evolved in his time in office. He was more willing to work with the west during his earlier years (although always on Russia’s terms and ensuring that they got something out of cooperation), and the Putin now who has clearly come to realize that there is no point in working with the West.

Vladimir Putin taking a ride in an Su-27. Credit Kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin taking a ride in an Su-27. Credit: Kremlin.ru

Putin, and the ever shrinking circle around him, are starting to believe in an almost messianic vision of their destiny to restore Russia to its proper place in the world and to defend it from the decaying and corrupting cosmopolitanism of the West. The color revolutions, the Maidan revolt in Ukraine, the expansion of NATO, are all coordinated designs by the West to surround, threaten and eventually convert Russia.

This turn in perception was driven not only by events internationally but domestically as well. The protests against his return to the presidency in 2011-2012 clearly shook the Kremlin.  The government says the machinations of western NGO’s and democracy promotion are merely covers to overthrow Putin’s rule, not to mention the expansion of NATO. Russia has an acute, and not unwarranted, need for Buffer zones between them and potential adversaries, thus making NATO expansion and the loss of Ukraine untenable. Putin has come to the conclusion that working with the current western-dominated international structure is not in Russia’s benefit and seeks to challenge it.

Putin has come to the conclusion that working with the current western-dominated international structure is not in Russia’s benefit and seeks to challenge it.

Additionally, on the back of rising oil prices, Russia has dramatically improved and modernized it military since 2008. It is not at the point where it can defeat the West in a conventional battle, but modern enough that it can show off its new toys, and even launch impressive operations (like Crimea) with the few units that are increasingly becoming modern, professional units (primarily the Naval Infantry, Airborne VDV, and Spetsnaz groupings). Part of the reason to be so aggressive now is the fear of lowered oil prices will diminish Russia’s ability to pressure its neighbors and the international community. I think alot of what is going on has to do with the mentality of we have some capabilities, we need to demonstrate them now while we have them because we may not be able to sustain this momentum in the future.

The U.S. and its allies have been demonstrating their aerial power, and the U.S. has been sending more of its attack aircraft over to Europe. Do you think this is meant to send a message to Russia? How have Western countries responded to increased aerial tensions?  

Most of the aircraft sent to Europe has been in response to Russia, and more importantly to calm our NATO partners disturbed by recent events. Most of the aircraft bombing the Islamic state are based in the Gulf region, from carriers, or also Turkey (although some are flying out of Italy).

Russia, as I mentioned before, has been spending a lot of money to introduce new modern equipment and reform its military from one that largely resembled the Soviet Union and relied on mass mobilization to staff its units and are almost continually undermanned. Despite these efforts and the political and economic support it has gotten, Russia essentially suffers from trying to make its military do everything. Due to its size, it needs an army in the West to fight a technologically advanced enemy, carry out rapid, mobile strikes (Crimea) and deal with smaller countries or insurgencies, and be prepared to fight a massive land war in the East.

The one place that Russia has traditionally excelled is in its airplanes. Russia is gradually replacing its SU-27 fleet with new and more modern Su-30 variants and especially the SU-35 which is a 4++ generation fighter. The SU-35 is a really remarkable fighter that has the ability to seriously challenge any of the warplanes that the West can field, with maybe the exception of the F-22. They are also developing a Mig-35 to replace the older Mig-29’s in service.

The SU-35 is a really remarkable fighter that has the ability to seriously challenge any of the warplanes that the West can field, with maybe the exception of the F-22.

Despite these gradual improvements, Russia’s military industrial complex is feeling the strain of meeting all these requirements. It is maxed out at upgrading and increasing the life of older designs, most of which date from the 70’s and 80’s, while trying to produce new viable 5th generation designs.

Russia's PAK FA T-50, their fifth generation fighter. Wikipedia commons photo.

Russia’s PAK FA T-50, their fifth generation fighter. Wikipedia commons photo.

Russia’s answer to the F-22 and F-35 is the PAK FA. Despite its impressive capabilities on paper, it has run into significant technological struggles and impediments, not to mention the fallout of a dramatically weakened economic outlook that has already had the Russian MOD reduce its planned purchases of the aircraft. Yet much of the excitement and fear over Russia’s “resurgent military” looks at the technical specs and supposes a one-on-one conflict between tanks, planes or ships, and discounts how everything has to work together (this leaves out less sexy aspects like Russia’s severe shortage of tankers for air to air refueling).

The Russian military still relies on mass conscription, leaving it woefully undermanned with competent professional soldiers able to utilize the technologies required in combat today, its designs for its modernization plans are already coming under threat due to a weakened economic climate, the multiple threats it must contend with, command and control shortcomings and a lingering inability to strategically transport units in a timely manner.  These last two things, in addition to posturing against neighboring countries, are what many of the snap exercises are designed to reduce/improve.

You can read more from Andrew Bowen in his column for The Interpreter.

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