Top Gun 2016

May 5, 2016

Sergey Orlov

The simulated attack passes recently made by two Russian warplanes within spitting distance of the USS Donald Cook, have revived Western fears about Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy.

The Russian government tried to pretend that nothing of note had happened over the Baltic: the “buzzing” of foreign vessels has been a commonplace since the Cold War, and American pilots have mastered this routine provocation no less well than their Russian counterparts. However, the incident has prompted many experts to raise the possibility of a major war in Europe – with some claiming it may go nuclear.

Two Russian bombers made passes over the Donald Cook on April 11 and 12, coming within 10 metres of the vessel (not for the first time: exactly two years ago, the Donald Cook and Russian Su-24s crossed paths in the Black Sea).

The Americans responded by calling their actions a reckless provocation – behaviour that was simply asking for an accident. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry even declared that the Donald Cook could have opened fire and shot the Russian jets down. The Russian stance on the matter, as formulated by the Ministry of Defence, was that the manoeuvres of the Su-24s did not pose any danger, and that, futhermore, “the principle of freedom of navigation for the US destroyer does not by any means negate the principle of freedom of aviation for Russian aircraft.”

Within a week, the Kremlin was dropping hints that the real provocateurs were the Americans, levelling direct accusations at the Pentagon. As early as April 20,  Alexander Grushko, Russia’s envoy to NATO, delivered an accusatory and menacing speech: “What was the Donald Cook doing so close to Kaliningrad? Could anyone possibly suppose that a destroyer fitted out with 2,500km-range nuclear-capable cruise missiles might be cruising in the waters off New York?

This wasn’t military activity proper but rather an attempt to exert pressure on Russia.

I hope any serious people realise that Russia will take every necessary precautionary measure in response to this attempt to use military force.”

The Kremlin’s stance quickly drew support from swathes of Russian society; the Russian Internet newly awash with anti-Americanism.

User Alexander Ivanov: “Fresh hysterics from the Americans. What if our ship had come within 70km of your base – would you keep schtum then? Don’t make me laugh – you’d squeal for all the world to hear. Strutting round the planet like you own the place.”

User Anatoly: “Nicely done, but it’s time to act even tougher. The Cook must be devoured. :)) The Aggro-Saxons [sic] have to be crushed.”

User balansir: “Let ’em just stay at home – there’ll be no flybys then. I always chase away next-door’s cat when it’s rubbing up against my door.”

Professional propagandists added fuel to the fire. It was par for the course that TV agitators should do so more overtly than anyone else: “We just want to put you in your place! Because you’ve got a teeny bit insolent with your pragmatism and your idea of American exceptionalism. […] We just want you to be cruising round Mexico and not here in the Baltic,” said Channel One talk-show host Petr Tolstoy, addressing the Americans that had been invited onto his programme.

Yegor Kholmogorov, an ideologist of Russian nationalism who has often defended the Kremlin’s stance, talking on the pro-government RSN news radio station, suspected the worst: “Maybe they’re preparing a nuclear attack on us, and [the Donald Cook] is ‘probing’ for an opportunity to fire the first strike. The Americans have long entertained the idea of firing a preemptive strike on Russia to indemnify themselves against retaliation. […] I think it’d be right for our air force to make itself known to the Donald Cook every time it comes within 200km of Russia.”

The conduct of newspaper propagandist Victor Baranets was also interesting to observe. His comments in the high-circulation pro-Putin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda were relatively restrained: “When US planes make passes over our ships in the Pacific or Atlantic, we don’t blub about it so the whole world can hear.” The very next day, however, an article by Mr Baranets (who, incidentally, is a retired colonel) was published in the imperial-patriotic rag Zavtra – and here he really let loose: “Over the last quarter-century, the Americans have had this no-holds-barred thing going on: we’re sailing the seven seas, so everybody else move aside, because we’re Americans! You know what, Americans, we’re not going to bow down to you! Send your ships here and we’ll fly ever closer and ever lower – just so you know everyone’s equal at sea. The Americans have to be taught that it’d be an idea to obey international rules. If need be, we won’t shy away from destroying their ships – but strictly according to the existing rules. If one of their ships sails even 20 metres into our territorial waters it’ll immediately get missiled and torpedoed.”

We would do well to realise that, even as he holds forth on the destruction of Western ships by missiles and torpedoes, Mr Barenets feels very much representative of the mainstream. When Frants Klintsevich, a prominent United Russia member and the First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defence and Security, passed comment on the recent interception of a US spy plane by a Russian jet fighter, he was similarly beside himself with bloodlust: “We’d knock them out of the sky without a second’s hesitation. We’re intercepting them and we’ll continue to intercept them. We’re monitoring them and we’ll continue to monitor them. And we couldn’t care less what they think and what they say.”

Let’s not forget that we are still talking about neutral airspace over the Baltic …

Although voices urging the regime not to play with fire are struggling to make themselves heard in Russia, they do exist – so no one will be able to say afterward that they had not been warned. Some online selections:

User Fduch Fiveoo: “If you don’t want to give them a “reason for Russophobic hysteria, maybe you should go easy on the flybys?”

User ivan Shagin: “What’re you playing at, guys – lost it completely, have we? Simulating an attack on a military vessel – and if they’d been shot down, would they’ve been called heroes then as well?”

User Valery Popov: “Used up all their party tricks with the Turks, now they’ve moved on to the Americans. Only you ain’t gonna scare the Yanks with tomato sanctions and low tourist traffic.”

Meanwhile, independent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer believes that this Baltic brinkmanship may be playing into the hands of the Russian General Staff, which is thereby attempting to protect its budget from crisis sequestration. “The main challenge,” writes Felgenhauer, “is to avoid a European war, the probability of which is becoming ever greater. Hotspots are multiplying on Russia’s borders: Crimea, the Donbas, Karabakh, Syria – and now this incident in the Baltic, which may also lead to a very serious crisis … There is a distinct possibility of war, and if a major military conflict erupts in Europe, it’s highly likely that it will turn nuclear.” Felgenhauer puts the current probability of a major war in Europe at around 10%.

The Baltic has often been suggested as the region most likely to be next in the Kremlin’s firing line after Ukraine. Any military provocation here is particularly fraught with danger: the long-standing expectation that a conflict could erupt is in itself a trigger for conflict, and a mere trifle would be sufficient to ignite the powder keg.

This fresh altercation shows once again that the Putin regime is dangerously unpredictable, and that its basic values diverge from European ones, such that there can be no question of any long-term cooperation with Moscow. Until the West accepts that fact, and does something about it, we can expect to see more of Top Gun.

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