Since March, Russia has launched approximately 40 provocative military demonstrations against the West and NATO. These actions include a Russian fighter jet making 12 close passes at an American warship in the black sea.
Left unchecked, this unprecedented level of intimidation could lead to war, according to Tom Nichols, a professor at the US Naval War College and a senior associate at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
“Putin believes NATO is a weak alliance led by a weak America that will shatter at the first real military confrontation and he is trying to send that message with increasingly daring and increasingly stupid stunts,” Nichols told Business Insider by email. “My greatest fear is that he does not really understand how wrong he is about how the US or NATO really works, and that he is eventually going to run out of luck.”
According to Nichols, Russia’s current actions are not militarily significant as they do not pose a direct threat towards the West. Instead, he says, the actions are political statements intended to show that NATO is incapable of defending Europe against aggression.
The provocations are “not normal, it is not typical even of Soviet actions during the Cold War,” Nichols said. “[I]t clearly comes from the very top as an expression of Putin’s foreign policy.”
Even though the provocations are not currently a direct military threat, these actions could still lead to war. Nichols envisions two such scenarios in which a military response to Russian provocation might occur.
“First, an accident resulting from Russian recklessness. Second, that Putin misjudges NATO and engages in a provocation so extreme that the West is forced to react.”
According to a report from the European Leadership Network (ELN), Russia and the West were involved in three high-risk incidents that easily could have led to a military confrontation since March.
In March, a Swedish commercial airline almost collided with a Russian reconnaissance plane — which wasn’t transmitting its location — over Denmark. This event was followed by the kidnapping of an Estonian intelligence officer along the Russian border and the hunt for a purported Russian submarine in Swedish waters.
The following map, created by ELN, shows the nearly global scope of confrontations between Russia and Western-aligned nations. A red pin denotes a high risk encounter, a yellow pin is a serious incident, a blue pin is a routine incident, and green is miscellaneous.
Russia has also increased its rhetoric against the West in the past month.
The Russian defence minister has warned that long-range bomber patrols will reach the Gulf of Mexico. This would be the first time Russian bombers routinely flew that course, even during the course of the Cold War.
Pro-Kremlin Russian media has also published an article warning that Moscow has a “nuclear surprise” for NATO in the form of Russia and the US reaching nuclear parity.
Tom Nichols’ comments reflect his views only and do not represent the US Government.
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