Ever since Russia’s seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, a hyper-assertive Moscow has continuously tested its neighbours’ tolerance of Russian military activities near their national boundaries.
In Europe, where Russian planes and ships have crossed into neighbouring waters or airspace dozens of times since early 2014.
And Russia has taken a provocative military stance all the way to the US, most recently in late April when nuclear-capable Russian bombers penetrated a US air defence zone near Alaska.
Russian military infringement on neighbouring borders, airspace, or bodies of water tests the resolve of Moscow’s geopolitical adversaries and demonstrates Russia’s perceived freedom of action in what it considers to be its strategic backyard.
The incursions are also a way of projecting military power without having to resort to violence. They let Vladimir Putin stay provocative and unpredictable without actually causing an escalation — so far, at least.
Incursions are such a tempting and seemingly cost-free way of rattling an opposing country that the US actually resorted to the tactic during one of the tensest moments of the entire Cold War.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, David E. Hoffman recalls a 1982 incident in which a US aircraft carrier launched a simulated attack on a Russian vessel.
The showdown demonstrates just how dangerous aerial confrontations or incursions can be, and how they can have consequences that few can anticipate.
In September of 1982, two US aircraft carriers were sent to the western Pacific on a exercise in which they “sailed within 300 miles of the Soviet Union’s major Pacific fleet base at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky,” a base the was home to ballistic missile-armed nuclear submarines, Hoffman writes.
It was a tense time during the Cold War: The impending deployment of US Pershing II missile batteries in eastern Europe, itself a reaction to the Soviet installation of SS-20 Pioneer missiles in the eastern bloc states, had raised the temperature between the superpowers
An increasingly paranoid Soviet security apparatus, under the guidance of an ageing and deeply insecure communist leadership, had ordered foreign KGB stations to actively search out signs that the NATO states were preparing for nuclear war.
President Ronald Reagan’s harsh rhetoric towards Moscow had backed the Soviets into a strategic crouch, but it had also ratcheted up the distrust between the two nuclear-armed powers to nearly unprecedented levels.
It was in this context that the Enterprise, one of the carriers involved in the September 1982 exercise, launched its simulated attack on a Russian carrier.
“Later in the autumn [of 1982], while in the Indian Ocean, the Enterprise happened upon a Soviet aircraft carrier, the Kiev,” Hoffman writes. “The commander decided to use the ship to carry out ‘a practice long-range strike against the surface force.'”
This involved sending “several aircraft on a mock attack against the Soviet ship.” According to a “Navy intelligence official,” this meant that planes from the Enterprise flew “‘several hundred nautical miles towards the Kiev, made contact, visual contact, with the Kiev and then came back.”
The Soviets has extensively monitored the Enterprise during the September exercise. It’s possible the soviets realised the american carrier was scoping them out or launching a practice attack.
And even if this put Moscow’s military planners on alert as to the US’s willingness to confront their vessels, it also deepened the Soviets’ hair-trigger mentality.
Soviet paranoia would soon spring into overdrive: In April of 1983, American jets mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace over Zelyony Island in Russia’s far east, a violation of Soviet sovereignty that rattled officials in Moscow, Hoffman writes.
As Hoffman explains, the Zelyony incident caused the Soviet military to put its fighter jets in the far east on a heightened state of alert. This determination to prevent or even punish another American incursion into their airspace culminated in tragedy on September 1st, 1983, when a Soviet fighter pilot shot down a South Korean civilian airliner that mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 onboard.
The pilot may have mistaken the aircraft for a US spy plane, but only after a cascade of miscommunication and command-and-control failures did anyone see just how badly the Soviet military was decaying at the time.
The Enterprise’s simulated attack on the Kiev carries a grim message for the present day.
Air incursions are not a free good. Even if they aren’t themselves violent, they can feed into an atmosphere in which violence becomes far more likely. And it shows how the opposition’s mentality or perception of events can remain dangerously unknowable — right up until the moment of an unintended escalation or accident.
Something like the Russian bombers’ penetration of the US air defence zone in April may seem like an alarming but overall harmless move on the larger US-Russian strategic chess board. But it may not turn out that way.
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