Russia: Twenty feet from war

Several times a month since the conflict in Ukraine began, Russian jets have been buzzing Western military and civilian flights over the North Sea and as far off as the English Channel and the Atlantic. The European Leadership Network (ELN), a non-profit research group devoted to European security, has recorded dozens of close military encounters between Russian fighter jets and Western planes since the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, a majority of them over the Baltic Sea. At least eleven were described as “serious incidents of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature.” Some of these incidents, like the April 7 near miss, had a “high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and Western states.”

These incidents have occurred across Europe and near the coast of the United States and Canada. In March 2014, a Russian reconnaissance plane with its transponder turned off nearly collided with an SAS passenger plane fifty miles southeast of Malmo, Sweden. “A collision was apparently avoided thanks only to good visibility and the alertness of the passenger plane pilots,” the ELN found. And last summer, an armed Russian fighter flew within ten meters of a Swedish surveillance plane flying in international airspace between Sweden and Latvia.

For the three tiny Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the situation is particularly unnerving. Russian fighter jets based in Kaliningrad can be over Baltic airspace within minutes of takeoff, leaving hardly any time for air traffic controllers to respond. And many Russian military planes fly with their electronic transponders, which make them easy to track, switched off. With no sign of the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine coming to an end, what most frightens the peoples of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is not war by design but war by accident.