Vladimir Putin has sent more Russian jets to fly by NATO countries this year than any time since the end of the Cold War more than two decades ago. In addition recent reports of Russian bombers running possible dry runs for nuclear bombing raids, and record numbers of Russian jets intercepted off the coast of Japan, NATO countries were forced to scramble their fighters to run off 26 Russian aircraft in just a two-day span earlier this week.
In fact, NATO countries have sent their planes into the sky about 100 times in 2014, just to tell Russian jets to get lost. The number is much higher when counting non-NATO allies such as Japan. But with two months still remaining in the year, even 100 is more than three times the total from 2013.
What is going on? Has Vladimir Putin lost his mind completely, willing to risk World War 3 for no apparent reason by sending his jets perilously close to European, Japanese, and even North American territory? Or does the Russian strongman have a master plan, of which the threatening aerial maneuvers are just a part?
“This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia is preparing for war, and open conflict between Russia and NATO countries still seems pretty unlikely,” writes Joshua Keating, international affairs reporter for Slate.com. “It probably has more to do with Russia seeing how much it can get away with, and making it clear that it disapproves of Europe’s pro-Ukraine stance.”
That analysis is probably correct, but doesn’t really go far enough, according to former Moscow Times editor-in-chief and current Bloomberg News foreign affairs expert Marc Champion.
According to Champion, the Russian jets buzzing NATO countries are Putin’s form of “shoe-banging,” a reference to former Soviet Union Premier Nikita Kruschev who, while speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, took off his right shoe and banged it on the podium — as a way to command attention, but more importantly, to lead the West into believing that he was crazy.
Just crazy enough to start World War 3 if pushed too hard.
Putin himself compared his global strategy to that of his Communist predecessor of more than 50 years ago, in an interview last week.
“We had such brilliant politicians as Nikita Khrushchev, who hammered the desk with his shoe at the UN,” Putin said in the interview. “And the whole world, primarily the United States and NATO thought: this Nikita is best left alone, he might just go and fire a missile, they have lots of them, we should better show some respect for them.”
But though the United States and Soviet Union were pushed to the brink of nuclear war during the Kruschev era, Putin is playing an even more dangerous game, according to Champion. During the Cold War, Soviet-controlled territory was clearly defined, behind “the Iron Curtain.”
Today, Vladimir Putin and the Russians see former Soviet republics such as Ukraine as rightly part of Russia. But the United States and NATO see Ukraine and other such countries as their own, independent states, with the total right to decide their own futures.
Without clear “rules” to Putin’s game, the slightest slip on the part of the West could trigger a disastrous response. As Keating notes, the June 17 shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine proved that “tragedies can happen when there are itchy fingers on the triggers of anti-aircraft missiles.”
Or nuclear missiles.
Could the Russian jets sent by Vladimir Putin to harass NATO countries set off an even more catastrophic tragedy? That scenario is exactly what experts such as Keating and Champion, as well as NATO leaders, now fear.