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Russia flexes muscles amid NATO build-up

Bruce I. KonviserApril 16, 2016

Russian fighter jets "buzzed" a US naval ship in the Baltic Sea this week. But the aggressive action won't alter US plans to bolster NATO's eastern flank, where allies fear Russian aggression.

A Russian fighter jet comes within 10 meters of the deck of the USS Donald Cook, during a flyby incident in the Baltic Sea.
Image: Reuters/US Navy

When a pair of Russian jets staged an aggressive series of flybys over a US naval destroyer earlier this week, it raised questions anew in Washington about Russia's motivations.

It's not that such provocations by Russia are unheard of, but the timing seemed to catch many by surprise. Among them was Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior researcher at CNA, formerly known as the Center for Naval Analysis, an independent think tank outside of Washington.

"There was a lot more of this in the post-Ukraine crisis," he said. "The aim was to put the US on notice that Russia is unhappy with US encroachment into Russia's region of influence."

Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, described the Russian flybys as "muscle flexing, showing they can stand up to the Untied States."

Two US Navy crew members stand in front of the destroyer, the USS Donald Cook, in dock at the Black Sea port of Constanta.
US Navy destroyer, the USS Donald CookImage: Reuters

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has unilaterally sought its own territorial buffer zone, sometimes referred to as Russia's "near abroad" or "sphere of influence." The area typically includes Belarus and Ukraine to Russia's west, as well as Central Asian countries along Russia's southern flank.

The Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin has chafed over the Baltic states' accession to NATO and the EU.

In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a strong Kremlin ally, suddenly abandoned a long negotiated deal to strengthen Ukraine's ties with the EU. The move provoked massive street demonstrations, and by February Yanukovych had abandoned his office and fled the country.

Turmoil as pretext for conflict

With pro-EU forces on the ascent in Ukraine, Russia used the political turmoil as a pretext for annexing Crimea, while simultaneously provoking a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

"They certainly do want to ensure that the Kyiv government is not successful and that Ukraine does not join Western security or economic institutions," Oliker further explained via email, adding: "They did not need to invade or interfere to get those goals."

Some viewed Russia's recent military intervention in Syria as its latest act of anti-Western defiance. But the subsequent ceasefire was seen as a sign that Russia was shifting back towards a more conciliatory relationship with the West.

So the reason for the timing of this week's flybys (simulated attack maneuvers) over the USS Donald Cook was not readily apparent, although the motivation could be just to keep the US and its Western allies off-balance and uncertain as to Russia's motivations.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at a press conference following a NATO ministers' meeting in Brussels.
US Defense Secretary Ash CarterImage: Reuters/Y. Herman

"Generally there is some value in that," said Gorenburg of CNA.

Such flyby maneuvers by the Russians are not unusual, according to US Defense Department spokeswoman Michelle Baldanza, who said there were "a few" such incidents in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea in 2015.

"This isn't unusual. What is unusual is how reckless they were," Baldanza told DW, referring to how close the Russian jets flew in. The Pentagon says one jet came within 30 feet (9.1 meters) of the USS Cook, and in the video one can see the plane is so close to the water that it creates a wake.

US advances European security

Russia's provocative behavior won't alter US and European security measures, primarily the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which is moving ahead unfettered.

For the fiscal year 2017, the Pentagon has requested a quadrupling of its ERI funding in comparison with the current year, which would amount to $3.42 billion (3.03 billion euros). The ERI was launched in 2014 in response to Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine.

Baldanza cited US Defense Secretary Ash Carter's justification of the increase as necessary to countering the Kremlin's hostile actions.

"As Secretary Carter has said, we are facing a strategic challenge in Europe, and are responding with a strong and balanced approach to deter Russian aggression," she wrote in an email.

Among other things, the increased funding will allow three fully equipped combat brigades - as many as 16,500 soldiers - to continuously cycle through NATO's eastern flank. That includes the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland and the southern states of Romania and Bulgaria.

In short, the ERI funding will increase the US military presence in central and eastern Europe, allow more extensive joint military training exercises, pre-position military hardware, improve local military infrastructure, and enhance allies' military capabilities so that they can better defend themselves, according to a fact sheet on the White House website.

In short, said Oliker, "The Western build-up in Europe is driven by concerns of several European allies that Russia could pose a threat."