The videos and pictures taken by the crew members of the USS Donald Cook are as spectacular as they are disturbing. In several of the videos, American sailors can be heard nervously observing the low passes from the Russian jets, but the brazen aggressiveness drew the occasional nervous smile from crewmen who were likely equally relieved that there was no accident and entertained by their front-row seats to an air show which should never happen.
Make no mistake — those dramatic pictures of Russian aircraft flying mere feet away from a US Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer are a serious provocation bordering on an act of war. CBS News spoke with a senior defense official who said that two recent incidents were “more aggressive than anything we’ve seen in some time.”
The first, on April 11, involved two Russian SU24s, when the USS Donald Cook left the Polish port of Gdynia and was about 70 nautical miles from Kaliningrad in the Baltic Sea. The official said the Russian jets made 20 passes of the American ship and flew within 1,000 yards at an altitude of just 100 feet.
In the second incident on April 12, two Russian KA27 Helix helicopters flew several circles around the Donald Cook, apparently taking photos, after which two jets again made numerous close passes of the ship in what the official described as “Simulated Attack Profile.”
“Say they had an engine failure or a hydraulic failure, and the Russian jet had barreled into the side of the destroyer, you would have had multiple U.S. Navy casualties and possibly even the loss of a ship,” said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British security-research organization.
“That’s the sort of thing that starts wars,” he added.
Accidents can happen even with modern military technology. But the Russian-built Su-24 came into production more than 40 years ago and the last one rolled off the production line in 1993.
There are so many things with these recent maneuvers that could have gone wrong: a stalled engine; a wing clipping a gun, antenna, other piece of equipment; a mistake by the pilot; the malfunction of the flaps, hydraulics, or other equipment… In fact, so many Russian military aircraft crashed last year, including the Su-24, that some analysts used the dramatic headline that the “Russian Air Force is falling out of the sky.”
While the threat of mechanical failure or pilot error were very real, the biggest threat to the Russian planes was the sailors who control the very-advanced weapons systems of the USS Donald Cook. US Secretary of State reiterated that the commander of the USS Donald Cook had the right to shoot down the aircraft if he felt that his ship was in imminent danger. The Guardian reports:
“We condemn this kind of behavior. It is reckless. It is provocative. It is dangerous. And under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot-down,” the US secretary of state said in an interview with CNN Español and the Miami Herald.
“People need to understand that this is serious business and the United States is not going to be intimidated on the high seas … We are communicating to the Russians how dangerous this is and our hope is that this will never be repeated.”
An expert who spoke to CBS echoed the danger:
Evelyn Farkas, a former Russian policy expert for the Pentagon, told CBS News, however, that the fly-bys were undeniably “dangerous behavior” on Moscow’s part.
“They’re playing with fire here,” she said. “I’m sure that U.S. ships and other non-Russian ships have been just as close in the past. And even if they haven’t, again, they’re in international waters; there’s nothing provocative about what we’re doing. Unlike the Russians, we actually telegraph very transparently what we’re doing.”
Why would Russia pull such a risky maneuver? Probably because the Russians were confident that the USS Donald Cook would not fire. Despite the fact that the Russian planes did not communicate their identities or intent, the USS Donald Cook is one of the vanguards of the US Navy in the Black Sea. Surely they knew that these were Russian aircraft, and that Russian aircraft have repeatedly challenged NATO ships and airspace, and this was likely more of the same. The commander of such a ship would be well versed in the context, as well as the potential consequences for both inaction and action. The cool heads and steady hands of the crew and commanders of the Donald Cook prevented the flare up of a wider conflict.
A series of provocations
The Russian government would have us believe that the Russian aircraft were well within their rights when they intercepted the USS Donald Cook. Russian Defense Ministry’s Major-General Igor Konashenkov told TASS, a Russian state-operated news agency, a very improbable story about the incident:
“On April 13, crews of Sukhoi Su-24 planes of the Russian air force made planned training flights above the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea,” he said. “The route of the Russian aircraft crossed the area where the USS Donald Cook was – about 70 kilometers from the Russian Naval base.”
Spotting the ship within the visibility zone, the Russian pilots turned their aircraft away from the vessel fully observing the safety measures,” Konashenkov noted.
The ministry added that “all flights of aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces are performed strictly in accordance with the international regulations on the use of airspace over neutral waters.”
The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said the ministry “frankly speaking, even does not understand the reason for such a painful reaction of our American colleagues.” “The principle of freedom of navigation for the US destroyer, which is staying in close proximity to a Russian naval base in the Baltic Sea, does at all not cancel the principle of freedom of flight for Russian aircraft,” the official said.
First of all, Russia’s overall framing of this incident is simply absurd. Konashenkov’s statement suggests that the Russian aircraft were training in international waters while the Donald Cook was sailing through international waters, and the meeting of the two was a coincidence. But while Konashenkov justifies the fly-bys based on the fact that this ship was only 70 kilometers from a Russian naval base, this means that we are supposed to believe that a US destroyer could sail within 70 kilometers of a Russian base without the Russians noticing.
In fact, in order to comply with a series of treaties signed both before and after the end of the Cold War, NATO informs the Russian government of fleet and aircraft movement, troop deployments, and exercises ahead of time in order to de-escalate tensions and avoid miscommunication which could result in armed conflict. The Russians knew full well where this ship was, which is why their aircraft surveilled or harassed the Donald Cook two days in a row — not on one occasion, just because the Russian path matched the Donald Cook’s.
Furthermore, this was hardly an isolated incident. Russian aircraft all over Europe were behaving badly last week. On April 12, while the USS Donald Cook was being harassed by Russian aircraft for the second day in a row, Lithuanian border guard were reporting that three Russian attack helicopters flew from the Kaliningrad region, across the border, and turned around (radar was not able to register the aircraft, possibly due to their low altitude). Did these helicopters pull this maneuver after “spotting” Lithuania “within the visibility zone”? On April 14, two days later, Danny Hernandez, a spokesman for U.S. European Command, says that a Russian Su-27 “performed erratic and aggressive maneuvers” within 50 feet of a US reconnaissance plane, a highly-unmaneuverable RC-135. According to the US, the Russian jet even performed a barrel-roll above the RC-135, an extremely dangerous maneuver.
No, these are not incidents that stem from Russia responding to threats. This is part of a wider pattern of Russian military activity of threatening NATO air and sea space. CNN has interviewed Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, who said that Russia is deploying ballistic missile and attack submarines ” in numbers, range and aggression not seen in two decades.” Ferguson also said that the incident near the USS Donald Cook is the most aggressive since the end of the Cold War:
“NATO is viewed as an existential threat to Russia, and in the post-Cold War period, the expansion of NATO eastward closer to Russia and our military capability they view as a very visceral threat to Russia,” Adm. Mark Ferguson said.
“The submarines that we’re seeing are much more stealthy,” Ferguson said. “We’re seeing (the Russians) have more advanced weapons systems, missile systems that can attack land at long ranges, and we also see their operating proficiency is getting better as they range farther from home waters.”
The U.S. currently has 53 submarines in its inventory, but because of decommissioning and budget decisions, Ferguson said that figure will drop to 41 by the late 2020s.
“We cannot maintain 100% awareness of Russian sub activity today,” retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO supreme allied commander, told CNN. “Our attack subs are better, but not by much. Russian subs pose an existential threat to U.S. carrier groups.”
Every treaty, broken
By pulling these antics (violations of international norms, and highly unsafe maneuvers), having its jets fly over Europe with transponders turned off (for the first time since the end of the Cold War), conducting unannounced drills (arguably a breach of multiple treaties), and even crossing the border to kidnap a NATO counter-intelligence agent, Russia is sending a clear message — it has no interest in deescalating tension, but just the opposite.
While Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that it would like to see a re-enervated OSCE (Organization For Security and Cooperation In Europe) should replace NATO as the guarantor of security in Eastern Europe (see analysis of those statements here), Russia is out of compliance with two major treaties involving the OSCE, including the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), often refereed to as the Helsinki Accords, that formed the organization and that specifically states that major military maneuvers within 250 kilometers of “the frontier” should be pre-announced, and an invitation should be extended to all parties to observe the maneuvers. Russia is also out of compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), which the OSCE oversees, and which Russia backed out of following the illegal Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula (itself a breach of the CSCE, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and the 1997 Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet).
Russia’s “through-the-looking-glass” narrative on the bugbear of the West
NATO adherence to international treaties is the reason why Russia did not have to rely on surveillance flights to know where the USS Donald Cook was located — treaties which Moscow now breaks every single day. But in the Russian narrative, it is NATO that is the aggressor.
Last September I had the privilege of interviewing Andreas von Beckerath, the Swedish Ambassador to Ukraine. During the interview I asked the ambassador how it came to be that Western governments were surprised by Russia’s aggressive moves following the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. I explained that the Kremlin’s propaganda arm was in full swing, and I argued that all signs pointed toward what transpired. The ambassador told me, however, that this was not what the Russian government was saying behind closed doors. Ukraine’s association with the European Union, a supposed existential threat to Russia if the Kremlin’s rhetoric was to be believed, was discussed in many diplomatic channels, and never once did Russia’s diplomats express concern to von Beckerath at the prospect of Ukraine moving West. If Ukraine’s association with the EU was a real problem for Russia, it made no attempt to solve that problem through conventional means. The same scenario is playing out in the skies and seas of Europe. NATO aircraft, transponders on and radios blaring, are consistently intercepting Russian air and sea craft that make no attempt to identify themselves or state their missions and concerns. Now, Putin screams about NATO, an organization he once sought to join, because NATO is reacting to Russian aggression, not the other way around.
The latest example of Russia’s through-the-looking-glass framing of geopolitics comes from Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee. Bastrykin said that the United States was waging an “information war” and a “hybrid war,” borrowing from terms that have been used by Western analysts to describe more than two years of revanchist Russian foreign policy. As we explain in a separate analysis, Bastrykin argues that religious and youth groups need to be monitored by the government and the Internet needs to be more heavily censored in order to filter out, combat, or prosecute ideological and factual claims that run counter to the Kremlin narrative. He said:
“In the last decade, Russia, and even a number of other countries, are living under conditions of the so-called hybrid war, unleashed by the USA and its allies. This war is waged along different lines – political, economic and informational as well as legal. In fact, in recent years, it has moved to a qualitatively new phase of open resistance.”
Open resistance? To what does he refer if he has already discussed political, economic, informational and legal war? This may be a not-so-veiled reference to the military maneuvers described above. The Russian government is pushing the line that Russian society has been under attack for years, and now Russia’s physical security is threatened. In order to meet that manufactured threat, the Kremlin will destroy Russia’s civil society and all traces of Westernism in order to protect itself from this bugbear.
So this is not just about risky fly-bys and barrel rolls. And if the Kremlin succeeds in destroying all mechanisms for internal political dissent, making political change much less likely, how is this dangerous trend supposed to be reversed?