At first glance, it looked like a scene out of “Dr. Strangelove:” The Russian Ministry of Defense this week published a video of what it claimed was a pair of fighters chasing an American B-52 bomber away from Russian airspace.
But this wasn’t exactly Slim Pickens going toe to toe with the Russkies. US and Russian military aircraft regularly shadow each other in international airspace, and the US military described the incident as a “routine interaction” with a Russian Su-27 fighter.
“The pilots were using transponders and operating in conformity with international law,” US Air Forces in Europe spokesperson Lt. Col. Davina Petermann told CNN in a statement. “The Russian aircraft did not chase the B-52 away, and the bomber was able to complete its mission.”
Such midair encounters, however, do come amid a general escalation in tensions between Russia and the United States.
The US Air Force recently deployed six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Europe for “theater integration and flying training” exercises with regional allies and NATO partners. The aircraft arrived in the UK late last week as part of a show of force: The US deployed the bombers to the UK and more than 1,000 troops to Poland as concerns grow over whether Russia has or will send its own bombers to Crimea.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin has brandished new weaponry that he says is designed to thwart American defenses – and that could be aimed at the US homeland.
Relations between Russia and the United States have already hit Cold War lows in the wake of Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. And saber-rattling has continued around the globe: Late last year, Putin raised eyebrows when he sent a pair of nuclear-capable bombers to Venezuela, signaling willingness to flex military muscles in the eastern hemisphere.
All of this is against the background of a possible new strategic arms race, after the Trump administration effectively scrapped the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Moscow also suspended participation in the 1987 arms-control accord in a tit-for-tat response to Washington’s declaration it would pull out of the agreement unless Moscow complies with its terms.
So how worried do we need to be about these aerial games of chicken? Military analysts have long warned that there is chance such an incident can escalate into a diplomatic or even military conflict. Think of the crisis that followed after a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing in China in 2001 after colliding with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it.
That incident came dangerously close to being repeated last year, when a US Navy reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace over the Black Sea was intercepted by a Russian fighter jet in what the US military described as an unsafe and unprofessional manner.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said this week he does not believe Putin wants to attack the US’s allies, at least not in the conventional sense, telling CNN’s Barbara Starr: “I think it’s very clear that the price, the cost that would be imposed on Putin for doing that would far exceed whatever he could hope to gain.”
But the upshot, it seems, is that the risks of miscalculation are as high as ever.