Russia’s Shadow War Testing Thinning NATO’s Patience

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon expressed his worry to reporters after jets were scrambled to escort two Russian bombers off the coast of Cornwall.

Russia’s intensifying shadow war with Europe — an old-fashioned sideshow of aggressive military manoeuvres involving air, sea and ground forces — remains secondary to the main event in east Ukraine.

But as Western leaders rally to salvage a dubious ceasefire in Ukraine’s battle-scarred Donbass region, tensions are being tested by the growing frequency of Russian encroachments on the margins of NATO-protected territory.

British Prime Minister David Cameron offered a dismissive shrug after the latest incident, in which British Typhoon fighter jets scrambled Wednesday to intercept and escort two Russian TU-95 long-range bombers off the coast of Cornwall.

It would seem “the Russians are trying to make some sort of point,” Cameron said Thursday. “I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response.”

Cameron’s muted reaction came too late for British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who earlier sounded fury and worry to reporters accompanying him in Sierre Leone, pointing to a similar intercept last month involving two Russian bombers over the English Channel.

“It’s the first time since the height of the Cold War, it’s the first time that’s happened,” Fallon said of the English Channel encounter.

Alluding to a larger litany of aggressive acts — including the capture last year of an Estonian border guard in a purported cross-border raid by Russian commandos — Fallon said NATO was preparing for the unexpected, including the possibility of greater pressure on the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“NATO has to be ready for any kind of aggression from Russia, whatever form it takes,” said Fallon. “NATO is getting ready.”

A Russian embassy official in London responded dryly, countering that Britain’s airspace was never violated by Russian aircraft and adding, “We wonder, however, how far ‘the area of U.K. interest’ stretches beyond the U.K. airspace borders.”

Two intercept-prompting Russian air encroachments in three weeks versus five such incidents in all of 2014, according to British defence officials, who cite the latest examples as part of a larger pattern of encroachments by Russian warships and submarines.

If the de facto sabre-ratting adds up to a shadow war, the shadow thus far is nowhere near as ominous as it was at the height of the actual Cold War, when late-1970s NATO leaders oversaw almost daily air interceptions of wayward Soviet war planes.

NATO efforts to project battle-ready resolve, meanwhile, took an embarrassing blow with the disclosure that a group of under-equipped German soldiers used wooden broomsticks in place of heavy machine guns during NATO exercises last year.

The soldiers, part of a joint NATO rapid-response team, painted the sticks black and mounted them on armoured vehicles to conceal their lack of arms, according to a confidential report obtained by German broadcaster ARD.

Memorable Russian movements

Air — Outrage in Sweden after six Russian aircraft simulated a mass aerial attack on a trajectory aimed at Stockholm. Adding insult to perceived injury, Sweden’s emergency air defense failed to respond, unable to mount intercepts on March 29, 2013.

Sea — Sightings of a “Russian submarine” in Scottish waters triggered a full NATO scramble involving patrol aircraft from Canada, the U.S. and France in late November 2014. Two weeks earlier Sweden announced definitive evidence of foreign submarines in Swedish waters.

Land — In a flurry of smoke and stun grenades, a Russian security team crossed into Estonia last September, abducted veteran intelligence officer Eston Kohver and dragged him back across the border at gunpoint – that’s the Estonian version. Russia’s version is that Kohver was a spy, arrested in Russia proper.

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