April 22, 2016 | Commentary on Russia, Ukraine, National Security and Defense

Russia Exercises Need for Speed

Will someone please call the Kremlin ASAP and ask them to remove all copies of the movie “Top Gunski” from the ready rooms of Russia’s fighter pilots?

Their aerial acrobatics are dangerously out of control.

Not only is somebody going to get killed unnecessarily, but the jet jocks’ capers could easily precipitate an international crisis — or worse — between two of the world’s most powerful states.

Last week, we had a Russian Su-24 Fencer “buzzing” the USS Donald Cook operating in international waters in the Baltic Sea. On one pass of the American destroyer, the Fencer reportedly came within 30 feet of the ship.

Reminiscent of the “Gutsiest move I’ve ever seen, man” or, better yet, the “Stupidest move I’ve ever seen, Ivan,” the U.S. warship seemed within its right to knock the Fencer out of the sky considering the potential threat it posed.

That was bad enough.

Then again last week after the Cook incident, we had a Russian Su-27 Flanker­ “hotdogging” it around a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft also operating in international airspace over the Baltic Sea.

The Flanker reportedly came within 50 feet of the American four-engine jet and executed a “barrel roll” over the top of it, starting on one side of the RC-135, rolling up and over it, and coming down on the other side.

A maneuver best reserved for air shows.

While these events got lots of news coverage here, we’ve seen this sort of aggressive Russian air behavior a lot lately — meaning that these tactics aren’t isolated incidents of bad judgment hatched locally, but instead are Russian national policy.

So what’s at play here?

Russia and members of the NATO alliance are very unhappy with each other right now. The seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea has left frontline states (Poland and the Baltics) nervous and the return of some U.S. troops to Europe to deter further Russian aggression has upped tensions.

More specifically, these egregious events in the air and at sea may revolve around a little-known place called Kaliningrad, a piece of Russian territory on the Baltic Sea wedged between NATO members Poland and Lithuania.

Russia is reportedly adding military muscle to this strategically-located outpost, which Red Army troops grabbed in 1945, giving rise to anxiety about what might be motivating Moscow’s moves.

One possibility is that the Kremlin may try to seize a permanent pathway from Russia to Kaliningrad through Lithuania. It now relies on Lithuanian roads and rail — and political good will — for Kaliningrad’s resupply.

The other worry is that, instead of a Lithuanian land grab for access to Kaliningrad, Russia could move against some or all of the Baltic States to (re)annex them. Kaliningrad would be critical in fending off a NATO military reaction.

While messing with NATO is a whole different fight from messing with non-NATO Ukraine, Russia’s intentions are basically unknown regarding the Baltics, but the Crimea case is cause for concern.

So, despite the provocative aviation attempts at intimidation, it makes sense for us to continue operating in the Baltics at sea, in the air and on the ground to let Moscow know that we’re watching — and we’ll be ready — if Russia decides to roll.

- Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in the Boston Herald