Russia is up to something. These last few weeks we have seen a variety of bold military moves by Russia. Individually, they are all noteworthy but could be explained as expressions of local dynamics. However, when viewed together, it is too remarkable to be a coincidence.
First there was the confrontation between American and Russian forces in Syria, which left seven U.S. soldiers injured after their vehicle was rammed by a Russian vehicle.
Then Sweden found it necessary to raise the military readiness level for the first time since 1991 in response to what appears to be large-scale Russian exercise activities including operations with amphibious forces in close vicinity to the island of Gotland.
Then Russia held substantial naval exercises in the Bering Strait close to Alaska. The Russians had apparently chosen an exercise area that brought them into close contact with American fishermen. There was much talk on the internet about a Russian nuclear submarine submerging close to Alaska, but that may have turned out to be a false story. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable exercise that included firing of cruise missiles from the nuclear submarine Omsk and the Slava-class cruiser Varyag. Also in Alaska, the US Air Force has been scrambled six times in the month of August to intercept Russian aircraft, which is a lot considering that it normally happens about the same number of times in a year. 2020 is well on its way to setting a new record for such interceptions in Alaska.
Finally, last Friday a Russian Su-27 Flanker performed some rather braindead maneuvers in front of an American B-52 bomber over the Black Sea. NATO later announced that on the same day, another Su-27 violated Danish airspace close to the island of Bornholm. This is the first time since 2014 that a Russian aircraft has violated Danish airspace, so it is a rare incident.
So what is going on? Viewed in isolation, each of these incidents could be explained as reasonably within or just slightly beyond a normal pattern of operations. But when held together, it is clear that something extraordinary is happening. So many noteworthy things don’t just happen by coincidence. It has got to be a coordinated effort on the part of the Russian military to increase tensions.
The New York Times have also noticed the remarkable level of Russian assertiveness, and they conclude that it must have something to do with U.S.-Russia relations. I don’t think so. This much military saber rattling within a few weeks indicates that there is something more specific going on, and the unusually intensive Baltic connection suggests that this region has particular significance.
I say it is about Belarus. The message is that the West should keep the heck out no matter what Russia choses to do in that country. They are reminding us the many ways it can become unpleasant if we continue to interfere. Foreign minister Lavrov has indicated that in Russia’s view, EU and NATO carry the blame for the current turmoil in Belarus, because the West keeps enticing the protesters.
What we are witnessing is a military shaping operation that creates the conditions for Russian interference in Belarus. This does not mean that Russia will actually interfere, and in fact they’d probably rather avoid committing forces in Belarus. But they are preparing the environment to make it possible if need be.
Oh, and the Navalny poisoning may be a part of this operation too. The only reason to use the novichok nerve agent is if you want people to know who did it. It is a friendly reminder of how ruthless the Russian authorities can be, and that the real losers in Belarus will be the protesters that the West supposedly cares about.