Russia has significantly increased its military activity in the skies around Western European NATO members, according to a new report that warns the tactic could present a danger to civilian aircraft.
NATO forces in Europe scrambled fighter jets to intercept approaching Russian aircraft — so-called Quick Reaction Alerts or QRA — close to 800 times last year. That’s almost double the figure from 2014, according to London-based analyst group The Henry Jackson Society.
Its report calls for improved communication and clearer rules of engagement between Western European powers and Moscow to avert potentially dangerous incidents.
The tactic was routine in the Cold War, but has been revived by Moscow since relations have deteriorated between Russia and the West following Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Report author Andrew Foxall says the Russian tactics are partly propaganda.
“Russia is able to portray itself theoretically as being strong, and NATO members and NATO as a whole being weak. And this works very well domestically with President Putin,” he said.
But Foxall adds that the flights also allow Russia to harvest intelligence.
“On channels of information between NATO member states; it’s able to gain information on the abilities of the Royal Navy captains and Royal Air Force pilots. It’s able to gain information on our early warning system for example,” he said.
Russian naval activity also has increased in the Baltic Sea and north Atlantic, especially around the Scottish home of Britain’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet. Foxall says the British Royal Navy fears its submarines could be tracked.
“If Russian submarines were able to, in a sense, record the unique acoustic signature of those submarines then that would have a very, very detrimental effect on the UK’s ability to defend itself,” said Foxall.
In turn, Russia accuses NATO of buzzing its airspace. A video released by the Kremlin last month appears to show a NATO Typhoon jet shadowing a plane carrying Moscow’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.