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The mystery of the Russian planes that never were

Is Russia a military threat to the west? A larger past and closer detail offer fresh light.   

lead An overhead view of Admiral Kuznetsov, aircraft carrier, August 2012. Wikicommons, Ministry of Defence. Some rights reserved.Most analysts blame Vladimir Putin’s aggressive political stance for the renewed hostility between Russia and the western states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). The deteriorating relationship has been evident for a decade and more. The fallout from Moscow's interventions in Georgia / South Ossetia (2008), Ukraine / Crimea (2014), and Syria (2015), as well as its reported disruption in the United States presidential election (2016), are but the main episodes. Lesser ones include displays of military strength that attract wide coverage in the western media.  

Before looking in more detail at the latter, it is worth offering a touch of historical perspective on great-power interference. In particular, at a time when Moscow's role in the US election is hotly disputed, a certain degree of hollow laughter is appropriate given Washington's (and London's) own dedicated efforts to influence elections and other political processes in many countries over many decades.

One person involved in a Congressional investigation into CIA activities is Loch K Johnson, an experienced intelligence analyst at the University of Georgia. He characterises Russia's recent election endeavour as simply a cyber-age version of past US activities:

“We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947.  We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners – you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash" (see Scott Shane, "Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too.", New York Times, 17 February 2018).

US actions have gone much further than merely trying to undermine elections – as indeed have Britain’s in the Middle East, including the overthrow of Iran's prime minister in 1953. These actions were memorably described by the much-decorated marine corps major-general, Smedley D Butler, in his memoirs:

“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

The bigger picture

All this puts Russia's own numerous machinations, past and present (including in its incarnation as the Soviet Union), in the larger frame of routine great-power politics. In this light too, another view is possible on Russia’s recent media-heightened projection of military force.

A case in point is the deployment of the aircraft-carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean in January 2017, which provoked a great ruction in Britain's media. The vessel is in reality an ageing warship more than thirty years old, prone to repeated propulsion mishaps and apt to have much of its plumbing freeze up, including toilets. Since its home port was on Russia’s Arctic coast, this alone was a bit of a drawback (see "Britain's military: costs of failure, symbols of vanity", 26 January 2018).   

On the rare occasions when the carrier actually went to sea, it would be accompanied by an ocean-going tug in case it broke down. Indeed, when it finally got to the eastern Mediterranean in its recent deployment it lost two of its twelve strike-aircraft due to malfunctions. Most of the rest were eventually flown off to conduct their bombing raids from a Russian airbase within Syria, thus not from the Kuznetsov itself. In spite of all this, the ship's advance near to the UK's territory was still heralded in the British press as proof of a Russian threat and of the consequent need to increase military spending. 

The frequency of Russian probes towards British airspace is further cited by Britain's defence lobby as an even scarier indication of that threat. Regular reports of near incursions by those Tu-95 bombers, complete with accompanying videos, were offered as additional proof of Russia’s steady rise to global power (see "Russia and the west: risks of hype", 6 October 2016).

Russia may present many dangers, it may have plenty of nuclear weapons, and may have a leader determined to take risks to make Russia great again – but such reports of its frequent air incursions are anything but true. A recent freedom-of-information request to the UK defence ministry, reported by Jane’s Defence Weekly, shows a rather different state of affairs. In each of the years 2013, 2014 and 2015, the RAF scrambled fighters on seventeen, twenty, and twelve days respectively: but many were not in response to Russian sorties, which stood at just eight for each of the years.

Moreover, in 2016 only five of the twelve days of "QRA" launches involved Russian aircraft, and in 2018 the incidence was only three out of six days (see Gareth Jennings, “UK notes marked decrease in number of days QRA intercepts flown against Russian aircraft", Jane's Defence Weekly, 12 February 2018).

Such results are starkly different from public perceptions, as cultivated by the media. They remain one of the sustained planks in the narrative of a new threat from Russia. Even the data on the Russia flights only came to light through dedicated inquiry to unravel the information. Meanwhile, alarmist defence sources say next to nothing about the huge cost overruns on Britain's own new aircraft-carriers, its nuclear-attack submarines and Trident replacements. The imbalance of attention is extreme.

Perhaps the best way to look at the big picture is with another of Smedley D Butler’s choice quotes, dating from 1935:

 “A few profit – and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can't end it by disarmament conferences. You can't eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can't wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.”

US Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler,(July 30, 1881 – June 21, 1940) at the time of his death the most decorated Marine in US history. Wikicommons, public domain.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers, delivered to the Food Systems Academy in late 2014, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. The lecture - "The crucial century, 1945-2045: transforming food systems in a global context" - focuses on the central place of food systems in human security worldwide. Paul argues that food is the pivot of humanity's next great transition. It can be accessed here


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