Probing of UK skies lays bare Russia’s sinister threat
The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia last spring was indeed a low point in relations between London and Moscow. To international observers, how and why the UK took the episode so seriously was of great interest. The events, however, were not isolated — in the last decade, Russia has actively sought to antagonize and unsuccessfully undermine Europe’s greatest military power. In the skies above and around Britain, Russian aircraft regularly have to be escorted out of the UK’s area of interest, often anything from 40 to 100 nautical miles from the coast. In November, Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, head of the British Army, warned that Vladimir Putin’s Russia presents a greater threat to British national interests than Daesh terrorists.
The last year was the busiest in a decade for quick reaction alert (QRA) missions by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Bombers from Russia approaching the UK are routinely intercepted after failing to respond to air traffic control in brazen attempts to threaten the UK, and ergo NATO. Disturbingly, they are also making international airspace more dangerous to civilian aircraft. The threat, increasingly made by long-range Blackjack bombers and submarines lurking in the North Sea, is being met by rapid reaction teams at some of the UK’s most far-flung air force bases. RAF Lossiemouth, arguably one its busiest, has had to supplement its force with nine submarine-hunting P-8 Poseidon spy planes. Meanwhile, only in November, HMS St. Albans escorted a Russian cruiser through the English Channel as it was returning from the Mediterranean.
Russian military aircraft probing UK airspace is a potent reminder of the very serious challenge that Moscow poses to not only the British Isles but to NATO more broadly. Over the last decade, the RAF has been forced to intercept Russian military aircraft more than 80 times. Not only does the presence of bomber aircraft indicate a direct military threat, the alleged photography of critical UK installations is also of grave concern. Despite the very real challenge of cyberwarfare and terrorism, Russian espionage focusing on the UK’s power connections with the continent is particularly worrying. In seeking to photograph power stations and interconnectors, it is clear that Moscow has been undertaking analyses of the UK’s four electricity and three undersea gas connections with the continent. According to Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, an attack on just one such connection could plunge millions of UK homes into darkness, causing panic, economic paralysis and indeed the loss of life.
Russian activity in and around British seas and skies cannot be assessed in isolation. Relations between London and Moscow are at a post-Cold War low as Moscow attempts to claw back some of the influence lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russian officials claim their armed forces’ rearmament and modernization are in response to NATO doing the same, especially following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. However, in reality, the Russian military has been developing its resources since its lackluster action in Georgia in 2008.
NATO allies must together increase their defense spending in order to discourage Russia from using military force against its neighbors.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In 2013, as NATO was winding down its resources and the US Army withdrew its armor from Europe, Moscow was investing billions in upgrading its military. The unwillingness of many NATO allies to meet even symbolic commitments, such as the pledge to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, has only encouraged Russia to be more aggressive and ever more assertive. According to Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, “the direct military challenge from Moscow, and verification of Russia’s willingness to use military force against its neighbors, has not translated into European countries taking a serious interest in defending themselves.”
In a recent UK House of Commons Defence Committee report, it was recommended that military spending should increase, with the committee’s chairman insisting this was “the only solution” at a time when the UK faced a growing Russian threat. The RAF retains a presence in the Baltic as well as Romania, which is critical in containing Russian ambitions following the annexation of Crimea. More importantly, NATO allies must together increase their defense spending in order to discourage Russia from using military force against its neighbors.
Despite its marked firepower, the Russian military has serious limitations: It struggles with high-intensity conflict and lacks the resources to hold large areas of territory. In unison and with the correct resources, NATO is able to significantly curtail Russian activity. However, thus far, the NATO allies have lacked the political willingness and resolve to match an ever more worrying military reality.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid