Key point: This kind of aggressive behavior was rountine in the Cold War but now it has made a return. Here is why such games of chicken are a very bad idea.
Over the past few years, there has been a surge of alarming incidents between U.S. and Russian military aircraft. Most of the cases have entailed U.S. spy planes flying near the Russian coast adjacent to the Black Sea—supposedly in international airspace. It is a reckless practice that easily could escalate into a broader, very dangerous confrontation.
The Black Sea region definitely is the epicenter of such episodes. On July 30 of last year, a Russian Su-27 jet fighter intercepted two American surveillance aircraft; according to Russian officials, it was the fourth time in the final week of July that they caught U.S. planes in that sector approaching the Russian coast. Yet another interception took place on August 5, again involving two U.S. spy planes. Antiwar.com analyst Jason Ditz notes that although U.S. officials did not comment on why those spy planes are there, “the U.S. has seemed to have a growing interest in the Black Sea as tensions grow between Russia and NATO member Romania over control of that inland sea.”
Following the July 30 episode, U.S. officials claimed that the Russian Su-27 “buzzed” the American aircraft, creating a needless safety hazard. That complaint is a frequent U.S. response to such encounters. In January 2018, the Pentagon asserted that a Russian fighter came within five feet of a U.S. Navy plane in an incident over the Black Sea. Similarly, in September 2016, Washington alleged that a Russian fighter flew within ten feet of the U.S. aircraft it was trying to intercept.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of interceptions of U.S. and NATO military planes each year, not only in the Black Sea region but over the Baltic Sea and areas along the lengthy land border between NATO members and the Russian Federation. In addition, troubling incidents have involved Russian planes buzzing U.S. and NATO ships.
Although both sides can be faulted for engaging in needlessly provocative and dangerous behavior, the United States deserves the bulk of the blame. As ABC News noted in an April 2020 investigation into such close encounters, most of the episodes have been in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. The report noted further that “U.S. officials believe Russia’s close encounters with the U.S. military are prompted by Russia's effort to reassert itself militarily around its borders.”
Granted, Russian aircraft have sometimes conducted provocative aerial approaches to U.S. territory, especially near Alaska, and the frequency of that behavior seems to be growing. Nevertheless, the number of such incidents is dwarfed by the surging U.S. military presence along Russia’s border and the incidents that a more robust presence is generating. In other words, most of the interceptions are taking place near Russia and thousands of miles away from the American homeland. The undeniable reality is that the United States and its NATO allies are crowding Russia, not that Russia is crowding the United States, and the aerial encounters must be viewed in that context.
One would think that U.S. military and political leaders would exercise greater caution. It is highly unlikely that the information gathered from spy planes flying off of the Russian coast adds so much to the intelligence already available from satellites that it is worth the risk of a collision and the dangerous diplomatic and military fallout that would ensue. Indeed, the current crop of officials should have learned that lesson from the April 2001 crisis that erupted when a U.S. surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter. Not only was the Chinese pilot killed, but the damaged U.S. aircraft had to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island.
The following days were filled with alarming tensions. Beijing was understandably miffed but then escalated the confrontation by refusing to release the aircraft and—even worse—refusing to release the crew. Eventually, the two governments reached an awkward compromise with George W. Bush’s administration issuing an ultra-vague apology and the crew being able to return home. China, though, kept the aircraft and its sophisticated technology.
Perhaps most troubling, anti-China hawks in the United States sought to exploit the crisis to promote a much harder-line overall foreign policy toward Beijing. An article by neo-conservative luminaries William Kristol and Robert Kagan was typical. The authors described the conciliatory U.S. response as “a national humiliation.” Kristol and Kagan saw much wider, dangerous ramifications from such alleged appeasement. “As the Chinese understand better than American leaders, President Bush has revealed weakness. And he has revealed fear: fear of the political, strategic, and economic consequences of meeting a Chinese challenge. Having exposed this weakness and fear, the Chinese will try to exploit it again and again.”
It is a safe bet, that given the current extent of hostility toward Russia among America’s opinion elites, hawkish types would be even more likely to magnify any crisis involving a similar incident. There would be massive political and media pressure on the White House to take an uncompromising stance against Moscow and “stand up to Putin.” The already dangerous cold war with Russia could easily turn hot. Officials authorizing the provocative spy plane flights along Russia’s borders are playing a game of international chicken. And as the outcomes of games of chicken using automobiles have shown far too often, they can end tragically. Responsible military and civilian officials should not behave in such a juvenile fashion.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of twelve books and more than 850 articles on international affairs. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.