There’s a temptation to believe the world is spinning faster now on its axis, as events which we would once chew over for months, worrying the juiciest meat off the bones first, are now shoved aside in only days by the next consecutive Richter-scale happening. For instance, it was only a couple of months ago that many – and I include myself – thought Radek Sikorski was a shoo-in for NATO Secretary-General. This was somewhat worrying, since Sikorski is not only a Russophobe of the first rank, he is married to another just like himself, The Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum.
But Sikorski was passed over in favour of colourless nonentity and lifelong politician Jens Stoltenberg, and we breathed a sigh of relief. Before we could even take a close look at Stoltenberg, Radek Sikorski shit the bed in such spectacularly colourful and dramatic fashion that he immediately sucked all the air out of the Troposphere, confiding to U.S. website Politico that he had been present when Vladimir Putin told Donald Tusk that Ukraine was an artificial country (the west loves that one, and repeats it brainlessly although Putin has never, ever said anything of the kind), and proposed that Poland and Russia divvy it up. Naturally – so went Sikorski’s narrative – the honorable Polish politicians put him straight right away, and told him they would never be involved in anything so parvenu and underhanded.
Well, that’s not quite what happened. Some analysts suggest that Sikorski was actually floating a trial balloon, to see what world reaction would be to the suggestion that Ukraine be divided, so that maybe Poland might end up with some of it before Putin systematically took it all back in his typically businesslike fashion. I have no idea if that’s what was actually in his head, but if that was his plan, the response must have made him think he fell asleep in the bath and put his wet hand into a toaster. When a little quick checking revealed the bilateral meeting he described had not taken place anywhere around the time he said it did, this “passionate and articulate” politician said he had “become confused”, that his memory had failed him. He apologized to Mr. Tusk and to the preceding Polish Foreign Minister for any embarrassment he might have caused them – pointedly not apologizing to Mr. Putin – and said the exchange had actually taken place in Bucharest in 2008, and that Mr. Putin might have been “only joking”. By then it was obvious he was only thrashing about and doing what he should have done in the first place – Googling to find out when this meeting that only occurred in a dream in his head might have taken place, based purely on the principals being in the same place at the same time. He would have been forced to say he heard Putin and Tusk discussing it in the Men’s room while he was disguised as a shoeshine boy if it had gone much further, but since he is so well-connected, the press took pity on him and the whole thing just went away. But political damage has a way of sticking with you for so long as your rivals are alive, and although a dramatic comeback is possible for Sikorski, it’s just about as likely to happen for J.J. Cale.
Anyway, all of that caused us to take our eye off the ball, the ball being Stoltenberg. A former Prime Minister of Norway, you might think his being chosen reflected a desire for better relations with Russia, since Norway and Russia have pursued a fairly pragmatic relationship in modern history.
Not a bit of it.
Once that might have been true. His sister, whom he claimed was influential upon his entry into politics (into which he was born, actually, his father having been an ambassador, defense minister and foreign minister and his mother serving as state secretary in several governments during the 1980’s), was a member of the Marxist-Leninist group “Red Youth”, and Stoltenberg himself was leader of the Workers Youth League. Once he settled down and decided to get a job – working for Statistics Norway as well as working part-time at the University of Oslo – he became friendly with a Soviet diplomat…whom the Norwegian police at some point advised him was a KGB agent.
In 2010, Prime Minister Stoltenberg and President Medvedev signed an agreement which settled a long-standing marine border dispute between their two countries, an arrangement which replaced a controversial temporary agreement that had been brokered by Jens Evensen and Arne Treholt, and I be go to hell if the latter was not also a Russian agent, who assisted the Russians in securing the agreement. So on at least two occasions, Stoltenberg has had firsthand acquaintance with Russian treachery. Throw in a little seasoning like the contention that his first cabinet as Prime Minister was modeled after Tony Blair’s New Labour, his government oversaw the most widespread privatizations in Norwegian history and his foreign policy favours increased defense spending, and you begin to get a feel for where he might want to take NATO. And, more to the point, why he was chosen for the position.
But that’s a story for another day.
What I wanted to talk about today is the emergence of a disturbing meme – that whenever aircraft of the Russian Air Force conduct sovereignty patrols or reconnaissance flights, they endanger civil aviation. This notion has been floated by several sources lately, and it is bullshit.
The first I noticed it (more accurately, it was brought to my attention) was almost a month ago, at the end of October. NATO, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno and Pentagon spokeswoman Vanessa Hillman all voiced what they described together as a “troubling trend” (and which Odierno referred to as “Russian aggression”). Russian aircraft – frequently the Tupolev TU-95 “Bear” bomber, a favoured Soviet reconnaissance aircraft which first flew in 1952 and entered service in 1956 – flying in international airspace now have NATO’s panties in a bunch, because they might be a danger to passing civilian flights. “We have been keeping track of incidents and have noticed an increase in Russian flights close to NATO airspace since the start of the Ukraine crisis,” said Lt. Col. Hillman; “We don’t think those flights help de-escalate the current situation at all.”
Close to NATO airspace. Which means not in it. Russian aircraft flying in international airspace should clear their flight plans with NATO and the Pentagon beforehand, so that those authorities could lecture Moscow on flight safety. Anything else is “escalation”. I’m sure you can imagine what the reaction from Washington and Brussels would be if the Kremlin announced it wanted to be consulted before any NATO aircraft conducted reconnaissance patrols in international airspace. Yeah; that’ll happen.
Next up was a mention of Russian carelessness in the crowded skies by The Independent. Owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, The Independent frequently runs virulent anti-Russian pieces, while it is generally approving to the point of cheerleading of capitalistic moneymaking, as you might expect of a paper run by an oligarch. Nobody in the west calls him that, though, or goes on about his having been a KGB agent. All forgiven, all friends together now, since Lebedev lives in London. The British press playfully soft-pedals Lebedev’s KGB activities as having been no more harmful than reading the British newspapers every day, ho, ho, how sinister, my dears!! Vladimir Putin did essentially the same in East Germany for his KGB stint, but you would think from those same press sources that he had slit more throats than Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
The Independent tells us, “The European Leadership Network (ELN) said Russia is risking military escalation across Europe with Cold War-style military “brinkmanship”, following 39 “near-misses” involving its planes and ships where military confrontation or the loss of life was narrowly avoided.”
More about that in a minute – who is the European Leadership Network? Well, they’re a “non-partisan, non-profit organisation based in London and registered in the United Kingdom. The network is led by its Director, Dr. Ian Kearns, and the Chair of the pan-European Executive Board, Lord Browne of Layton.”
That Executive Board is stiff with former Foreign Ministers and Defense Ministers, including those of Turkey, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia. The Russian – Igor Ivanov, was Russia’s Foreign Minister before Sergei Lavrov, and since 2000 has worked for The Moscow Times. Here’s a sample of Director Dr. Ian Kearnes’ work: “Sanctions Are Not Enough“. An excerpt from it: ” …the West should make it unequivocally clear to Putin that any incursion on to the territory of a NATO member state will be viewed as an attack on NATO as a whole and will be met with a military response. This statement should be backed up with more forward basing of NATO forces in Eastern Europe to re-assure allies in the region. Ambiguity is the friend only of miscalculation in a crisis. A line has to be drawn, and Putin needs to be clear as to where it is.”
Uh huh, sure: that sounds non-partisan to me. The report , entitled “Dangerous Brinksmanship” includes incidents in which Canadian and American warships are dragging their coattails up and down the Russian coast in the Black Sea, and Russian aircraft which pass close aboard are “acting aggressively”. You want to see passing close aboard? Remember the former Turkish Foreign Minister, on the Board at ELN? Here’s a Turkish F-16 passing over the heads of observers at the Waddington Air Show, just this year. Is that passing close enough for you, Mr. Foreign Minister? I see Poland’s former Defense Minister sits on the Board as well – remember the head-on collision at the Radom Air Show in Poland in 2007? Nobody killed but the pilots, but the show remains the most popular of its type in Poland, doesn’t it?
But those are air show crashes, right? Although the pilots are among the best-trained and most highly skilled flyers in the world, accidents do happen and the audience must know that. We’re talking here about commercial aircraft, and Russia playing fast and loose with safety. Incidents abound recently, and civil aviation has every reason to be scared, right?
Of who? According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the ultimate authority for commercial pilots of the world, the Russian Federation is quite responsible in the air. In its 2013 report on the State of Global Aviation Safety, North America and Europe are almost tied for the highest number of accidents. Ahhh, but Europe probably includes the Russian Federation! Yes, it does – so lets look at who had the most accidents. You’ll find that information in Appendix II (2012 accidents) and Appendix III (2013 accidents), starting on page 41. For 2012 – accidents involving aircraft of: The United States of America (24), the United Kingdom (10), and the Russian Federation (3). While the greatest number of fatalities resulted from Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT), as might be expected, the majority of accidents in 2012 were attributed to RS, Runway Safety. Patrolling aircraft of the Russian Air force are hardly likely to contribute to accidents in either case. The only category in which they might be presumed to have an effect – LCIF, or Loss of Control In-Flight – is by far the lowest accident category.
In 2013, accidents were as follow: aircraft of the United States (6), the United Kingdom (2) and the Russian Federation (1). The report appears to have been produced during the 2013 year, so that only accidents up to June of 2013 were recorded.
Stop twisting things, Chapman – you know very well we’re talking about the danger to civil aviation caused by Russian aircraft: we have it on no less an authority than Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General. Yes, just a few days ago the Secretary told us “Russia’s growing military presence in the skies above the Baltic region is unjustified and that its aircraft regularly fail to file flight plans or communicate with air controllers, and fly with their transponders off, posing a risk to civil aviation.” As substantiation for this, he cited an incident in which a Russian Ilyushin-20 surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace came within 300 feet of a Scandinavian Airlines jet taking off from Copenhagen airport. The Russian aircraft was flying without its IFF transponder turned on.
Copenhagen is in international airspace? Gee, I’m pretty sure it’s not. Oh, wait – thank God we have ELN’s report to clear things up. It tells us the incident happened 50 miles southeast of Malmo. Wait – the plane was still taking off from Copenhagen airport, 5o miles southeast of Malmo? That’s, like, 70 miles from Copenhagen airport! The report says the plane was carrying 132 passengers: were they Rush Limbaugh and 131 clones of him? Seems like it must have been quite a load if they still weren’t at cruising altitude 70 miles away. And how does Copenhagen know the IL-20 did not have its transponder on? It wasn’t even in Danish airspace. Maybe Sweden reported it, just like that Russian submarine that was crippled off Stockholm and firing off distress calls a couple of weeks ago. Uh huh.
Listen, Mr. Secretary. Military aircraft do not file flight plans with enemy countries; you’d think information like that would not come as a surprise to the NATO Secretary-General. They file a flight plan with the base or station they take off from, and that’s it, unless they plan to land at a different airfield on completion of their patrol – NATO aircraft, too. Was that the Norwegian Air Force’s practice when you were Prime Minister – file a flight plan with Moscow when they intended to test Russia’s surveillance capability? Please don’t embarrass me in front of the Russians by saying such stupid things. They don’t turn on their transponders unless they are part of an exercise, or flying in a civilian air corridor, which they typically do not do, because it’s dangerous, and because they don’t conduct probes at 35,000 feet where early-warning radar can see you hundreds of miles away with your transponder on. Russian military aircraft can reach the Baltics without flying in any civil air corridors, provided they avoid the Riga/Moscow route. The ELN report also cited instances in which Russian fighters responded to probes by NATO surveillance aircraft in the Russian Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) as examples of the Russian Air Force “behaving aggressively”, when it is NATO’s standard practice to do the very same when Russian surveillance aircraft are detected in international airspace, but near a NATO country. What a bonus – Russian surveillance aircraft are misbehaving when they test NATO surveillance capability, and then Russia is misbehaving again when their Air Force responds to NATO doing the same thing to them – I guess they’re just a naturally aggressive people, whereas NATO can be trusted to go wherever it wishes and do whatever it likes. There is no reason for Air Traffic Controllers to be contacting Russian aircraft which are outside their control zone in international airspace, and therefore no reason for such aircraft to reply.
I recommend the ELN’s report be re-titled “Dangerous Dinkmanship”, and that it carry pictures of the report’s authors and nothing else. Maybe a nice photo of Stoltenberg on the cover.