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Yes, Russian Buzzing of US Warship, Spy Plane Was Aggressive. It Was Meant to Be

The Russians' way of saying: 'Hey grab an Atlas'

There was an uproar on Wednesday as video emerged of Russian jets buzzing a US Navy warship which was operating in the international waters of the Baltic Sea.

The two Russian jets flew close to the US guided missile destroyer — so close, in fact, that they created ‘wakes in the water’ about 30 feet away. The US Navy described the incident as a “simulated attack”. A Polish helicopter was aboard the destroyer at the time.

<figcaption>Imagine a Russian ship exercising with Mexico off the coast of Florida</figcaption>
Imagine a Russian ship exercising with Mexico off the coast of Florida

Okay. First things first. Was the Russian move aggressive, as claimed?

Let’s be honest. Watch the video. It was an aggressive display of strength and presence. It was clearly intended to be. It certainly falls outside of what would be considered usual behavior, although the Russian defense ministry denied that it broke safety protocol. If nothing else, the maneuvers were clearly not what you’d call friendly behavior. US officials are correct in that much at least.

But calling the recent Russian moves in the Baltic aggressive and dangerous implicitly assumes that the US has not, of late, been acting aggressively towards Russia and that the US Navy is simply the innocent victim of needless Russian ‘provocations’ time and again.

A little context always puts things into better perspective, so here we go. Grab an atlas.

The US warship had set off from the Polish city of Gdynia — which, incidentally, is about 50 miles from Russia’s Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, as the crow flies. Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, is also on the Baltic coast, further north. At the time of the incident, the US warship was about 70 nautical miles from Russian land.

Let’s imagine for a minute that a Russian warship had been hanging around off the coast of, say, Florida, preparing to engage in military exercises with a Mexican helicopter. The US air force sends two jets to approach the Russian warship, repeatedly conducting low flybys, signaling their obvious displeasure. What would the headline be?

To put it really simply, this is the logic that we are supposed to follow: An American warship roughly 70 nautical miles from Russian land is the innocent party. While the Russian jets, roughly 4,300 miles from American land are the “provoking” party. Case closed.

The media ran riot with the story this week without drawing attention to any of this. The US Navy, naturally, is entitled to be anywhere at any time. The Russian military isn’t afforded the same luxuries — even at its own borders. And no one at CNN or the BBC is rushing to draw attention to the fact that sorties of NATO tactical warplanes near Russian and Belarusian borders hit the 3,000 mark in 2014.

If one was to select the analysis that did its very best to obscure the context here, they might just have to give the award to this Vox piece. The author went through the usual laundry list of ‘reasons why Putin does stuff’ — you know, it’s good propaganda for TV, it’s to please stupid Russians who don’t know any better, it’s a distraction from the economy which is “hurtling towards disaster” etc. In short, he used his 2,000-word piece to (very maturely) whittle the motivations behind Russian foreign policy down to “trolling”.

Look, there wouldn’t be a problem in calling what these two particular Russian jets did aggressive (and yes, possibly even dangerous) if the facts were presented in any coherent and fair context, but that rarely happens. And it’s not just Russian jets that are always the provoking party either. Russian submarines are always lurking around somewhere, too.

Take for example an incident which took place in the Irish Sea last April. A fishing trawler was hit by a submarine and pulled backward violently. Virtually all Irish and British media were unanimous in the immediate assumption that this was a Russian submarine. At the time, I wrote a piece which suggested that it was perfectly likely — given the history of dangerous British submarine activity in the Irish Sea — that the submarine which hit the trawler was, in fact, British. But that wasn’t as interesting. Five months after the incident, the UK conceded that it was, in fact, one of theirs — but by that time, who cared? That’s not big news, no need to make a fuss.

So give the faux outrage and righteous indignation a rest. No one is buying it.


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