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Is Russia Actively Trying to Start a Shooting War with NATO?

Leclerc Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
A French Leclerc battle tank fires its main gun during Exercise Furious Hawk in Ādaži, Latvia. The French tanks are deployed to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Estonia.

Russian aircraft have become increasingly brazen in their flybys over U.S. and NATO warships in the Black Sea, while in the Bering Strait it is common for “close encounters” to occur between Russian bombers and commercial fishing vessels, the latter prompting a response from the U.S. fighters. Russia’s posturing has gone between the usual saber-rattling, and such blatantly hostile maneuvers have been on the rise since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Russia’s actions could even be meant to provoke a response, warned a top U.S. Navy admiral earlier this month.

“NATO allies and partners operating in that area by themselves are constantly shadowed by Russian vessels, and by and large, those interactions are safe and professional, although they’re meant to intimidate,” Adm. Robert Burke, commander of US Navy Forces in Europe and Africa, said at a US Navy Memorial event, as reported by Business Insider.

“When a strike aircraft overflies a destroyer at 100 feet altitude and right over top, our [commanding officers] are making a judgment call whether that strike fighter is on an attack profile or not,” Burke added. “It could be argued that they’re baiting us into shooting first. We’re not going to do that first without provocation, but I’m also not going to ask my commanding officers to take the first shot on the chin.”

Spreading Their Influence

Russia has increased its combat air patrols over the Black, Baltic, and Bering Seas, and has been quite quick to respond to any reconnaissance patrols conducted by NATO powers. Russia was also quick to track and monitor the movements of NATO and partner warships during the recently concluded Sea Breeze exercises in the Black Sea.

As Business Insider reported, U.S. officials have on multiple occasions been openly critical of Russia for what has been seen as “unsafe and unprofessional” intercepts of U.S. aircraft and warships operating in the neutral waters around Europe.

From Moscow’s point of view, the waters of those seas are crucial, even critical, to Russia’s defense. However, it is far more than just maintaining security off Russia’s coasts.

The Russian Navy has increased its presence in the Mediterranean, while earlier this month Russian warships and combat aircraft took part in the largest drills in the Pacific Ocean since the Cold War. Its aircraft operated close to Hawaii, so it certainly couldn’t be seen to be merely a defensive exercise. The presence of Russian bombers resulted in the sorties of U.S. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors from the Hawaiian Air National Guard.

Wings Dirty

What is also notable is that the Russian aircraft are truly ready for a fight. While previously it was common for Russian aircraft to operate “wings clean,” or without weapons in a configuration, now they are armed.

“In the interactions and the intercepts I see today, they’re coming out ‘wings dirty,’ or they have weapons on board,” now-retired Adm. James Foggo told Business Insider in 2019.

“That’s another bit of the calculus that goes in the commanding officer’s mind on … what is the intent of that pilot,” Foggo, who was Adm. Burke’s predecessor, added.

Russia may not be quite as mighty as the old Soviet Union noted U.S. officials, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ready for a fight. Burke added Russia remains an existential threat, as great today as the Soviet Union was in the Cold War.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.