Russian jets have had a series of close encounters with American and Turkish aircraft. Western officials have called the situation dangerous and see a risk of conflict in Middle Eastern skies. Spencer Kimball reports.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he is concerned. Russian and American warplanes are both operating in an active war zone, at times in close proximity to one another. But they are not members of the same coalition and their goals are in many ways in conflict.
“We must urgently warn Russia and the US not to conduct their respective military engagements in such a way that a conflict breaks out between Russia and the US,” Steinmeier said on Wednesday.
Moscow and Washington’s warplanes came within kilometers of each other over the weekend. According to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, the Russian pilot was trying to identify the US aircraft and the maneuver was not meant to be threatening. Konashenkov said it wasn’t the first time such an incident had occurred.
Col. Steven Warren, a spokesman for the US-led coalition, said both pilots “conducted themselves appropriately” under the circumstances. But he expressed concern about the potential for run-ins.
“It’s dangerous if two sets of aircraft come into the same piece of airspace without very clear, laid-out protocols for the safety of all involved, which is why we’ve sat down with the Russians to establish some safety protocols,” Warren said.
On Wednesday, Russian and American officials held a third-round of talks to set out the rules of the road for operating over Syria with the AFP news agency quoting one US participant saying an agreement was likely “in the coming days.”
The risk of US and Russian warplanes having a run-in is exaggerated, according to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia and national security at New York University. After all, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime’s air force has operated in close proximity to American aircraft but their have been no serious incidents between those jets – and they did not attempt to coordinate their movements, he added.
“This is something that both sides have a reason to play up,” Galeotti told DW. “The Russians because they’re trying to make sure the Americans talk to them. The Americans because they want to make it clear how the Russians have been courting danger.”
Galeotti said the dangers lie elsewhere. Russian warplanes have violated Turkish airspace twice. Moscow blamed the first incident on bad weather conditions. Ankara has warned that it will respond to violations of its airspace. Turkey is a NATO member covered by the alliance’s collective defense clause.
“They must have been flying very close to Turkish airspace knowingly to have accidentally strayed over,” Galeotti said. “Whereas the Americans have a high level of restraint and command-and-control, with the Turks it’s not so clear that they would actually think carefully before doing something.”
British RAF pilots had been given permission to shoot down Russian planes if they’re threatened, the British newspaper “The Sunday Times” reported over the weekend. Moscow summoned the British embassy’s defense attaché in response to the report, which London dismissed as inaccurate.
British warplanes are participating in the US-led coalition conduction airstrikes against the “Islamic State” in Iraq. The RAF is not conducting operations in Syria. Russia, for its part, is operating in Syrian airspace but not in Iraq.
Two wars, one battlespace
According to Galeotti, while there’s tension between Russia and the United States in Syria, they’re not yet directly confronting each other. Moscow is primarily targeting anti-regime insurgents, including those supported by the United States. But Washington has placed greater emphasis on fighting the “Islamic State” than taking down the Assad regime and rescuing the rebels it supports.
“In some ways, it’s this perverse situation where there’s actually two separate wars being fought in the same battlespace,” Galeotti said. “That’s something that is absolutely new.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t satisfied with holding limited talks aimed only at avoiding collisions in Syria’s skies. He wants Washington to coordinate airstrikes with Moscow and bring the two wars together.
“They want tactics, intel sources and methods and information,” Stephen Blank, an expert on Russia at the American Council on Foreign Policy, told DW. “It’s just not going to happen. American officials have no reason to trust Moscow after everything that has happened.
“They are not going to give Russia the kind of information that Russia wants to target our allies,” Blank said.