Big Flap in the Black Sea

Russian Jet scrambles and Flies Within 3 Meters of US Spy Plane

by Stephen Bryen

A Russian Su-27 scrambled when a P-8 Poseidon spy plane flew near the Russian coast while a military exercise was taking place on September 7th.  According to the Russians, the incident lasted 19 minutes, the US plane did not have its transponder on, and the Russians needed to convince the American aircraft to turn away, which it eventually did.


P-8 Poseidon

The Pentagon said the Russians acted in an unsafe and unprofessional manner –in other words the Russians endangered the lives of the American crew.

Incidents involving Russian and NATO aircraft, both with transponders on and off, have been going on for some time.  It seems these events correspond fairly closely to when one side or the other wants to send some harsh message to the other.

But flying in this area on spying missions is pretty risky, especially with no identification or prior notice.

A P-8 is a modified Boeing 737 that is built to fly low and slow and is capable of identifying underwater targets, particularly submarines.  Since the Russian fleet in the Black Sea was in the midst of an exercise, this would be a good time to practice against a wealth of targets.

On the other hand, as the Russians emphasized, they had invited foreign observers, including the NATO countries, to watch the exercise.  It was not a secret.  The US chose to use spy equipment instead of attending the exercise itself.

The US policy is to isolate the Russians.  So far, along with an embargo that the Europeans put in place, the isolation strategy has done some harm to Russia’s economy and probably stimulated the Russians to behave more aggressively than normally.  What else the strategy has achieved is anyone’s guess.

In the bigger picture the Russians are playing for two prizes.  One of them is a deal that would recognize their annexation of Crimea and some settlement of the Ukraine especially regarding the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists, but also the matter of the orientation of the Ukraine government which is anti-Russian at present.  The Russians have helped keep this mess boiling for some time, but eventually either there will be a political deal or possibly a broader war that will draw in Russian forces.   The Obama administration, soon to be out of office, has little ability or inclination to do much about the Ukraine, even though there are rumblings in Europe, especially Germany, that a solution should be found.

The other prize is a deal on Syria, which the Russians want if the terms are right.  While the administration appears to have de-emphasized its demand that the Assad government had to go before any deal could be reached, so far none of that has translated into any progress on a solution.  Complicating the matter is the presence of foreign troops on Syrian soil including Russian, Iranian, Lebanese (in the form of Hezbollah), US and a sprinkling of others.  There are also lots of foreign fighters (mostly Islamist terrorists). Also there is the interest of bordering countries including Jordan and Israel.  Israel is expecting trouble on the Golan Heights.

President Obama and President Putin tried to sort out at least a cease fire agreement during the G-8 Summit in China, but it did not happen.  In fact, the tension between the two leaders was noticeable. Obama accused Putin of interfering in the upcoming US elections and of cyber spying while, at the same time, trying for some kind of accommodation on Syria.

Thus the latest demonstration of mutual angst in the Black Sea should come as no surprise.  Neither side can be excused for this incident which was easily avoidable, unnecessary and dangerous.



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