The new Cold War? Hundreds of Russian military aircraft intercepted across Europe in 2020

(Photo: Daniel Eledut)

Air forces from NATO intercepted over 400 unknown aircraft approaching the alliance airspace in 2020. In around 350 cases the unknown aircraft appeared to be Russian military aircraft. The numbers saw a slight increase compared to 2019. 

Not only are the Russian military aircraft often not transmitting a transponder code to indicate their position and attitude, they also do not file flight plans, or do not communicate with air traffic controllers, making them a potential dangerous risk to civilian airliners. 

NATO has around 40 air-surveillance radars and 60 jets on a 24/7 standby in order to quickly respond to aircraft failing in distress or defying international flight rules near the Alliance airspace. In the Baltic, NATO deployed a Baltic Air Policing mission since Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the alliance in 2004. A similar policing project is in place for the Balkan countries without their own fighter jets such as Albania, Slovenia, and Montenegro. Talks are underway to extend the coverage to North Macedonia. 

Although there were no confrontations during the interceptions of the Russian aircraft, the slight increase of Russian aircraft testing the alliance’s territory are an example of the growing tensions between Russia and the West. On the 24th of December the General Staff of Russia’s armed forces stated they noted an outspoken anti-Russian nature of NATO’s training activities and saw a growing number of provocations near the Russian border. 

First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov said:  ‘The training of the alliance’s forces is developing an outspokenly anti-Russian bias, with non-NATO countries getting increasingly involved. Provocative activities near Russia’s borders are growing’

Earlier this month, the U.S. Air Force ‘flexed its muscle’ with a ‘dramatic show of force’ the Washington Times noted. It was just days before Russia and China made another huge statement by flying a joint patrol over the Western Pacific on December the 22. Western military analysts saw the patrol as an example of a new chapter in the Chinese-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership to work closely together in the near future on issues such as security. While the patrols themselves show no malicious intent, the underlying message is very clear: to test the United States. 

An important challenge for NATO in the future years is to determine how to move forward when it comes to security. Since it is likely that Joe Biden will stick to the demand of his predecessors that the European members of NATO need to spend more on their defences, these members are at a crossroads. Since US leadership and protection is fading, the 2020s might be the era Europe finally sets important steps towards both paying and providing for its own security.