Russian Recklessness Over the Skies of Europe

Daniel Kochis
Daniel Kochis
Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
A Finnair Airbus A350-900 takes off in Amsterdam on May 4, 2022 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A Finnair Airbus A350-900 takes off in Amsterdam on May 4, 2022 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Russia’s stepped-up campaign of electronic warfare (EW) attacks all along the skies of central and eastern Europe is putting the lives of civilians increasingly at risk.

The contested Baltic Sea region is the current focal point of the campaign. Over the past eight months, 46,000 aircraft flying in the region have experienced issues with their GPS signals. One EW attack in March alone lasted nearly 64 hours and impacted 1,600 flights.

GPS jamming and spoofing can cause pilots to temporarily lose or receive false readings on such critical indicators as altitude, location, or speed. Some aircraft reportedly “had to swerve and dive to avoid "obstacles" that were really not there.”

The affected aircraft have thus far largely been able to operate safely thanks to mitigation measures taken by pilots, or redundances which allow location to be tracked in other ways.

Still, the sheer number of aircraft flying in the region, the ever-present potential for human error, and the risk of an aircraft accidentally straying into Russian airspace above the Kaliningrad enclave, makes Moscow’s gambit a very dangerous one.

The pressure is mounting. This March, there was a seven-fold increase in the number of aircraft reporting GPS jamming every week compared to that of 2023.

Just this week, Finnair temporarily suspended flights to Tartu, Estonia, after two jets were unable to land at the Estonian airport due to interference with GPS, a necessity for landing at that field.

Russia’s attacks mostly emanate from Kaliningrad, where the deployed Tobol satcom suppression system is a significant component of Putin’s EW offensive.

While the Baltic Sea is the current epicenter of GPS jamming, the danger is present from the eastern Mediterranean, northward through the Black Sea region, and up to the Arctic.

To put that into perspective, this would be equivalent to GPS jamming occurring with regularity along a corridor spanning Seattle to New York.

Last August and September, civilian airliners contending with GPS jamming reportedly struggled to locate the airport in Sofia, Bulgaria as they prepared to land, a layer of difficulty for pilots navigating the most dangerous phase of a flight.

The Finnish and Norwegian Arctic regions have too been targeted with GPS jamming on a near daily basis. Flights utilizing Norway’s Kirkenes Airport near the Russian border have been particularly impacted.

In meetings with the Russian FSB, Norwegian authorities explained that GPS jamming was hindering the work of civilian first responders on the ground who relied upon GPS to quickly arrive at a scene and render aid.

A massive Russian EW attack timed for Christmas 2023 impacted large swathes of Poland and Sweden, and smaller portions of Germany, Latvia, and Lithuania, leaving many in those nations without reliable GPS during a busy travel period.

The risks associated with Russia’s indiscriminate EW sweep extend to the maritime sector as well. In September, Former Romanian Chief of the Defense Staff, General Daniel Petrescu stated that Russia was "actively and constantly," jamming the signals of vessels in Romanian territorial waters in the Black Sea.

A country whose Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade infamously shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, killing 298 civilians, undoubedtly has little compunction with playing fast and loose with the air, land, and sea space of Europe.

For example, earlier this month, the German Luftwaffe taking part in NATO air policing out of its newest base at Lielvarde, Latvia intercepted a Russian Il-20 intelligence aircraft flying over the Baltic Sea without it’s transponder turned on. 

Russian military aircraft flying irresponsibly remains a constant scourge which NATO fighters must consistently scramble to respond.

The Kremlin has mastered the art of conducting risky hybrid attacks, especially against civilian targets, that sit just below the threshold which would trigger a more robust Western response.

Russia’s ongoing brazen and reckless EW attacks on GPS signals in Europe are putting civilian lives at risk daily, including those of Americans. From the expansive geographic scale and recent multiplication in intensity of these attacks, it’s clear that Moscow believes it has found a winner.

While there is no silver bullet for addressing Russia’s hybrid attacks on navigation, it’s clear that a lack of response has emboldened Putin to push the envelope further.

How then to respond? One option would be for NATO members most impacted to call for consultations over Russian GPS manipulation via invocation of Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. A working group to consider responses would aid leaders in assessing next steps.

Tightening up restrictions on Russian tourists who continue to enter Europe could be one apt reaction. While the overall numbers of Russian tourists entering Europe are significantly smaller than prior to 2022, some Russians (usually the wealthiest) still arrive via land borders or by utilizing air corridors through Serbia or Turkey.

Russia’s GPS jamming should not be seen in isolation but rather as one blade in Moscow’s try everything Swiss army knife approach to gray zone aggression.

Considered as a component Russia’s devious array of hybrid weapons, GPS jamming takes on a broader significance. It should spark a conversation within the West for a concerted push to crack down on individuals, companies, and countries which continue to engage in rampant sanctions circumvention aiding Russia’s ability to wage war against Ukraine.

Putin may have doubled down on his longstanding willingness to jeopardize Europe’s seas and skies; it does not mean however the West is without options to call his bluff.

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