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Russian Jets Buzz U.S. Navy Ship at 30 Feet
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft makes a very low altitude pass by the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in international waters in the Baltic Sea, April 12, 2016. (U.S. Navy/Released)

Russian Jets Buzz U.S. Navy Ship at 30 Feet

Walter Russell Mead

Russian planes ran a simulated attack on a U.S. Navy ship yesterday. The Associated Press reports:

Russian attack planes buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea multiple times Monday and Tuesday, coming as close as an estimated 30 feet from the ship and twice passing below the ship’s navigation bridge, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

The Russian Su-24 planes appeared unarmed but on Tuesday flew what the commander of the USS Donald Cook deemed to be a simulated attack profile. The Cook’s commander judged the actions unsafe and unprofessional, but the ship took no action beyond trying unsuccessfully to communicate with the aircraft by radio, according to a statement by U.S. European Command.

The U.S. European Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in that area, said the Cook was conducting deck landing drills with an allied military helicopter when two Su-24s made numerous close-range and low-altitude passes Monday afternoon. One pass occurred while the helicopter was refueling on the Cook’s deck.

Russia continues to test, to probe, and to provoke. So far, there has been precious little response from the United States when these kinds of things have happened—and that only leads to more pushing. Ultimately, if this continues the Russians will misjudge something and we will have a deeply dangerous confrontation on our hands.

The response to Russian provocations does not have to be symmetrical—if they fly too close to our ships, we don’t have to respond directly against the planes, or do the same thing to Russian ships. But the response does have to be painful and obvious to Putin: a high-profile increase in U.S. troops in Lithuania, for example, would do the trick; or a massive “leak” of embarrassing financial information about Kremlin cronies might serve as well.

The only way to deal with someone like Putin is first to establish a sense of boundaries and limits: “don’t do X or something incredibly nasty will happen to you.” Once that’s established, it is perfectly possible to do rational business with Moscow, as long as we check all the fine print.

But failing to keep Russia’s respect will make it harder, not easier, to reach pragmatic deals where our interests coincide. The White House at this point doesn’t so much need a reset button with Russia as it needs to hit control/alt/delete to reboot the relationship.

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