WASHINGTON — Diplomats in the US and Europe are worried that recent moves by Russia are increasing the chances for an unintentional confrontation.
“It’s like the raptors testing the fence in Jurassic Park,” one administration official said. “The potential that an accident or collision could escalate or could result in serious injury or death is real cause for concern.”
In the past two weeks, the Kremlin said it would deploy nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad and missile defense systems to Syria, announced “war games” in the Black Sea, said it was weighing new military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, and pushed an internal campaign for Russian officials to “get ready for war.”
They are just the latest developments in the rapidly rising tensions with Russia. Since its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has been incrementally testing Western response to its aggressions, culminating in a series of swift escalations through the early days of October. The moves come on the heels of US threats to retaliate after formally accusing Moscow of meddling in its upcoming election.
"Our buzzwords around here are risk reduction and transparency,” a NATO diplomat said, pointing to the increase of Russian incursions into NATO-allied airspace, which often leaves allies scrambling for a response. “We want to try and prevent any accidents or misunderstandings."
And as it continues pushing the envelope, Russia has managed to unsettle even the European Union’s most ardent arbitrators. France, Italy and Germany have often been Europe’s loudest voices urging caution when it comes to Russia, but in just a week, Moscow has managed to, snub Paris, and push Germany and Italy to reportedly weigh new sanctions on the Putin regime.
“Russia has really upped their ante in the negativity zone. The usual Russia apologists are not apologizing this week,” the NATO diplomat said. “That’s kind of a shift in perception.”
Diplomats say the clear purpose in all of these recent moves remains elusive. Happening in the midst of a US election in which Russia has been accused of meddling, some see the Kremlin laying the groundwork for a new zone of influence.
“This is about creating facts on the ground that future US administrations are going to have to work around and not be able to alter,” said Heather Conley, the director for the Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The bubble gets bigger where the US is really not going to be able to go, or if they go, the cost would be so great.”
“This isn’t happening in the slowness of time. This is happening in the span of a week,” Conley said. “The risk of accident is quite high because we are not understanding each other’s signals at all. We didn’t read one another in the Cold War, and we’re really not doing it well now.”
The rapid escalation of the last two weeks may, with hindsight, mark the start of Moscow’s final pivot to Cold War-era diplomacy. The selective caution that characterized the 1990s and even the most recent Obama Administration “Russia reset” is long gone.
“If there’s something new recently, I think it’s [Russian president Vladimir Putin’s] willingness to be offensive and aggressive...testing the pushback from the West,” said Michael McFaul, who served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to early 2014. “You’ll see a discussion about the standard missiles in Kaliningrad. This is not new. What was different [before] was they showed restraint. Now [Putin] doesn’t show any restraint...they don’t care about what we think.”