Prime Minister and Putin sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, said yesterday that Russia may close its airspace to US and European commercial air traffic in response to the threat of harsh new sanctions. Meanwhile, Russian attack aircraft harassed a NATO Frigate in the Black Sea and all sorts of other fun.
There is no doubt about it, as tensions heat up, and relations cool, the prospect of a new Cold War is palpable.
In an interview with Vedomosti, a prominent Russian business news outlet, Medvedev stated:
"If there are sanctions related to energy, further limits for our financial sector we will have to respond asymmetrically... We proceed from the fact that we have friendly relations with our partners and that is why the sky over Russia is open for flights. But if they put limits on us we will have to respond... bypassing our airspace... could drive many struggling airlines into bankruptcy."
The Russian economy has already hit a low point as sanctions and Moscow's new aggressive posture have curtailed foreign investment. Yet closing Russia's airspace to western commercial air carriers will not only have a large impact on travel, especially between established European hubs and developing economies in Asia, most notably China, but also on Russia's overflight royalties from these flights.
According to the Washington Post, U.S. and European carriers make up the majority of flights over Russia, the world's largest country in terms of landmass. Banning these carriers from Russian airspace would have a serious affect on not only airline revenue, but also on affordable travel between Asia and Europe. Sure, Asian and other carriers would attempt to pick up some of the capacity slack, but this is easier said than done.
Northern and southern routes could be flown in order to stay outside of Russian airspace, which would add up to 30% more distance for a single flight. This would impact certain aircraft's payload hauling abilities between some major city pairs, and some routes that are serviced by certain aircraft types today would be beyond these aircraft's range. Longer-ranged airliners would have to be substituted on some flights, while others would have to be cancelled altogether.
What the threat of a total airspace closure by Russia shows us is that they are willing to play hardball when it comes to looming sanctions. Most likely, the denial of European and American commercial air traffic over Russia would just be the start of Moscow's economic counter-punch if Europe's proposed heavy sanctions package, which target foreign investment and Russia's lucrative energy sector, come to fruition.
On Sunday, the Canadian Helifax class frigate HMCS Toronto was operating in the Black Sea as part of a small multinational flotilla. This group of predominately NATO ships was executing drills with the Ukrainian Navy when the frigate was flown over by a Russian AN-26 surveillance aircraft, and then a pair of Russian Su-24 Fencer swing-wing attack aircraft buzzed the ship at low-level.
According to the Canadian news outlet The Globe And Mail, HMCS Toronto's mission in the region is as such:
HMCS Toronto, which is part of NATO's standing maritime group, entered the Black Sea September 6 as part of the Operation Sea Breeze exercise that runs Sept. 8 to 10. HMCS Toronto has been deployed to the Mediterranean for months as part of Canada's contribution to the NATO reassurance mission.
Operation Sea Breeze, although not a NATO-run exercise, brings together American and Ukrainian vessels as well as ships from France, Spain, Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria.
In response to Canada's protest that the Russian aircraft acted unnecessarily in a provocative manner, Russia does admit that there was a SU-24 training flight in the area, and that they were aware of the exercise, but that they that they did not approach the ships in any way.
The Russian Navy has maintained a SU-24 force in Crimea for many years, and since annexing the peninsula last winter this Fencer unit has been very active in the area. Like most of Russia's naval power in Crimea, the SU-24 wing located there is almost entirely focused on anti-ship attack.
This one is the most curious and the source is a conservative website so take it with a grain of salt but... according to them on Monday, a pair of Tu-95 Bear bombers made their way across the North Atlantic to an area near the Canadian coastline where The Washington Free Beacon reports the big turboprop powered aircraft practiced cruise missile attack on the US:
Analysis of the flight indicated the aircraft were conducting practice runs to a pre-determined "launch box"—an optimum point for firing nuclear-armed cruise missiles at U.S. targets, said defense officials familiar with intelligence reports.
This exercise was said to be timed to coincide with the NATO summit in Wales, where Russia's war with Ukraine was at the top of the debate docket.
Whether this did happen or not, everyone agrees Russia has drastically increased its long-range surveillance and bomber training flights since their invasion of the Crimea peninsula, which are more or less benign under normal circumstances. Yet seeing as Russia has been increasingly talking about nuclear conflict with the west, the frequency and boldness of these flights is concerning, as is Russia's aggressive screening of international airspace near their territory.
When you add all these actions up, as well as the ever-growing NATO presence in Eastern Europe, along with the rhetoric coming out of Moscow and Russia's continued involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, it is becoming clear that we are rapidly approaching the start of another Cold War. This does not mean it has to be a frigid as the last one, but the temperature on the international stage in regards to the US, Europe and Russia relations, is definitely plummeting.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com