The Bear Living Next Door

Moscow's actions create anxiety among Europe's leaders.


Russian President Vladimir Putin (far right), who has pushed for rebuilding Russia's military, looks at a model of a Sukhoi fighter jet at a Moscow air show.

By + More

London—Swelling oil and gas revenues are fueling boom times in Russia. Trouble is, they're also bankrolling its military resurgence and, as one British diplomat puts it, "a deterioration of Russian behavior." How to react to a seemingly more menacing Kremlin has the European Union leaders in a quandary.

European foreign ministers, meeting earlier this month in Portugal, agreed that a unified, tougher line with Moscow is needed. But they've yet to agree on just what it will be. "It's a brand-new game, but Europe doesn't know what the game is yet and isn't sure how to play it," says Alyson Bailes, an expert on European security at the University of Iceland. One thing's for certain, however. The Bear is restless and prowling again.

The ministers' level of concern ratcheted up a few days before their meeting when, on September 6, a pack of eight Russian long-range strategic bombers—TU-95s or, in the old NATO military shorthand, "Bears"—were spotted in NATO-patrolled international airspace over the waters of the Arctic Sea and North Atlantic. The aircraft, following a route commonly used by Soviet bombers during the Cold War, seemed to be on the kind of reconnaissance mission that ended 16 years ago with the demise of the Soviet Union.

Scramble the jets. Norway scrambled two F-16 jets to shadow the bombers, though eventually four Tornado jets from Britain's Royal Air Force took over and stayed with the Bears until they turned toward home. The incident was the most egregious Russian probing of NATO air defenses by the 1950s-vintage bombers, but not the first. Several similar episodes involving Russian aircraft and NATO jets have occurred since May (and there was another incident late last week, involving two Russian TU-160 "Blackjack" bombers). British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's reaction: "The best place to discuss relations with Russia is around the table, not at 35,000 feet."

The provocative Russian flights aren't the only Cold War-type saber rattling emanating from Moscow these days. It has sent submarines on patrol off Britain's coast, resumed test-firing missiles, and last week detonated what it claims is the world's most powerful nonnuclear bomb. Moreover, it has shown a willingness to use its considerable energy resources as a weapon for political advantage.

Why the boorish behavior? Russia has felt, somewhat justifiably, snubbed by the West in the years since the Soviet empire's collapse. And it's particularly dismayed over American plans to install missile-defense interceptors in former Warsaw Pact countries Poland and the Czech Republic. The military muscle-flexing is "a showcase designed by Russia to remind the world [that] it's back," says James Nixey, who heads the Russian program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

Still, it's worth keeping the Kremlin's posturing in perspective. Its armed forces were a basket case after the Soviet Union crumbled, and they largely remain in dire condition. And despite the uptick in defense spending by Moscow, the amount is minuscule by U.S. and NATO standards. Also, though Russia's adoption of democratic free-market principles may be less than stellar, its need for western investment and markets makes a military attack of any sort highly unlikely. "Calling it a new Cold War is extremely tempting but off the mark. It's really a different situation," Bailes says. "These are Cold War tools being used in a new environment." Where's NATO? Nevertheless, Moscow's continuing provocations are something Europe can't ignore. Constructing a unified response won't be easy, however, mainly because some of the EU's 27 members are heavily dependent on Russian energy and fear a cutoff of supplies. Also, the addition to the EU of some Baltic states—historically suspicious of Russian intentions—has helped harden the union's overall attitude toward Moscow. The EU is also unused to dealing with Russia on these kinds of issues, since historically that has been NATO's role. But these days, NATO is otherwise occupied with the war on terrorism and the fighting in Afghanistan.