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Military 'near misses' rise dramatically between Russia and NATO: report

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AP/Swedish Armed Forces via TT News Agency

(Read caption) In this amateur photo provided by Sweden's armed forces and distributed by the TT News Agency on Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, a partially submerged object is visible in the water at center, in the Stockholm archipelago, Sweden. The Swedish military said it had made three credible sightings of foreign undersea activity in its waters during the past few days amid reports of a suspected Russian intrusion in the area.

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A new report out of Europe says that Russian military confrontations and "near misses" with NATO nations have seen a dramatic uptick in 2014. It warns that Russia must reevaluate its military policy and that NATO and Russia must improve communications to avoid potentially catastrophic confrontations.

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The report, released today by the European Leadership Network (ELN), a British think tank focused on regional security, chronicles some 40 incidents over eight months in which Russian military forces committed "violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and other dangerous actions" across Europe and near North American airspace. The incidents cited in the report are not new, but are based on openly available news and government reports.

But the arc of incidents, ELN writes, shows a significant increase in tensions between Russia and the West since the Ukrainian crisis began in March. Since then, "Russian armed forces and security agencies seem to have been authorized and encouraged to act in a much more aggressive way towards NATO countries, Sweden and Finland" in a way that "increases the risk of unintended escalation and the danger of losing control over events," ELN warns.

The report cites three incidents in particular as having "high probability of causing casualties or a direct military confrontation between Russia and Western states."

The first occurred in March, when a passenger flight out of Copenhagen, Denmark, had a near miss with a Russian surveillance plane that did not transmit its position. The second was the capture of an Estonian border agent by Russian security in September; Estonia claims the agent was kidnapped from its territory by Russian authorities, while the Kremlin accused the agent of crossing into Russian territory as a spy. The agent is still in Russian captivity.

The report also summarizes a incident last month where Swedish naval patrols undertook a broad search for what was widely speculated to be a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago. The phantom vessel, which Swedish officials said broadcast a distress call in Russian and was photographed surfacing in the region, was never found. It was "the biggest anti-submarine operation in Sweden since the Cold War and increased Swedish concerns that more aggressive Russian surveillance and probing operations are under way in breach of international law," ELN writes.

In addition, the report cites another 11 "close encounters of a more aggressive or unusually provocative nature" and 25 incidents "that generally fit into the previously-established pattern of interactions between Russian and Western militaries," but which "are adding to an atmosphere of tension which is putting pressure on the militaries involved."

The report makes three recommendations:

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1. The Russian leadership should urgently re-evaluate the costs and risks of continuing its more assertive military posture, and Western diplomacy should be aimed at persuading Russia to move in this direction.

2. All sides should exercise military and political restraint.

3. All sides must improve military-to-military communication and transparency.

The New York Times writes that the report adds credence to former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev's comments over the weekend, during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the world seems "on the brink of a new cold war." Mr. Gorbachev warned that “Bloodshed in Europe and the Middle East against the backdrop of a breakdown in dialogue between the major powers is of enormous concern.”

“The world is on the brink of a new cold war,” he said. “Some are even saying that it’s already begun.”

The Christian Science Monitor noted last month, after a series of Russian military flights in international airspace prompted criticism from NATO, that the new military movements were not particularly dangerous in and of themselves.

"Russia's aging force of about 50 Tu-95s, supplemented by about a dozen more modern supersonic Tu-160 "Blackjack" bombers, is not regarded as very threatening. The Russians have had a hard time keeping any significant number of them in the air over the past two decades.

Viktor Baranets, a former Russian defense ministry spokesman and now security columnist with the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, told the Monitor that the uptick in Russian military activity had been in the works even before the Ukraine crisis.

"In the 1990s we were so poor that our guys almost never got to fly, and when they did they spent most of their time praying they'd make it home" in those badly maintained aircraft, he says. "Now, according to [President Vladimir] Putin's decision [last year to beef up the military], we're going to have three thousand military exercises a year, constant training, and all new equipment. So, these intensive patrols will probably become the norm. You'd better get used to it."