Christman: The Real Reason Russian Fighter Jets Flew Dangerously Close To USS Donald Cook

Takeaway: Expect more Russian "Top Gun" behavior in the months ahead.

Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by Hedgeye colleague and Potomac Research Group National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman USA Ret. In the note, Christman analyzes "what was largely overlooked" in the media's coverage of Russian fighter jets' "Tom Cruise-like antics" while recently flying "dangerously close" to a U.S. destroyer in the Baltic Sea.

Click below to watch the footage.

Russian fighter-jet antics over the last 10 days -- buzzing dangerously close to an Aegis-class US destroyer and barrel-rolling over an American high-tech reconnaissance aircraft -- begs the question, "Why?"

Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group wrote shortly after the events that, discounting the muscle flexing, the intent was principally intelligence gathering: the U.S. destroyer Donald Cook had recently received an upgrade to add the highly sophisticated "Aegis" phased-array radar suite, which has anti-ballistic missile as well as anti-air and anti-cruise missile capability. The Russians were hoping the destroyer would turn on at least part of its defensive radar package, to allow Russian electronic intercepts. That probably occurred, at least with some of the Cook's radars, given the flight profile of the Russian jets.

What was largely overlooked in the media's emphasis on the Tom Cruise-like antics of the Russia fighter jets, however, was the slow-flying Russian helicopter which loitered near the ship, undoubtedly taking high-resolution pictures of the Aegis weapon system for later intelligence evaluation

None of this is particularly new in terms of muscle flexing and intelligence gathering, "Soviet-style;" actions like these were very common through the '80's, despite the signing in 1972 of the U.S.-USSR "Incidents at Sea" agreement.   

In this case, Vladimir Putin's finger prints are obvious; the Russia leader has yet to meet a security cooperation agreement with the West that he likes. With his economy continuing to contract in 2016 as Russian banks close by the dozens, Putin has every incentive to provoke an incident with the U.S. It's to the credit of the Donald Cook's crew that they didn't take the bait. 

But there is more than intelligence gathering at play. The eastern reaches of the Baltic Sea and the Baltic states themselves, for Soviet-era apologists like Putin, are Russia's back yard. They have never accepted Baltic state independence, and the incorporation of the three Baltic countries into NATO's Article V guarantees grates especially. In this light, the "muscle flexing" that really matters is geo-strategic. 

For well over a year, robust Russian ground exercises, submarine activity, and aerial overflights in the Baltic region have alarmed NATO's military; SACEUR General Breedlove has been especially vocal in calling for a U.S. and NATO response. The Donald Cook's steaming by Kaliningrad is part of a long-delayed US reaction to the Russian year-long push in the north; the Russians last week told us what they thought of that.  

But there is an additional twist: NATO must decide shortly, in advance of its July summit in Warsaw, whether to follow a U.S. and Breedlove lead to plus-up its ground forces with heavy armor and then continuously rotate these into northern Poland and the Baltics. It's no surprise that opinion is sharply split within NATO on the wisdom of doing this; it's also no surprise that the Russian information campaign is working overtime to deepen these divisions. 

The Tom Cruise-like antics last week should hence also be viewed as part of this larger strategic game: a none-too-subtle reminder by Moscow to NATO, and to NATO members opposing a ground force plus-up especially, what could happen if force enhancements proceed; all this in a part of Europe where Russia insists on exercising strategic influence.

Bottom line: expect more Russian "Top Gun" behavior in the months ahead. And hope that the U.S. exercises leadership to maintain the NATO alliance unity that Putin is determined to undermine.