On Wednesday, Donald Trump’s best friends and Hillary Clinton’s favorite reset-button holders, the Russians, held a joint drill with American military forces. By joint military drill, the Russians meant flying their warplanes within 30 feet of an American Navy vessel in the Baltic Sea without any prior warning or permission. According to the Military Times, “Sailors aboard the destroyer Donald Cook said the aircraft flew low enough to create wake in the sea waters surrounding the ship, and the ship’s commanding officer said the incident was ‘unsafe and unprofessional,’ the defense official said.”
Yeah, you think?
That wasn’t the only nasty move by the Russians this week. The Donald Cook was subjected to overflight by a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 combat aircraft about 20 times on Monday. Then, on Tuesday, a Russian Ka-27 Helix helicopter made seven overflights and took photographs of the Donald Cook. Then another Su-24 began doing “simulated attacks.” Eleven times.
This isn’t anything new. Last July, two Russian bombers were intercepted by American fighters off the California coast on July 4th. Like cartoonish villains, the pilots apparently radioed, “Good morning, American pilots. We are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day.” That same day, American fighters intercepted two Russian Tu-95 bombers off the southern coast of Alaska.
All of this follows hard on the United States doing virtually nothing to stop Russia from seizing Crimea and taking control of Syria.
Vladimir Putin is feeling his oats again. Part of that is undoubtedly due to the radical underperformance of the Russian economy – last week the World Bank said that the Russian poverty rate had skyrocketed. Dramatic decreases in the price of oil have undercut their commodities base, the annual inflation rate is 8 percent, and the current lending rates in Russia hover around 20 percent.
All of which means that Putin may simply be attempting to show his people that he’s still a powerful fellow. But Putin also knows that there are no consequences to buzzing American ships. What will Obama do, hand him another region in which to expand his power? Tell him that he’s on the wrong side of history?
Furthermore, what will the two leading presidential candidates do if they achieve power? Hillary says she’s stood up to “bullies” like Putin, but she never did as Secretary of State. Trump says that Putin doesn’t have people killed, and praises him as a strong leader. There’s no reason for Putin not to use the United States – a country with leadership so weak that the Iranian Navy humiliated our sailors, to the cheers of our own White House – as his foil. What’s the worst that could happen?
The worst that could happen is that Putin, emboldened by American weakness, continues to push until pushback occurs, with or without approval from the administration. What happens if an American ship shoots down a Russian jet, and Putin, who has no capacity to de-escalate, rises to the challenge? What happens if Putin pushes into more strategically important areas than Crimea or Syria? As Governor Scott Walker said, “Putin believes in the old Lenin adage that you probe with bayonets, when you find mush you push, when you find steel you stop. Under Obama and Clinton, we found a lot of mush, over the last few years.”
Putin’s still pushing.
He still hasn’t hit steel.
By the time he does, conflict may be significantly more probable.