Wars are sometimes started on the flimsiest of excuses. The War of Jenkins’ Ear, for example, took place between 1739 and 1748 between Britain and the Spanish Empire. I was named so as the casus belli was the alleged severing of the ear of one Robert Jenkins, captain of the British brig “Rebecca”, by Spanish coastguards while they were searching his ship for contraband in 1731.This one was a bit of a slow burner, but it was used as an excuse by the British to start a war against Spain years later. It was a convenient cover for Britain to try to improve its trade in the Caribbean, which incidentally included the supply of slaves to the Spanish colonies in America. These matters are never straightforward.
Now we are looking at the circumstances and implications of the downing of a US MQ-9 Reaper drone operating over the Black Sea by Russian SU-27 fighter jets. By all accounts the Russian aircraft tried to disrupt the drone’s mission by dumping fuel over it before one of them appears to have clipped the drone’s propeller and sent it spiralling downwards.
All of this was witnessed by the drone’s operators in real time via the drone’s own sensors, and there is a pretty convincing video of the incident circulating on Russian channels. Caught bang to rights, as they might say on East Enders.
What was the drone doing there in the first place you may ask? Well, hoovering up information on Russian military movements of course, on the periphery of the Ukraine battleground. Its sensor equipment is well capable of so doing while the drone itself stays safely – or so it was thought – in international air space.
Nothing unusual here though. The Russians do exactly the same all the time, hence the large number of intercepts of their aircraft over the Baltic and North Sea by NATO aircraft. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
However, the destruction of the Reaper is a step up from intercepting and shoo-ing away unwanted visitors and carries the threat of escalation in the ongoing confrontation between NATO and Russia.
Much depends on the Russian intent and the US interpretation of the event. It’s clear that there was the desire to interrupt the drone’s mission by Russia, hence the dumping of fuel over it, but was the collision deliberate? It would be a brave pilot who deliberately rams another aerial vehicle because the chances are his or her own aircraft might be irreparably damaged as well. It seems likely that this was an accident, a miscalculation by the Russian aviator.
That’s the way the US seems to be playing it too, at least publically. The Americans have registered their displeasure, though, by summoning the Russian ambassador in Washington and describing the action as an “incident [which] demonstrates a lack of competence in addition to being unsafe and unprofessional.”
No other retaliatory action seems to be planned in the immediate future, which suggests the US does not want to escalate matters over what might be regarded as a relatively trivial incident when compared to what else is going on in the region.
Were the circumstances different, however, the unprovoked attack on a national asset could be taken as a declaration of hostilities and retaliation initiated. Stretching it a bit, it would also be possible to be seen as an excuse to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which basically says that an attack on one NATO member is to be regarded as an attack on all.
If that were to be the case, Russia would have made a big mistake, because any direct confrontation between them and the full might of NATO can have only one ending, and it wouldn’t be good news for Putin.
Thank goodness, therefore, that the US appears to be downplaying the incident and we will avoid an enlarged conflict. But the more times Russia escapes with a slap on the wrist over such escapades the more it will chance its arm.
At some point the US and NATO will have to harden its stance and put Russia, and Putin, firmly in their place. Like standing up to any bully in the playground, the sooner this happens the better.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now