Russian President Vladimir Putin may have left this weekend's G20 summit in Brisbane early, but his warships stuck around.
A battle group of four Russian ships including the heavily armed destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and the guided missile cruiser Varyag had accompanied Putin's visit in international waters off the Australian coast. After Putin announced he was leaving early on Sunday to get some sleep — Western leaders reportedly browbeat him for as long as eight hours over Russian support for eastern Ukraine's rebels — the battle group joined up with another guided missile cruiser and destroyer in the Philippine Sea, where they tracked Russian submarines posing as the enemy and fired artillery at floating targets.
The ships' maneuvers near Australia and target practice near the Philippines, both of which are staunch US allies, were the Russian military's latest show of strength following expansive air exercises over the North, Black and Baltic seas and a reported incursion by a submarine in the Stockholm archipelago last month that sparked a 10-day "Hunt for the Reds in October." A growing number of Russian military encounters around the globe points to what analysts call a new era of Cold War-style brinkmanship, with the Kremlin apparently attempting to deter a growing NATO and US military presence in eastern and northern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis.
At the heart of the threat lies Russia's still-potent nuclear capability. Last week, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russia would increase the number of long-range bomber flights and, in an unprecedented move, send them as far as the Gulf of Mexico.
"Russia is sending the Europeans a message that if they back the United States, Russia can send them to nuclear hell," defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told VICE News. "They're sending a message not only to Western militaries, but also to politicians and the public that the threat of nuclear war is not zero, that you shouldn't threaten Russia, that you should seek compromises with Russia because Russia can go nuclear, it can go ballistic."
The recent naval exercises in the Philippine Sea may have taken place far from Europe or the United States, but that message was clearly addressed to another participant in the G20 summit, President Barack Obama, said Alexei Fenenko, a security researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences and professor at Moscow State University.
"This was a demonstration to Obama that we have something to answer with if he should try to deploy forces to Ukraine or ships to the Baltic Sea … it's reminder to Obama that he needs to solve issues diplomatically," Fenenko said.
But the flip side of such brinksmanship is the risk that it spirals out of control and results in loss of life or actual warfare, as a recent policy brief by the London-based think tank European Leadership Network warned.
According to the brief, close military encounters between Russia and the West have grown in both number and gravity since Russia annexed Crimea in March. As of late October, NATO states had scrambled fighters to intercept incoming Russian aircraft more than 100 times this year, three times more than in 2013 and approaching levels seen during the Cold War.
"These events add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area," the report said.
Among the more than three dozen incidents listed, the brief noted three that had a high risk of causing casualties or direct military confrontation, including Sweden's readiness to employ armed force in the Russian submarine hunt in October. Prior to that, an SAS plane taking off from Copenhagen in March nearly collided with a Russian reconnaissance aircraft that wasn't transmitting its position, putting the lives of 132 passengers at risk.
In September, Russian agents abducted an Estonian security services operative from a border post, jamming communications and throwing smoke grenades. Estonia has said the incident took place on its soil. Notably, it occurred shortly after Obama visited Estonia to reassure it and other NATO members that the United States would help defend them in the face of any Russian incursion — a growing concern following reported Russian military deployments to eastern Ukraine. On Sunday, Obama accused Russia of supplying heavy arms to Ukrainian rebels, saying "you don't invade other countries or finance proxies and support them in ways that break up a country that has mechanisms for democratic elections."
Other close military encounters described in the brief include Russian aircraft buzzing American and Canadian warships, performing dangerously close high-altitude intercepts and conducting a simulated attack on the Danish island of Bornholm, as well as practicing for potential cruise missile strikes on the United States during September's NATO summit in Wales. But several of the Russian shows of strength were in response to Western aircraft and ships located in areas that Moscow has traditionally viewed as its sphere of influence, in particular the Black and Baltic seas.
In a German television interview aired on Sunday, Putin admitted Russia was engaging in "exercises, flights, ship movements," but portrayed them as a response to Western military aggression. Asked if the military encounters and hostile rhetoric between Russia and the West indicated a new Cold War, Putin argued that NATO's acceptance of new member states in central and eastern Europe in recent years had been "significant geopolitical game changers" that forced Russia to respond.
"NATO and the United States have military bases scattered all over the globe, including in areas close to our borders, and their number is growing," Putin said. "Moreover, just recently it was decided to deploy special operations forces, again in close proximity to our borders."
Putin was apparently referring to major exercises involving hundreds of US special forces personnel in the former Soviet bloc states of Poland, Slovakia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which began in May in response to the burgeoning pro-Russia separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Although they won't be permanently based in any one country, about 100 US elite troops will be kept in NATO states close to Russia for training exercises with local militaries, which so far have included mock house-to-house combat, assault boat raids and parachute drops and airstrikes.
On Monday, NATO announced it would open a training center in Georgia, the former Soviet satellite state with which Russia fought a brief war in 2008.
According to Fenenko, Russia's top military and political brass is responding to what it sees as a new Cold War-style policy of containment by Washington, as elucidated in an Obama speech in Warsaw in June that promised a greater US military presence in Europe in response to "Russian aggression in Ukraine." Obama pledged "NATO aircraft in the skies of the Baltics" and "allied ships patrolling the Black Sea," promising that "further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia."
Now Russia is testing the lengths to which the United States and NATO are willing to go to back up their words, Fenenko explained, and trying to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, a move which he said would make the Baltic Sea a "little NATO pool."
"Russia is turning to shows of strength to find out if NATO is really aiming to deploy large forces to these areas, to test US willingness to use force in response to the Ukraine crisis, and to make Baltic countries think that it is not worth abandoning their neutral position towards Russia," Fenenko added.
The Baltic in particular has become a hot spot for military encounters because planes must fly over it to reach Russia's European exclave of Kaliningrad, home to the Russian Baltic Fleet as well as a key airbase. With heightened air traffic, military planes are bound to stray more often into other countries' airspace, Felgenhauer said.
A final political goal that Felgenhauer said Russia hopes to achieve with its military posturing is to divide the United States and Europe. They have so far worked in conjunction to adopt sanctions against Moscow, but ones that have hurt European trade ties more than those of America. In exchange for abandoning this policy, Moscow could offer Europe deals on its oil and gas, he said. In essence, threatening nuclear war is Russia's version of the hard sell.
"They will explain to Europeans that they'll be better off trading with Russia and not giving a damn what happens in Ukraine," Felgenhauer said. "That means you have to threaten nuclear war, or at least create the feeling it's not far off, to scare them and then to offer a nice deal as an alternative."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @AS_Luhn