There is no denying it any longer; the world is now in the grips of a second Cold War between the East and the West. Not since the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Soviet Union in 1983 has tensions been so high and there seems to be no sign of them subsiding any time soon.
So what is the shape of this new Cold War?
The current situation can be traced back to 2008 when Russian forces began their campaign in the South Ossetia region of Georgia. Distracted by the war on terror and the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan the West appeared powerless to stem Russian ambitions. While American aircraft did fly Georgian troops home from Iraq to defend their homeland the West categorically refused, openly and publicly, that they would not interfere directly. Russian confidence grew as a result and while the war of words over American ambitions for a missile defence system in Eastern Europe and the death of Alexander Litvinenko heated up it was clear that the West had lost the first round of Cold War II.
Skip forward over six years later and the world’s focus shifted to Syria and the Ukraine in particular the Crimea. Putin’s success in the Crimea has again boosted Russian confidence forcing the West in to action by training the Ukrainian military to help combat the pro-Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine. Thus the stage was set for a “proxy war” – essentially a conflict between NATO and the Russians fought through an intermediary in this case, Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels. This was the very nature of the way the Cold War was conducted. It was a way in which the two superpower blocks could face off against one another without directly fighting themselves (although this did happen occasionally most notably in the skies over Korea between 1950-53 but both sides denied it was happening to prevent an escalation). It was an unspoken agreement between the East and West that where one’s military fought the other would not get involved directly.
The situation in Syria however threatens to unhinge that agreement. For the first time since the Second World War, American and Russian warplanes are engaged in military operations in the same airspace but not as part of a joint force. In fact there is a feeling that both militaries are trying to achieve different aims with Western media claiming that the majority of targets hit by Russian aircraft are aimed at supporting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad rather than combating Islamic State as claimed. If true this flies directly in the face of Western ambitions in the country which calls for Bashar Al-Assad to step down.
So far both sides have been extremely careful to avoid one another’s aircraft during operations but in the last week the situation seemed to escalate when reports came out in the British media that pilots of the Royal Air Force were apparently granted permission to fire on Russian jets over the Middle East. The reports were apparently backed up by the fitting of AIM-132 ASRAAM air-to-air missiles to RAF Tornado GR.4 strike aircraft operating against Islamic State in Iraq and this prompted angry exchanges between British and Russian diplomats in Moscow and London. The British Foreign Office claimed that the fitting of the weapons had been “misinterpreted” by the Russians.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said;
The Russian government sought clarification over inaccurate newspaper reports concerning RAF rules of engagement in Iraq. The defence attache reiterated the British government’s concerns about Russia’s military operation in Syria, including targeting legitimate opposition groups, using unguided weaponry and leading to large numbers of civilian deaths.
The Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, hinted his belief that British authorities deliberately leaked the idea of the story as a warning to Russia stating:
(The) RAF does not participate in the anti-ISIS coalition strikes in Syria. The question arises, what is the goal of such a provocative media leak?
The Russian ambassador makes an important point. Despite the response to the media story from Moscow, British aircraft are not carrying out operations within Syria as a result of a Parliamentary decision not to carry out airstrikes there in 2014. RAF operations are limited to Iraq at present but in the last month Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, has reiterated his belief that to fight Islamic extremists in Iraq and not Syria was “illogical” and that a new vote should be undertaken to reconsider the decision now that the Conservative party has a majority in Parliament. This means there is the possibility that British aircraft could operate over Syria along with the US, French and of course the Russians.
If that was to happen then the question must be asked; what should RAF pilots do if they encounter a Russian plane?
The immediate answer is of course do nothing. Despite the feelings of animosity between London and Moscow the United Kingdom and Russia are not engaged in open hostilities. Therefore if aircraft from both sides encounter one another there is no reason for them to begin firing. If we analyse the orders published in British media, regardless of how accurate they are, the result is that British pilots’ rules of engagement are not to shoot down Russian aircraft but to defend themselves if attacked by Russian aircraft. This follows international law which allows military forces to retaliate against an attack even if the countries are not officially engaged in a military conflict. Almost certainly, Russian aircraft operating over Syria have similar orders and have been armed as a precautionary measure.
But can two air forces with separate agendas operate over the same condensed airspace without coming in to conflict with one another?
At present the Russians have claimed to make attempts to at the very least create some kind of control structure for air operations over Syria to avoid meetings of aircraft. The Russians claim that the Americans are refusing to cooperate while the West claim that the Russians will only agree to such a structure if they could control all aircraft and allow them to continue supporting Al-Assad. Washington, London and Moscow have all said the same thing; that the mission in Syria would be best served by a coordinated mission. However, neither side is willing to submit to the other’s proposals for what the best way forward for Syria is and as such it will only be a matter of time before both sides will have to confront one another diplomatically and directly.
Just like in the Cuban Missile Crisis one side will eventually have to blink and step down leaving the other to dominate the situation. Politically this is unthinkable for all sides. What is worrying is that with more and more armed aircraft filling the skies of Syria the chances of a collision or worse, misidentification leading to a missile firing, may force that confrontation a lot sooner than either side may be prepared for. If one side was to lose an aircraft as a result of action from the other even by mistake then that side would be on the defensive and would be less likely to step down thus worsening the situation.
Until a political plan for Syria can be agreed by all sides of the debate then the situation remains delicate and will only worsen with time especially if Islamic State escalates the situation themselves with a high profile terrorist attack in Russia, America or the UK.