There is a reason it’s called Russian Roulette. Russians really are by nature reckless and irresponsible people. And Putin’s dangerous games are one day going to end in tears, even as he and the Russian public are gloating over their most recent childish (but extremely dangerous) antics.
With a foolhardy devil-may-care buzzing of a U.S. warship, the Kremlin once again demonstrates that Russia is a growing threat to global peace and security. And the ecstatic reaction of the Russian public to this incident underlines just how much Russia is moving towards a full war footing while America and Europe blithely ignore the increasingly serious menace confronting the civilized world.
The destroyer USS Donald Cook was in international waters in the Baltic Sea when a Russian Su-24 fighter jet flew within 30 feet of the ship. This is serious stuff. At that proximity, a slight miscalculation by the pilot could have led to a catastrophe killing dozens of American sailors.
Not that the Russians would care. This kind of irresponsible behavior is nothing new. Russian fighters have buzzed U.S. ships before in the Black Sea and flown dangerously close to a civilian airliner over the English Channel, nearly causing a fatal crash. And it got one of their fighters shot down when they decided to provoke Turkey by violating its airspace.
Unfortunately, Russians tend not only to be reckless and irresponsible, they are proudly unapologetic when tragedy results. Two years ago Russian separatists in Ukraine launched a ground to air missile supplied to them by the Russian military at a Boeing 777 with 299 passengers and crew, killing all aboard. They launched without even verifying their target, and posted gleeful boasts on social media until they figured out they had shot down a passenger jet and not a Ukrainian military craft.
And yet both the separatists, the Russian government and Russian public adamantly deny any responsibility for this mass murder. In opinion polls, 97% of Russians state that they believe patently absurd conspiracy theories that the CIA or Ukraine shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry complained to the Kremlin about the violation of international norms of behavior and military professionalism. “We condemn this kind of behavior. It is reckless. It is provocative. It is dangerous. And under the rules of engagement that could have been a shoot-down,” Kerry said.
The Russian official response was basically to accuse the U.S. of a hysterical overreaction and to assert that Russian pilots have a right to fly as close to U.S. warships as close as they want.
But to me, more disturbing has been the euphoric reaction across Russian mass and social media. While this incident has not been a big story in the U.S., it is the story of the week in Russia. And Russians interpret this reckless and irresponsible fly-by and the American protest as a major victory for Mother Russia.
Scanning Russian social media, Russians overwhelming express their approval of the heedlessly dangerous stunt and glee that the Americans disapprove. Much like the annexation of Crimea, it is viewed as an assertion of Russia’s rising military might (notwithstanding the realities that Russia is far from a genuine rival to America and that its economy is collapsing).
And there is more than a whiff of vicious anti-American sentiment. More than a few comments gloat over the (mistaken) idea that American sailors were intimidated. And many commentators repeat the same old ugly propaganda that Americans are cowards, and gay to boot (seriously, many Russians claim that Americans are gay pedophiles because the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a constitutional right).
Here’s the problem. By the end of the Soviet era, Russia couldn’t even produce simple consumer goods like toilet paper and sausages, much less computers. But people felt compensated for the lack of simple life necessities by the idea that at least Russia was a world superpower. Well, in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, at least now they can import basic goods with their (rapidly diminishing) oil and gas revenues.
But they still resent Russia’s global status as, at best, a regional power. Sure, Russia can affect events in Ukraine, Syria, and the Caucasus. And that’s about it. The U.S. has truly global capabilities and alliances. Russians are letting their very deep-set inferiority complex dictate their behavior.
So Russia is reduced to playing the spoiler where it can, and engaging in reckless stunts to try to prove to itself it is a major world power. It’s juvenile and pathetic and sets Russia on a deadly collision course with America. But it also serves a political purpose, of boosting the approval ratings of Putin and his ruling party.
So: what to do? Well, it really is a dilemma. We don’t want or need a war with Russia, particularly because if such a war somehow went nuclear, it would be the end of civilization. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t let punks like Putin and his minions heedlessly push us around. My advice is, wait for another few years for Russia to collapse again and see if that doesn’t sober them up. But in the meantime be prepared for yet more adolescent games of chicken.