Russian planes lurk off Cornwall with a message for Europe and NATO

‘And steer left to see Jamaica Inn’. EPA

Russian military aircraft off have been spotted off the coast of Cornwall in the south of England this week. The Bear bombers did not enter British sovereign airspace, and were escorted away from the area by Royal Air Force planes.

While David Cameron said he would not dignify the incident with a response, he admitted that Russia is clearly trying to “make some sort of point” by hovering around the edges of the UK.

And indeed, this is yet another signal that Russia is ramping up its strategic challenge to Western weakness.

Frequent flyers

While it may seem odd that Russian aircraft would be fly so close to the coast of the UK, it has unfortunately become a disturbingly regular occurrence.

Russian military muscle is often flexed across Europe. In this and other incidents, the Russian military is probing Western weakness, in more ways than one. It is attempting to signal political intentions and remind NATO that Russia can still reach the whole periphery of its territory.

As well as the Cornish excursion, there have been close runs near the airspace of Norway and even Portugal. It remains a mystery whether a Russian submarine really did trespass into the territorial waters of Sweden in October, but it is clear that the incursions are becoming as assertive as they are regular.

As worrying events in Ukraine develop, notably with the Minsk agreement in flux, these fly bys are first and foremost a political signal of Russia’s seriousness about this conflict. Its ventures across both European airspace and territorial waters can only be interpreted as a thinly veiled warning to European decision makers that Russia means business.

This ratcheting up of activity is indicative of the Russian government’s growing desire to challenge the post-Cold War order – which has, for 20 years, left it firmly in a losing position.

A Russian Bear bomber.

Russia believes its national interests have been ignored for too long. This is particularly true with regard to its concern about expanding NATO membership to include countries on its borders in Eastern Europe. It has sent regular reminders about this for 20 years, with shows of military prowess, but there has been a growing feeling that the time has come to challenge the post-Cold War settlement more robustly.

Europe is also suffering from its most acute point of vulnerability in generations, which helps to explain why Russia is adding a bolder flavour to a long-running tactic. Together, European nations are struggling with financial crisis while the US – their most important ally in respect of Russia – turns its attentions to Asia.

Russia now has the best opportunity in 20 years to show how weak Europe is when it comes to standing up to its old rival. At a time of austerity across the continent, with financial strains provoking crisis after crisis and defence budgets being drastically cut, it is only too easy to see why Russia not only thinks, but even knows, that it can get away with such behaviour.

And with rumours of further defence cuts to come after the general election in May, serious questions need to be asked about how the UK in particular can hold pretensions of influencing global affairs. It may hardly be able to defend its own airspace in the face of an increasingly assertive Russia – and Russia, for its part, has no reason to stop testing the boundaries.