Russia’s fighter jets have gone from harassing US aircraft to actually breaking them as Moscow flexes its muscles where it still can

Russian fighter jets have harassed US military drones operating above Syria routinely throughout July, with one engagement this week damaging an American aircraft.

US officials are frustrated with the repeated incidents, blasting Moscow’s pilots for dangerous and reckless behavior and accusing Russia of interfering with combat drones on high-profile counterterrorism missions. Military experts said there were several reasons behind the spike in aggressive behavior, including Russia’s overcompensation for its military shortcomings in Ukraine and a desire to flex its muscles in an area where it still enjoys a certain degree of strength.

Russia sees its activities in Syria “as one area that really speaks to Russian global power and influence,” Nicholas Lokker, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the Center for a New American Security, known as CNAS, told Insider. He added that Moscow is able to “really shape international affairs according to its own interests” there.

Both the US and Russia maintain a military presence in Syria. Washington has about 900 troops deployed for counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State while Moscow helps support the country’s brutal regime in its ongoing civil war. For years, the two countries have largely managed to avoid clashes there even as they pursued their respective interests.

But the bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow hit rock bottom after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. It hasn’t improved in the 17 months since, and the relationship isn’t showing any signs of reconciliation in the near future. Recent engagements in the skies above Syria have only elevated tensions between the two sides.

On Sunday, a Russian Su-35 fighter jet flew within meters of a US MQ-9 Reaper drone on a counterterrorism mission and deployed flares above the American aircraft. One of the flares hit the drone and damaged its propeller, although the crew remotely piloting the MQ-9 managed to safely bring it back to base.

“The Russian fighter’s blatant disregard for flight safety detracts from our mission to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, the commander of US Air Forces Central Command, known as AFCENT, said in a statement on Tuesday, adding: “We call upon the Russian forces in Syria to put an immediate end to this reckless, unprovoked, and unprofessional behavior.”

That incident is just one of several demonstrations of Russian aggression toward US military drones this month. The first week of July featured three straight days of provocations by Moscow’s pilots, who harassed multiple American MQ-9 Reaper drones by engaging afterburners, dropping parachute flares, and flying close to the aircraft.

At least one of these engagements nearly jeopardized a counterterrorism mission. On July 7, Russian fighter jets flew 18 close passes near several Reaper drones during an encounter that lasted nearly two hours and was described by a US military official as an “unsafe” situation. Hours later, those same drones carried out a strike in eastern Syria that killed an ISIS leader.

After it was disclosed that the US carried out the strike, the deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters the Kremlin knew “exactly” where the US operates and there was therefore “no excuse for Russian forces’ continual harassment of our MQ-9s after years of US operations in the area aimed at ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS.” She added that it was “almost as if the Russians are now on a mission to protect ISIS leaders.”

And Moscow’s aggression this month targeted more than drones. The US Air Force said in mid-July that a Russian Su-35 engaged an MC-12 surveillance plane “in an unsafe and unprofessional manner,” forcing the American aircraft to fly through wake turbulence and threatening the lives of the crew. In a separate incident, two French jets on a security mission were forced to maneuver to avoid a “non-professional interaction” by a Su-35.

Russia is looking to ‘compensate’…

There are several potential reasons behind the new spike in Russian provocations above Syria, which military experts suggested could be the norm for the foreseeable future.

Lokker, also a research associate with the transatlantic security program at CNAS, said it was notable that the recent string of incidents in Syria came on the heels of the Wagner Group’s late-June rebellion against Russia’s military leadership.

In a short-lived but historic mutiny, the mercenary organization pulled out of Ukraine, invaded Russia, and nearly marched on Moscow before Belarus brokered a peace deal between the Kremlin and Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Russia’s military suffered personnel and aircraft losses, and Western officials said the insurrection made Russian President Vladimir Putin look weak and undermined his domestic authority.

Beyond the Wagner Group’s rebellion, the reputation of Russia’s military has generally suffered since its invasion of Ukraine due to overall operational failures, such as surrounding the capital but failing to take it, and Ukraine’s battlefield successes, such as stopping Russia’s advance and retaking captured territory.

Recognizing the reputational hit to his military, Putin had been “looking for opportunities to compensate, including by resorting to these types of risky maneuvers, such as harassing US drones,” Lokker said. “These maneuvers, they are to some extent intended to demonstrate Russian military strength,” which could appease the country’s domestic audience.

Though there are still dangers in engaging in this type of behavior, harassing and even damaging drones give Russia a way to flex its muscles without necessarily risking a major escalation.

In general, Syria is a place where Russia can seriously demonstrate its military might, and the drone incidents are a part of that. In contrast with the situation in Ukraine, Russian forces have been able to notch achievements in Syria while supporting the ruthless Assad regime and have had a tangible impact on the trajectory of the 12-year-long conflict there, Lokker said. “Russia really wants to be perceived as a great power, and it sees its military presence in Syria as an important component of this.”

Russia might have also conducted its harassment attacks to support Iran — a country with whom Moscow has enjoyed growing military ties — in its overall goal of trying to oust US forces from the Middle East, Lokker said.

The aggressive maneuvers could also be an operational tactic by Moscow to test and explore the lethality of drones and US reactions when they are put at risk. Paul Lushenko, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army who is also an expert on drone warfare, said Russia could have been probing US aircraft to determine what they meant in the context of state-based conflict.

“We know that these drones are effective in terms of high-value targeting, whether it be a terrorist insurgent or indeed a political figurehead like Soleimani,” Lushenko told Insider, referring to Qasem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force who was killed in a 2020 US Reaper drone strike. “I think there’s a probing taking place to determine just how the United States and Western allies will respond in the event of escalation with another nation-state.”

Contested airspace’…

Even before the latest string of provocations, which appear to have become more frequent, Russia’s aggressive behavior in the sky is something that US officials called attention to in recent months.

In March, a Russian fighter jet clipped the propeller of a US Reaper drone operating above the Black Sea, forcing the American operators to bring the aircraft down into international waters. Washington also complained about armed flyovers of its military positions and Moscow’s pilots behaving as though they wanted to dogfight.

To counter these demonstrations — and increasing hostilities by Iran in the Middle East — the US in recent weeks deployed additional firepower to the region, including F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter jets. Although the F-35s, which arrived this week, were officially dispatched by the Pentagon to deter Iranian naval activity, military leadership hinted that the aircraft might be used to deter other threats as well.

US Air Force photo illustration by Staff Sgt. Christopher Sommers
“The F-35’s increased capacity and capability will allow the US to fly in contested airspace across the theater if required,” AFCENT said in its announcement of the arrival of the fighter jets on Wednesday. “This deployment demonstrates the US’s commitment to ensure peace and security in the region, through maritime support and support to the coalition’s enduring mission to defeat ISIS in Syria.”

Questions remain, however, about where the US may eventually draw the line. It’s unclear whether American missions will be scaled back, a reaction seen in the wake of the Black Sea incident, or whether they will maintain the status quo by reinforcing, as they have in the Middle East, but military experts said that Washington needed to exercise caution — and strike a balance — with any response to avoid potentially escalating the situation.

A measured response to Russian aggression, Lushenko argued, would ultimately need to be set against the backdrop of what the US considers to be a national security interest, and a tit-for-tat exchange wouldn’t exactly be in Washington’s best interest, given that it accuses Russia of dangerous behavior in the air.

“To do those in kind would not look favorably — it puts our soldiers at unnecessary risk,” he said. “I just think you have to consider what degree of risk are we willing to assume with a response in kind.”

* Article From: Business Insider