Written by Anton Khimiak, HWAG Analyst
The anti-Western rhetoric of the Russian Federation is one of the pillars of its propaganda. In the world of Russian propaganda, the role NATO assumes the main role of the antagonist, an enemy Russia claims it was forced to wage war against; Russian justification for its aggression against other states.
As a result, Moscow’s official position regards any statements from NATO as “aggression” directed at Russia. With Moscow having plunged into a full-scale war, the Kremlin is counting on NATO’s direct involvement to avoid being crushed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is confirmed by systematic provocations from the air and water spaces of NATO member countries and their allies. In turn, the alliance maintains a diplomatic posture while strengthening its member countries’ defense capabilities.
So, have such provocations devolved into a fully-fledged hybrid war, or are they still being used to serve the purposes of Russian propaganda? But a better question, who benefits from the West’s collective failure to respond militarily?
Muscle twitching or annoying buzzing
From February 24, 2022, the Russian Federation actively increased its hostile operations, violating the airspace or country’s territorial water space, which, in accordance with international law, prohibits it from flying over its territory or entering its territorial waters. Among these countries were:
- Estonia: airspace violation by a military helicopter in the southeast of the country;
- Lithuania: six cases of violation of the airspace over the sea, including with radar devices turned off;
- Denmark: a warship violated territorial waters twice in one night;
- Finland: Violation of airspace by two military aircraft;
- Poland: systematic airspace violations by helicopters and bombers;
- Sweden: military aircraft violated airspace;
- Moldova: the missile flew over the territory of the country and fell on the territory after being shot down;
- Romania: a missile launched over the territory of Ukraine crossed the airspace of the country;
Also, in August 2022, Russian military aircraft flew into the US air defense zone in Alaska three times in one week and maneuvered in the buffer zone between the US and Canada.
Most of these cases were related to the conduct of military exercises by the Russian Federation, which were held near NATO countries. After all, the exercises were so-called “reactions to the alliance’s aggressive policy.” This is not the first time the Kremlin regime has used these techniques. Take for example, immediately after Finland’s accession to NATO on April 4, 2023, Russia conducted exercises involving anti-aircraft guns, infantry, and bombers in the Kaliningrad region (a Russian region that borders Finland).
Russia used military exercises with Belarus’ participation as an excuse to redeploy troops to the border with Ukraine before the start of a full-scale invasion. Russia outright lied about the withdrawal of troops after the end of the exercise.
Russia always uses military exercises to reinforce the threat and organization of provocations. During such actions against Estonia, in addition to airspace violations, rocket launches were simultaneously simulated against a “conditional enemy among the Baltic States.”
All of this, combined with an understanding of the true threat posed by troop accumulation, has an informational effect and shapes societal perception.
Such provocations are taken for:
- Provocation of the Alliance. The Russian Federation uses any actions taken by the allies in response to these provocations as an informational excuse for its domestic audience (consolidates the image of the West’s hostility among its population). On a global scale, the Kremlin interprets these actions as causes rather than consequences, attempting to legitimize its aggression.
- Creating the effect of presence. Such provocations should aggravate the issue of NATO countries’ defense capability. On the one hand, this exacerbates the Atlantic community’s internal security and political situation. On the other hand, Russia’s actions force NATO countries to increase defense spending, potentially diverting the West’s attention away from military-technical assistance to Ukraine in the event of an attack.
What does Russia say?
Provocations are also included because they are too tools for creating an information picture. The Russian media bears the primary responsibility for profiting from provocations. For example, Andrey Gurulyov (State Duma deputy from United Russia and retired lieutenant general of the USSR), commenting on Finland’s accession to NATO, argued that it was only necessary to strengthen the Russian Federation’s military power and determine all possible outcomes:
“In terms of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. We pointed it not at Ukraine, but at Poland and Germany. We must state unequivocally that we are prepared to use these weapons. A step to the left and right—a nuclear baton to the head.”
This position allows us to state that such provocative activity is primarily directed at internal and external audiences. On the one hand, it demonstrates internal consumer strength. Therefore, the regime is attempting to demonstrate to the average Russian that it still has sufficient military power and that the Russian Federation is not afraid of a confrontation with NATO in this manner.
On the other hand, it is an opportunity to mobilize reserves because, as long as NATO is a threat on the Russian Federation’s border, mobilization, improving the material and technical base, and increasing efforts to involve the public in the war have justification.
At the same time, Russian media messages for foreign audiences typically silence Russian Armed Forces actions aimed at deepening the confrontation with NATO. For example, the Russian news agency “Sputnik,” which disseminates Russian propaganda in 30 languages, routinely ignores all news related to the Kremlin’s provocations. However, the agency does not fail to comment in detail on any NATO aircraft approach to Russian airspace.
Does such a provocative tactic work for NATO? In reality, NATO has few options for responding to such actions. The alliance cannot respond in a mirror manner and therefore make provocations in response because this will only play into the image of an aggressive bloc created by Russian propaganda. It is also wrong to completely ignore such activities because then the Russian regime will raise the level of the conflict, increasing the risks for the member states.
So what path did the alliance choose?
On August 2, 2022, at the briefing of the spokesman of the US State Department, Matthew Miller, one of the topics of the journalists’ questions was the recent provocations against Poland. The position of the United States, in this case, was as follows:
“We noticed that the Polish government issued a statement regarding this (violation of airspace by Belarusian helicopters). We expect all countries to respect each other’s sovereign airspace, and we will continue to prioritize NATO’s security. NATO countries have a procedure in place to apply Article 5. We are not at that point right now.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has previously stated a similar position. Especially in the case of violations of Finnish and Swedish airspace, the alliance cited freedom of action for national governments. It did, however, emphasize the importance of increasing cooperation in the field of monitoring such incidents.
“This underscores the importance of our vigilance, our increased presence, and that we are increasing and intensifying intelligence sharing, monitoring, and protecting our airspace. So that is part of the bigger picture of how we are doing more to monitor and do enough surveillance. It protects all of our airspace.”
Even in the case of provocations with an American reconnaissance drone, which led to its complete loss, or the creation of a real danger to a Polish aircraft over the Black Sea, there was no more significant reaction than diplomatic condemnation.
Such provocations only led to increased interaction between the members of the alliance. This is especially noticeable in the Baltic countries, where the authorities clearly understand the Russian army and why it is better to stick together against the background of such a threat.
Every instance of provocation by the Russian Federation or Belarus (as a Russian proxy) was communicated at the highest levels of government. It became a justification for NATO countries to beef up their military readiness. This prompted the alliance to mobilize, raising the question of the alliance’s actual military capability of collective defense against aggression.
As one of Russia’s most frequently provoked states, Poland responds diplomatically and expands and rearms its Armed Forces. This way, Poland gets the top spot in the alliance as the most combat-ready member, allowing it to advance its position. In particular, it allows Poland to advocate for Ukraine before other allies.
The latest provocation by Belarus was the violation of Polish airspace by two military helicopters. This happened despite the repeated continuation of joint exercises between the Kremlin and Minsk. At the same time, an informational picture is being created about the desire of the mercenaries of the “Wagner” PMC to go to war with Poland. The President of the Republic of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, expressed this. As of now, this provocation is the height of tension between Poland and Belarus.
In response, the alliance’s most “aggressive” decision was to increase its presence in the Eastern European and Baltic regions. Poland transferred more troops to the Suwalki Corridor (the border between Poland and Lithuania separating the Kaliningrad Russian Federation region from Belarus).
Thus, NATO’s strategy regarding provocations by the Russian Federation is as follows:
- Monitor and record every air or water space violation case and communicate it at the official level through diplomatic instruments.
- Deepen cooperation between member countries and develop mechanisms that increase the military effectiveness of such cooperation.
- Supporting member countries in rearming and setting up the appropriate infrastructure will simplify logistics.
Provocations by the Russian Federation regarding airspace violations and attempts to influence NATO countries, particularly in the context of actions against Ukraine, may have negative consequences but are limited in their impact. In summary, the following can be noted:
- Information control: Along with attempts to create an image of hostility toward the West, such provocations can reduce the international community’s trust in Russia. Some neutral countries understand the situation and adhere to a position to preserve peace and stability. This undermines the legitimacy of Russia’s actions and emphasizes their aggressive nature.
- Impact on the economy: By forcing countries to increase their defense spending too actively, Russia can hope to reduce foreign aid to Ukraine. However, this tactic also encourages the international community to unite and overcome divided interests to support countries needing protection.
- NATO Mobilization: Provocations may attempt to affect the internal defense capabilities of NATO member states. However, they lead to the alliance’s countries further strengthening their cooperation, improving defense capabilities, and providing mutual assistance.
The fact that the alliance understands the whole threat of such provocative actions was confirmed in the latest communiqué of the member countries at the NATO summit in Vilnius:
Russia has increased its military presence in the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean regions and maintains significant military capabilities in the Arctic. Russia’s more assertive posture, new military capabilities, and provocative activities, including near NATO’s borders, as well as its large-scale exercises without warning and snap actions, continue to threaten the security of the Euro-Atlantic region. NATO and the alliance members will continue to take the necessary, verified, and coordinated actions, mainly through implementing the relevant plans.
In the end, the strategy of the alliance to leave this provocative activity in the information field does not fuel Russian propaganda. It does not allow the provocation to flow into a conventional confrontation. At the same time, strengthening internal cooperation gives many long-term advantages in expanding logistics chains and production capacities. Coupled with a slight overall increase in spending on its collective defense, the strategy looks very profitable for the collective West.