Hamish De Bretton-Gordon
As Putin’s invasion grinds on, the risk of escalation has drifted away from headlines. People seem to view the war as the “new normal”. They shouldn’t. This is still an incredibly dangerous situation, ripe with potential for tragedy. This was brought home sharply yesterday, when we learned that almost exactly a year ago we came within a single technological failure of war between Nato and Russia.
An unarmed RAF surveillance aircraft, operating in international airspace over the Black Sea, was fired on by an incompetent – or deranged – Russian pilot. The first missile failed to achieve target lock; the second fell harmlessly into the sea. If either missile had worked as intended, we would have entered a crisis of staggering consequence. It is no exaggeration to say that it could easily have started World War Three; up to thirty British crewmen, and their aircraft, incapable of hostile action, killed in cold blood in neutral airspace. Nato would have had no choice but to respond with overwhelming force. And as we’ve learned in the last year, Russia’s army is paper thin; a modern Western army would punch through their defences without a second thought.
In fact, it wouldn’t have to. Overwhelming missile and jet strikes would eliminate every Russian asset outside of its borders within hours of the decision being made to wipe the Kremlin’s forces from the earth. What would have been left would have had no choice but to surrender, or – a chilling thought – go nuclear. Given the potentially apocalyptic nature of the consequences, it’s easy to understand why the UK – and no doubt the US – tried to suppress the true nature of the event for so long. But it is also a reminder of the total incompetence of the Russian Air Force. This is unlikely to have been the only time where their pilots have made mistakes or misjudgments. Perhaps most worrying is the revelation that Russian pilots seem unwilling to follow orders, or are at the least being given confusing and vague instructions. The risk of a repeat is far too high.
Given this, the best way to avoid a repeat would be to blow the Russians out of the sky. If they can’t hit a massive target at point blank range, they certainly wouldn’t stand a chance against F-16s. If we speed up the delivery of modern aircraft, Western fighter jets can end any prospect of Russian air-superiority within days, giving Ukrainian armoured formations the room to manoeuvre so key to generating breakthroughs. It would also allow UK intelligence to continue its critical role in this fight. It is clear that Moscow is willing to do almost anything to suppress Britain’s information-gathering activities. Our “spies in the skies” over the Black Sea see everything the Russian fleet is up to, and no doubt a great deal more – allowing British Storm Shadow missiles to target with pinpoint accuracy critical naval assets.
This must be driving Putin absolutely mad. It’s no wonder he’s dragged himself far to the east to meet the plump tinpot dictator of North Korea: his forces are desperate for any edge they can get. Russian troops are getting through biblical quantities of ammunition without any real effect. Now he’s reduced to begging for ancient Soviet era shells, while modern Western armaments continue to flood into Ukraine. And a desperate man is a dangerous one. Nato, and Britain, must be at the top of their game to ensure that another “accident” isn’t used as a pretext to demand we step back – or that the increasingly reclusive occupant of the Kremlin doesn’t drag the world into armageddon.