Going Dangerously Astray

This month, Russia lost two jet fighters during military exercises that simulated a major war with NATO. A naval task force was deployed in the North Atlantic on a mission to intercept and destroy U.S. reinforcements heading to the European theater of war.

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During exercises on Sept. 5, a Su-33 jet fighter fell off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov during landing and sank. The pilot ejected and was rescued.

Then on Thursday, seven Air Force jet fighters were sent from the St. Petersburg area to fly over the neutral waters of the Baltic Sea to Kaliningrad. The mission was to reinforce the exclave's garrison and to train it to defend the area from a NATO onslaught.

The military regards Kaliningrad exclave -- the most western part of Russia -- as the country's most vulnerable point and the center stage of any future war with NATO. European Union and NATO members Poland and Lithuania surround Kaliningrad.

An A-50 early warning plane -- the Soviet equivalent of the NATO AWACS -- accompanied the seven fighters. The powerful radar of the A-50 would detect any attempt by NATO fighters to intercept the jets before they reached the base in Kaliningrad.

The Russian jets were prepared to defend themselves. The group was made up of Su-27 fighters, armed with long-range air-to-air missiles, and MiG-29 jets, armed as though they were to take part in a close-range dogfight.

The scenario of the exercise apparently implied that radars and air traffic control capabilities in Kaliningrad were already destroyed by NATO air attacks. The reinforcement fighter force from mainland Russia was on its own over the Baltic states with the accompanying A-50 acting as command post, air traffic control and early warning facility.

The exercise turned out to be no game: Six jets managed to reach Kaliningrad safely, but a Su-27 piloted by 36-year-old Major Valery Troyanov lost its way and crashed in NATO territory in Lithuania near the village of Ploksciai, 190 kilometers northwest of Vilnius.

Troyanov successfully ejected and was captured by Lithuanian police. The Defense Ministry announced that the Su-27 lost its way because of a failure of navigation equipment. A Defense Ministry official told Itar-Tass on Thursday that the crashed Su-27 was unarmed. On Saturday, Lieutenant General Sergei Baynetov announced that the Su-27 had in fact been carrying four air-to-air missiles, Interfax reported.

The Lithuanian authorities are investigating the Su-27 wreckage and questioning Troyanov. A Cold War-style controversy has developed almost 16 years after it was officially announced that the East-West confrontation in Europe was over.

It has been reported that Troyanov is a first-class pilot. First-class jet fighter pilots are part of Russia's permanent readiness forces and are considered fit for immediate action. Troyanov's Su-27 apparently lost its way and crashed in daylight and good weather. It is not clear why Russian air traffic controllers in Kaliningrad did not help the lost jet reach Russian territory.

Last September, after the Beslan tragedy, President Vladimir Putin singled out as a major danger unnamed foreign hostile nations that "believe Russia as a great nuclear power is still a treat and should be eliminated."

Putin implied that "terrorism is only an instrument" of those forces that aim to tear away "fat chunks" of our territory. Anti-Western military preparations are today a strategic priority in Putin's Russia.

Russian warplanes in recent months have approached the borders of the Baltic states in war formation and often were reported to have briefly strayed into their air space.

Anti-Westernism is a policy gladly and fully supported by the military. NATO is the enemy of choice: Russia's top brass know perfectly well that NATO will not attack and that there is no real threat of war in Europe, so billions dollars from the state budget earmarked for preparing to fight the West can be misappropriated without much risk.

In fact, the danger is indeed high -- but not the danger of a NATO attack. The decay of Russia's military has sunk to a level where it is increasingly incapable of safely operating its sophisticated, Soviet-made weapons. Time and again jets plunge, subs explode and nuclear missiles fail.

The Soviet Union was a threat because of its strength; Putin's Russia is a threat because of its weakness.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.