European think tank says Russian brinksmanship at Cold War levels

A report from a European think tank has identified more than 40 dangerous incidents involving forces from Russia and those of NATO member states over the past eight months.

The report, released Monday by the London-based European Leadership Network (ELN), specified three incidents in the past year that could have sparked open conflict between Russia and the West.

"We believe [the incidents] are a very serious development, not necessarily because they indicate a desire on the part of Russia to start a war but because they show a dangerous game of brinkmanship is being played, with the potential for unintended escalation in what is now the most serious security crisis in Europe since the cold war," the report's authors wrote.

The report was released following this weekend's celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, during which ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that Russia and the West were in danger of entering a "new Cold War."

The 83-year-old accused the West, particularly the United States, of giving in to "triumphalism" after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the communist bloc. The result, he said, could partly be seen in the inability of global powers to prevent or resolve conflicts in Yugoslavia, the Middle East and most recently Ukraine.

The first incident noted by the ELN, in March of this year, involved a near-collision between a civilian airliner and a Russian spy plane that had turned off its transponders, making it nearly impossible to be tracked by civilian air traffic controllers. The aircraft, which was traveling from Copenhagen to Rome at the time of the near-miss, was carrying 132 people on board. The report said that the civilian aircraft's pilots were only just able to avert a tragedy when they spotted the Russian plane through their window.

The second major incident was the September abduction of Eston Kohver, an Estonian secret service operative who was taken from a border post on Estonian territory. Kohver was later brought to Moscow and accused of espionage. The third incident was last month's hunt by Sweden's armed forces for the source of what Stockholm termed "foreign underwater activity." Rumors that the military was searching for a Russian submarine were never confirmed by officials.

The report maps most of the encounters as having taken place around the Baltic Sea, but incidents have also occurred over the Black Sea and along the U.S. and Canadian borders.

In September, military officials said that two F-22 fighter jets intercepted six Russian military airplanes that were flying about 55 nautical miles from the coast of Alaska. The Russian planes were identified as two IL-78 refueling tankers, two Mig-31 fighter jets and two Bear long-range bombers. They looped south and returned to their base in Russia after the U.S. jets were scrambled.

Hours after that encounter, two Canadian CF-18 fighter jets intercepted two of the long-range Russian Bear bombers about 40 nautical miles off the Canadian coastline in the Beaufort Sea.

In both cases, the Russian planes entered the Air Defense Identification Zone, which extends about 200 miles from the coastline. They did not enter sovereign airspace of the United States or Canada.

The report recommends that Moscow "urgently re-evaluate" its posture, adopted in the midst of ongoing fighting in Ukraine; that both Russia and NATO improve communications, including the development of a joint crisis management arrangement in the event of a deadly incident; and that both sides exercise "military and political restraint."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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