LONDON — A near-collision between a passenger jet and a Russian spy plane was among dozens of "highly disturbing" recent encounters between Moscow and the West, according to a think tank report published Monday. The study by the European Leadership Network comes days after NATO warned of a spike in Russian air activity over European airspace. The ELN said there have been almost 40 "sensitive incidents" — a return to Cold War levels — since political upheaval erupted in Ukraine eight months ago.
"To perpetuate a volatile stand-off between a nuclear-armed state and a nuclear-armed alliance and its partners ... is risky at best," said a statement accompanying the report. "It could prove catastrophic at worst." Reacting to the report, British Gen. Sir John McColl said: "The potential for error and escalation is clear and extremely dangerous." NATO's former deputy supreme allied commander in Europe told the Guardian newspaper it was "more a matter of when rather than if."
The ELN reported that a Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) Boeing 737 was forced to take evasive action during takeoff after it came within about 100 yards of a Russian reconnaissance plane. The incident, which was confirmed to NBC News by the airline, happened while the jet carrying 132 people en route from Copenhagen to Rome on March 3.
The report also documented several encounters with the U.S. military, including an unarmed Russian fighter's making 12 passes of USS Cook in the Black Sea in April and a Russian aircraft that got within 50 miles of the California coast a month later, the closest since the Cold War. In September, Russian strategic bombers practiced cruise missile strikes on the U.S. from the Labrador Sea near Canada. While the aircraft didn't enter Canadian airspace, the report said, it "was still a provocative move in light of the NATO summit ongoing at the time," not least because cruise missiles launched from that location would have New York, Washington and Chicago within their range.
NATO has conducted more than 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft this year alone, the alliance's figures show, already three times those in 2013. According to the ELN, this is "the first time since the end of the Cold War that Russia has been rather openly treating NATO and its partners as potential opponents, training accordingly and testing our defenses."
The report added: "These events form a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area."