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It is frequently reported the Russian planes incur upon western airspace, and this presents challenges and demands on western air forces. Yesterday we had a report of Russian bombers “armed with nuclear warheads” reportedly entered Swedish airspace before being intercepted by fighter jets, and last month we had similar reports approaching UK airspace. Wikipedia says "In November 2014, the European Leadership Network reviewed 40 incidents involving Russia in a report titled Dangerous Brinkmanship, finding that they "add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided midair collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs, and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area."

From a non-military viewpoint, it would seem that Russia would be much more vulnerable to this sort of tactic, having a very large border over which the west could conduct such operations, from Hungary over the Black sea area, from the Baltic states in the Northwest, through Scandinavia, Greenland and Alaska in the North and the Pacific in the East. I would presume that if Russia was intercepting western airplanes frequently over this wide area it would inevitably take away air capacity from Ukraine, thus supporting the effort to resist Russian occupation.

Why does the West not run such operations?

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    What would those planes do other than going into Russian airspace? If the planes enter at some point along the border where there's nothing interesting and they're just going in to waste Russian resources intercepting, (why) would Russia bother responding?
    – JJJ
    Mar 31 at 7:49
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    I would guess they would do what Russian planes do, and Russia would respond for the same reason we do, because that is what nation states do. If they did not respond that would really weaken their defensive position, which this war was supposed to be all about.
    – User65535
    Mar 31 at 7:57
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    Western governments are not and don't want to be active co-belligerents in the Ukraine war (even if they favor the Ukrainian side). Styming Russia in such a way would also give credence to Russian talking points that NATO is encroaching on Russian territory.
    – R.K.
    Mar 31 at 7:59
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    NATO and Russian aircraft (as well as U.S., Japanese, and Chinese craft in the Pacific) are constantly probing defenses. It's routine. But in wartime, it's a lot more dangerous because it could be viewed as a provocation if not an attack. It would be foolish to poke the bear, because they are already paranoid and are becoming somewhat desperate given unexpectedly tough resistance and high casualty rates in Ukraine. The wise course is to stay neutral, militarily at least, and let this play out. It's not worth sparking a wider regional war over; we should be trying to mediate instead, IMHO. Mar 31 at 17:09
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    @TadeuszKopecforUkraine The linked tweet shows a flight path that is within NATO-aligned airspace, not entering Russia.
    – user253751
    Mar 31 at 17:36

8 Answers 8

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Two explanations immediately come to mind:

Reporting bias
The impression of more frequent Russian incursions is based on the reports that one reads in the media and/or the statements by the NATO officials. It could well be that NATO planes do commit incursions into the Russian airspace and/or that Russian incursions have not become any more frequent than before - but the intensity with which they are reported by the media and/or commented upon has changed, creating a false impression that Russia is doing something unusual or more aggressive.

Possible Russian response to incursions
Now, if we assume that the reports do reflect the reality, there is no guarantee that Russia would react to such an incursion in the same way as NATO forces do - by intercepting the plane and escorting it away from the airspace. It could well shoot it down - as it happened on several occasions in the past - see, e.g., Korean Air Lines Flight 007 or 1960 U-2 incident. Giving western (at least European) reluctance to escalate things further, it is a very unwelcome perspective.

A more recent example is the shooting of Russian Sukhoi Su-24 by Turkey in 2015. The incident happened while both countries were participating in military conflict in Syria, supporting different sides. The possibility of a war between Russia and Turkey was brought up, although the issue was eventually settled peacefully to mutual agreement:

On 25 November, the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey spoke for an hour by telephone, and both governments stated that day that they would not initiate a war as a result of the incident. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists that his country would "seriously reevaluate" its relationship with Turkey. The Russian Defence Ministry broke off military contacts with the Turkish Armed Forces and Russian defence officials said that future airstrikes in Syria would be escorted by fighters. According to the Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu, Russia will deploy S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Khmeimim airbase in Syria, where the Russian Aerospace Forces group is stationed.

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  • if Russia would shoot down Western planes, should the West shoot down Russian planes?
    – user253751
    Mar 31 at 8:54
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    @user253751 it depends on whether the risk (e.g., of a nuclear war) is worth it Mar 31 at 8:55
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    Both points seem reasonable. In reference to point 2, these types of incursions into airspace are inherently antagonistic. Much like interpersonal relationships, when you antagonize an insecure individual they are likely to react, whereas a secure individual is less likely to react. Note that “security” in this model is relative to the group. In terms of international relations, Russia is much less secure than many Western democracies and thus engages in more antagonistic behavior that leads to it being ostracized among nations both locally (EU) and globally. North Korea is an extreme example.
    – Greenstick
    Apr 1 at 2:18
  • @user253751 There was a Malaysian passenger plane shot down by Russian rockets in 2014. No one has been shooting down Russian passenger planes in response.
    – RedSonja
    Apr 4 at 8:37
  • @RedSonja The internationally accepted version is that it was shot by pro-Russian separatists, not by Russia. Also, it wasn't an incursion into Russian territory - it was flying over Ukraine. Apr 4 at 8:42
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Regarding

I would presume that if Russia was intercepting western airplanes frequently over this wide area it would inevitably take away air capacity from Ukraine, thus supporting the effort to resist Russian occupation.

Russia hasn't committed that many of its planes to the war on Ukraine. Only about 300, according to Western estimates. This out of some 1,500 that Russia has. So forcing more Russian airplanes to scramble regularly somewhere else would appear to only marginally impact their current level of air operations in Ukraine. (The same relatively modest level activity of Russian aircraft in Ukraine was invoked among the counterarguments for a "no fly zone', by the way--although it wasn't the only one.)

In contrast, the US had committed some 1,300 planes to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. And the coalition forces in total had some 2,400 planes in the region. But while we're at comparisons, it's also worth nothing that Ukraine only had some 98 combat aircraft. Iraq had some 700, on paper at least. So it's also true that Russia doesn't need commit many aircraft to Ukraine unless it plans a massive air-to-ground war. From what I recall, the first Ukrainian pilot shot down over Kyiv (on Feb 25) was claimed by an S-400 (or some other SAM) rather than by Russian aircraft, so that's probably indicative how Russia approaches this air war.

Insofar, strikes deeper in Western Ukraine appear to have been carried with stand-off weapons like ballistic and cruise missiles. It's true that some were launched form aircraft (e.g. on March 14 or 15), but from bombers flying far away in Russian airspace, so these kinds of operations would not require tremendous fighter escorts of the kind that more NATO nearby incursions might tie up. Also, the MiG-31K that recently launched a Kinzhal ALBM in the same area appears to be a special modification of the fighter, and Russia seems to have only a handful of such MiG-31 that were modified for such purposes, as opposed to their usual role of patrolling Russia's far north and far east. So, again, it's questionable that a significant number of aircraft worth tying down (relative to Ukraine) could be tied down this way.

N.B. reading the question more closely, you seem unaware that NATO does run some similar enough operations; see the previous two links for some examples involving interception of NATO maritime patrol aircraft by MiG-31s. But these are not a new occurrence, having been going on since the cold war. Occasionally, they claim to have intercepted B-52H bombers as well. Insofar, I could not find any statistics of how many such intercepts Russia might do in a given time period. Unlike the Western politicians, the Russian ones don't seem to be complaining as much about these events, at least in the foreign/English-language press... One such B-52 did (in 2017) however elicit more detailed comments from the Russian MFA and other commentaries in the Russian press, which seemed to indicate that they were not a common occurrence, at least until then.

Pyotr Deinekin, a former Russian Air Force commander, was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying that he could not recall the last time a B-52 had flown over the Baltic Sea and that the incident raised troubling questions.

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    "Why does the west not run air incursions?" - "Russia hasn't committed many planes to the war" How does this answer the question? 'Dessert Storm' sounds delicious though. Mar 31 at 8:33
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    @Charles1267 The OP does say (among other things): I would presume that if Russia was intercepting western airplanes frequently over this wide area it would inevitably take away air capacity from Ukraine, thus supporting the effort to resist Russian occupation. So this answer addresses this specific point. Mar 31 at 8:50
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    To elaborate on @RogerVadim's point, if the incursions engage a relatively small portion of the air resources, the impact on Russia's ability to commit air resources to Ukraine may be small. If the benefits of the incursions are small, they may not justify the costs (especially keeping in mind that the costs include a risk of various possible negative outcomes such as escalation of the conflict).
    – phoog
    Mar 31 at 9:02
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    What is going on on this site with indiscriminate flagging? I am lately weeding out a lot of flags that are super misleading, like this one: "This answer was flagged as low-quality because of its length and content." This is a great answer! What seems to be the problem with length or content? No comments clarify the flag. Could the author of this flag pls provide constructive criticism instead of a highly confusing flag? Remember that according to Help center, this site is mostly objective and friendly, so could you pls keep it this way? Mar 31 at 12:00
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    @TimurShtatland That's an automatic flag. And this answer was very short in the first revision. Mar 31 at 21:54
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The West does not run air incursions into/around Russian airspace for a simple reason. The West has no appetite in provoking WWIII against a nuclear armed Russia, especially given that Russian leadership is constantly provoking the West. I hope that the reasonable people will agree that a nuclear war is not a constructive way forward.

Evidence for Russia provoking the West, a brief and incomplete list:

  • Open calls for aggressive actions against the West, sounded by the members of the Russian parliament ("Duma"), and by the prominent personalities on the Russian state-sponsored TV Channel 1.
  • Thinly veiled threats of unprecedented response to the interference of the West against the Russian "special military operation in Donbass" (war against Ukrainian military and civilians).
  • Air strikes in the immediate vicinity of the NATO border.
  • Air incursions on the territory of the Western countries considered by Russia as potential members of NATO (= targets for NATO expansion towards to borders of Russia).
  • Navy maneuvers in the immediate vicinity of key underwater infrastructure affecting Western countries.
  • Political interference in the key government activities (elections, political party finances) of the Western countries.
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    Unlike Russia, NATO tries to at least appear as a defensive pact that is defending against Russian provocations and aggressions, not initiating their own. Some may perceive that as a sign of weakness, bullies often have such simplified views. Apr 2 at 9:31
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No real bargain

Flying a jet costs quite some money per minute, for example, this site provides costs for flying an F-22 at $33,538 per hour (2016). In order to make such an incursion, an airplane has to first reach the border, fly in, stay in there for some time then fly back to its airbase. Such incursions can potentially end with a shootdown with result being more losses for the airplane operator (not speaking about possible casualties) and actual target practice for the country which borders can be breached. Also while flying an airplane into another country's borders could result in some intelligence data or whatever the military gathers on top of that, it also provides flight practice to defenders. In that article about Russian planes breaching Swedish borders, Swedish fighter pilots have gained quite a bit of experience themselves, as well as that incident had a good impact over Swedish media, as their border security has just been reassured.

And second, if an incursion is rather small, defending country spends less overall than incurring one. Although it's common practice to scramble fighters upon such incursion, with numerous incidents reported both during and after the Cold War from either side of Russian border (either Russian planes breach some country's border, or some other country's planes breach Russian border), the defending fighters have to travel less to the rendezvous point and back than offending one. Given this, game theory says making deliberate incursions is a move with negative gain for the would-be offender.

Yet, these incursions can and probably will be performed in some near future for intelligence purposes, checking whether the reaction of Russian air force would be swift enough, for example. After all, if such actions are deliberate, there is something to gain by making one step beyond the line occasionally. If they are erroneous, there should be no need to making such errors in the normal circumstances.

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    I don't think the cost is a factor in the decision at all
    – Joe W
    Mar 31 at 20:05
  • @JoeW IMHO if your country runs open warfare, costs do not matter, it's either do or die. If not, costs do matter, because you can run out of budget for intel operations (which is the possible qualification of airborne border breach) and your local head would have to answer why did you spend money on these activities with a range of possible alternatives.
    – Vesper
    Apr 7 at 6:51
  • What is the difference between them spending that money on an incursion or a training mission? It isn't like they would gain nothing from that mission.
    – Joe W
    Apr 7 at 12:51
  • @JoeW well, if a training mission would end with a broken airplane, there is always someone to ask why that happened. If an incursion would end with an incurring airplane getting shot down, who's to blame? Also training missions are normally funded from another part of money than actual operations. (This however is out of my visibility, so I think I'd stop here)
    – Vesper
    Apr 7 at 12:59
  • And you are making an assumption that a training mission would end in a broken airplane. The fact is that they do this incursions we just don't hear about them.
    – Joe W
    Apr 7 at 13:53
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Many of the incursions especially in northern europe are because Russian forces need to fly to Kaliningrad through small corridors so its relatively easy to slip up. Offcourse they also do it intentionally while they are there and sometimes even if they arent.

Western countries don't have a extra need to fly in such way in addition to no reason to. The other countries around the baltic sea dont have sea lanes or areas they need to reach on the russian sides. Similar things happen across most borders as well as nordic sea.

But this is also reporting bias as it does happen that western countries do this sometimes.

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While the other answers cover a lot of ground, I'll add another possible reason no-one has mentioned yet:

If you have fancy stealth jets, you don't want the enemy to be able to adapt to them. So if you actually need to use them for a surprise attack in the future, it will still be a surprise attack. This presents an interesting dilemma.

If the US sends its new toys like F35s over Russian airspace, and they are as stealthy as advertised, then the Russians would not even notice. If the jets don't use their weapons, then what would be the point? It makes no sense as an intimidation nor as a demonstration of strength if the other side doesn't even notice the planes are there.

However, if the Russians notice, you can be sure all the radars in the area would be aimed straight at the stealth planes, all the data recorded, analyzed, and Russia would learn a lot about the radar signatures of these stealth planes, how their different types of equipment reacts to them. They would no doubt use this information to know what type of radars and missiles would be better suited to use against them, or even upgrade their equipment in order to detect and defeat the stealth planes.

But the US would not know to what extent the planes had been detected, or what kind of information the Russians would have gathered. In fact, the optimum game-theoretic move for the Russians would be to do nothing at all, to pretend they did not detect the planes, while gathering as much information as possible. If this move was successful, then they could upgrade their equipment to defeat the stealth planes, in a way turning the tables on the surprise attack. In this case, if the US actually used the planes for a surprise attack, they wouldn't know if it would be successful or if they would just be shot down.

That's a problem with stealth planes: if you use them against a technologically advanced opponent, you give them free intel about how to defeat them. That's why the stealth info about F35 is classified to the point they add a radar reflector to each wing to make them less stealthy when the US just wants to show off, so no-one can know about their true stealth capabilities.

It's a double edged sword really. The US brags about its stealth planes, Russia brags about how their missiles can supposedly defeat them, but no-one knows who would win... and honestly, I sure don't want to see it happen and find out. In a way, this Tarantino-style Mexican standoff is a desirable outcome, because it keeps the insane warmongers in control of the US a little bit cooler.

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The reason that Western air forces don't run the same type of incursion operations against Russian airspace that Russian forces execute against the West is that such actions risk further inflaming tensions between Russia and the West. Russian airspace incursions are dangerous. If one side makes a mistake, it could quite literally spell the end of the world. While sending fighters into Russian airspace might not be an act of war in itself, if a Russian pilot or SAM operator makes a mistake and downs a Western aircraft, that would create an extremely dangerous situation. To use a now well-know pop culture analogy, it would be as if Chris Rock slapped Will Smith back- then the chance of a full-blown fistfight would have risen greatly. Just because Russian forces do it now does not mean it's wise for Western forces to do it in retaliation.

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    It would be a good answer, if lacking evidences, if it wasn't by the fact that Western air forces DO run these types of incursion operations as well. It's just that you only see complains in the (western) press about the ones the russians do.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 31 at 15:14
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It is frequently reported the Russian planes incur upon western airspace

Incursions?

That is not as true as sloppy reporting would have us think.

For example see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-60231014

2 February
RAF Lossiemouth jets scrambled to Russian aircraft

in the third paragraph it says

The RAF said the Russian aircraft did not enter UK airspace.


Airspace?

There are several different types of overlapping areas of interest in airspace

  • Sovereign Airspace - A country's sovereign airspace extends 12 miles beyond its coastline, sitting above its territorial waters. A country has no basis in international law to enforce national laws against aircraft more than 12 miles offshore.

  • EEZ - Exclusive economic zones can extend up to 200 miles offshore, however countries have no special rights to enforce national laws against aircraft flying over their EEZ.

  • FIR - Flight Information Regions are regions where international agreements provide for a country to provide some air traffic control services to aircraft that are in that region. These regions are arbitrary , can extend far out into the ocean and do not reflect sovereign rights. So far as I know, any aircraft can fly unannounced into an FIR without breaching international law. It may be that countries require aircraft that use their airports or sovereign airspace to also respect their rules around transit of FIR but so far as I know this is not a matter of international law.

UK FIRs
Nats.aero

Note that Shanwick FIR extends far out into the Atlantic ocean. It is controlled by Prestwick in the UK in cooperation with the HF comms provided by Ballygirreen in Ireland. It bears no relation to Sovereign airspace of UK or IE.


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