What is President Putin playing at?

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With increasing frequency Russian war planes are flying over the UK, often having to be chased off by RAF jets.

Other NATO nations are being similarly buzzed and probed.

Russian submarines have also been making a nuisance of themselves around British and Scandinavian coastlines.

While the number of airborne incursions is easy to monitor, the scale of Russia’s underwater activity around our shores remains guesswork, due in large part to the scrapping of Britain’s submarine tracking aircraft, part of the peace dividend that followed the end of the Cold War.

For the UK renewed Russian belligerence is little more than a nuisance, but elsewhere it is a cause for real concern. Finland, which has a long land border with Russia and history of violent antagonism with its neighbour, has put 900,000 military reservists on alert. In April of this year the Finnish navy dropped depth charges when a Russian submarine was believed to be have been prowling close to Helsinki.

Last October, Sweden initiated a massive military mobilisation when a Russian submarine was believed to have been lying off Stockholm. In March of this year a Scandinavian Airlines came within 100 meters of colliding with a Russian stealth surveillance aircraft near Copenhagen in Denmark.

This is not “business as usual” military posturing; it is a sustained ramping up of tensions. But to what end?

It is unlikely that Russia is seriously contemplating a full scale military attack on the UK or Scandinavian countries, but it is a risk that cannot be entirely ignored.

The Russian economy, which was being talked of as a new powerhouse has gone into reverse and remains dangerously over-dependent on oil and gas exports. The World Bank predicts a 3.8% contraction in Russian economic activity this year, a recession driven by low international oil prices and western sanctions following the Russia’s military incursion into Ukraine.

A faltering economy is likely to undermine public support for President Putin and he will need more than his increasingly bizarre macho man publicity stunts to win back the public’s affection.

The pinnacle of his project to restore lost national pride was to have been returning Crimea to Mother Russia. However that adventure has become bloody and messy, and it has brought damaging sanctions which have impacted on ordinary Russians, in an unwelcome reminder of past privations.

The on-going war in eastern Ukraine has cost some 6000 lives and human rights organisations are reporting widespread brutality and torture. Russia officially denies that its forces are fighting in Ukraine, though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Russian soldiers killed or captured in Ukraine are described as “volunteers” and disowned by the Kremlin. Their families are denied the usual support. It is a pretence that even a credulous populace is starting to see though.

Putin desperately needs bolster his support. With Europe distracted by a multitude of internal issues and President Obama intent in scaling down America’s involvement in the world, Putin he still has a window to win a popular victory in Ukraine.

Most likely Russia’s mischief making around the Baltic and North Seas is merely a warning to others not to get involved in Ukraine. If that is Putin’s intention, he is being successful as no western nation is calling for intervention.

However if Ukraine turns sour for Putin, and public support ebbs away he will have to find new bogeymen and military adventures, in which case we could quickly find ourselves shivering in a renewed cold war.