In the aftermath of a US military confrontation with Russian fighter jets over Ukraine, US leaders have sought to defuse tensions while insisting that the United States will not back down from its support for Ukraine. But the incident highlights a fundamental truth: as long as Russia remains at war with the West, the possibility of a catastrophic escalation will remain a constant risk.
The Pentagon’s top priority, according to Milley, is “avoiding a hot war with Russia.” Keeping such a war below the nuclear threshold would be difficult even for a more robust NATO force than Russia’s. But it’s even harder to avoid a miscalculation or incident that could push the conflict into a direct clash between US and Russian forces.
And that is precisely why US and Russia will continue to be locked in a high-stakes contest over airspace — with each side having an incentive to escalate and the other to deescalate. In fact, the Pentagon’s decision to release edited video footage of its MQ-9 Reaper drone getting shot down by a Russian Su-27 likely was intended to underscore that danger.
But despite the deepening of US and European relations since Russia’s invasion, it is unlikely that either side can make significant headway in its desire to reduce the risks of direct clashes. Across the EU, only Poland and Denmark have majorities who say that America is Europe’s “ally.” And in most European countries, including Austria and Germany, roughly half of those surveyed see the United States as an enemy.