On August 8, 2010, the US and Russian air forces embarked on a remarkable exercise. The assignment, dubbed Vigilant Eagle, involved tracking a Gulfstream jet that had sent out a mock distress signal shortly after taking off from a runway in Alaska. The plane flew in the direction of the Bering Strait with the intent of testing the two countries’ readiness to respond to a hijacking by an international terrorist.
F-22s from the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the joint US-Canadian group that was created explicitly to protect the skies over North America from a Soviet attack, were scrambled and within 10 minutes were escorting the Gulfstream over the Pacific. When the F-22s fell back to refuel, US ground controllers gave a signal to their Russian counterparts and a MiG- 31 and two Su-27s took up positions to trace the plane as it headed toward its destination in the Russian Far East.
For the two militaries this was a major step forward in building capacity to jointly address shared threats, and to work off persistent cold war hangovers on both sides. But the exercise was all the more striking in light of recent history. Two years to the day before the F-22s took off from Alaska, a war broke out between Russia and Georgia that almost shattered the relationship and could have led to US-Russia military confrontation.
That summer in the White House, frantic officials undertook discussions about possible US retaliation against the Russian forces that had invaded Georgian territory. The options discussed included surgical strikes on a tunnel connecting Russia with the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, which at the time would have been full of Russian soldiers and military hardware. Although the principals in the administration of George W. Bush ultimately rejected a direct military response, all working-level ties between Pentagon officials and their Russian colleagues were ordered cut after the war. In addition, the United States pushed for, and achieved, a suspension of the NATO-Russia Council, one of the primary forums for bilateral interaction on security issues.
An outside observer might assume that Vigilant Eagle, along with a wide array of other measures in bilateral security cooperation that the Barack Obama administration has implemented since it took office, is a sign that the Georgia war has been forgotten, and that its long-term effects are insignificant. But in fact, the events of August 2008 have had a major and lasting impact on the bilateral relationship. Moscow’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (the other breakaway Georgian region) and Russia’s continuing and deepening military presence in the two territories represent the most significant problem in the bilateral relationship today.
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