Russia gave the United States a disparaging snub this past July 4 when it sent long-range bombers off the coasts of both Alaska and California, followed by a congratulatory letter to President Obama. U.S. fighter aircraft intercepted both sets of the bombers and escorted them away — though neither ever entered U.S. airspace.
It is fairly routine for U.S. aircraft to intercept Russian planes near Alaska, but the intercept off of California was rather rare. A similar intercept off the coast of California occurred three years ago, also on July 4.
This kind of aerial muscle-flexing by the Russians is becoming increasingly common under Vladimir Putin. British and Scandinavian jets have also intercepted Russian bombers flying near their coasts in recent months, and the total number of NATO intercepts in Europe last year topped 400 — a 50% increase from the year prior.
As the July 4 intercepts took place, Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory letter to President Obama. He expressed confidence that they could "find solutions to international issues and efficiently resist global threats and challenges as they base their dialogue on principles of equality and respect of each other's interests." Pentagon officials say the Russian leader is "sending a message" — in other words, snubbing the United States. The notion that Putin wants to "find solutions to international issues" and "resist global threats" is basically a joke, as his aggressive conduct on the world stage has only increased global instability. (See Ukraine, for example, which he has destabilized through his proxies, the Crimean rebels.)
The increasing number of NATO aerial encounters with Russian planes is not the big problem, though it is reflective of the problem. Putin feels free to throw his military weight around because western leaders — beginning with President Obama, but also including German Chancellor Angela Merkel — have shown little resolve in forcing him to behave on the world stage. Yes, we have mounted sanctions against Russia — which are hurting its economy — but we have also neutered ourselves militarily and removed ourselves from positions of strategic advantage. When aggression is not deterred, aggression is just what we can expect, whether it's Russian incursions into eastern Europe or Russian bombers on our doorstep.