According to the NATO commander, Russia is trying to demonstrate relevance on the world stage with its “provocative” incursions into European airspace.

“My opinion is they’re messaging us,” U.S. Air Force General Phillip Breedlove, NATO Supreme Allied Commander, said on Monday. “They’re messaging us, you know, that they are a great power and that they have the ability to exert these kinds of influences in our thinking.”

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Breedlove said that while slipping into another country’s airspace could be a routine occurrence, the uptick in cases involving Russian warplanes is a cause for concern.

“What is significant is that across history, most of these incursions have been very small groups of airplanes, sometimes singletons or at most two aircraft,” he said. “What you saw this past week was a larger, more complex formation of aircraft carrying out a little deeper, and I would say a little bit more provocative flight path.”

Russian aircraft have been increasingly seen in European airspace this year. Just last week, eight Russian bombers and tanker aircraft were discovered flying in formation over the North Sea.

According to ABC News, Breedlove said that “the situation resolved as it always did, in a professional manner with professional intercepts by fully capable NATO defenses to escort the Russians while they were in the airspace.”

The general, who is also head of the U.S. European Command, pointed to existing procedures for dealing with incursions into other countries’ airspace.

If they’re dangerously close, if the maneuvers are not correct, there are mechanisms by which we address those. But if the flight occurs in the airspace that these flights occurred in, and they are conducted professionally…then we do not routinely talk about them.

One of the major concerns has been the fact that these planes are largely undetectable to civilian radar and create an unpredictable situation for other aircraft.

“It is a concern,” Breedlove said. “These do not add to or contribute to a secure and stable situation, these kinds of demonstrations, and so they are problematic.”

According to Foreign Policy, Breedlove also made the “strikingly candid admission” that the United States and its European allies were largely powerless to stop Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. For the NATO commander, Russia is essentially shifting borders through a slow, but steady, destabilization campaign similar to the annexation of Crimea this spring.

“Clearly we see one border that remains absolutely porous and enables a dense cooperation, training and equipping of Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine,” Breedlove said.

Stars and Stripes reported earlier this fall that Breedlove warned of Russia’s “hybrid approach to war” that was evident in Ukraine.

The comments on Monday come a day after elections in eastern Ukraine that many European and American leaders call illegitimate because it was held by separatists not recognized by Kiev and the West. And they come as Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his rhetorical war against the United States. Last month, he gave a blisteringly anti-American speech to a group of Russia experts and denied that his country was at fault in the increasing tensions.

But for Breedlove, the NATO commander, Russia is pursuing a “revanchist” foreign policy that harks back to a more confrontational days of the Cold War and prompting an “unwelcome return of nations using force to coerce neighboring states in Europe.”

[photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense]