Russian sky and sea patrols widening in a dangerous revival of nuclear diplomacy

Royal Air Force

Publish date: August 22, 2007

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – In an apparent escalation of Moscow’s campaign to reinvigorate Cold War style nuclear bomber patrols of Western airspace, Eurofighter Typhoon jets were scrambled out of Scotland to intercept Russian nuclear bombers approaching British airspace, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said Wednesday.

The Ministry also reported that the number of incidents in which Russian submarines have been detected close to the British coast or been in contact with Royal Navy warships is on the rise.

British defence officials, speaking anonymously because they are not authorised to speak publicly about the event, have chalked up the new sabre-rattling by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a sign of deteriorating relations between Russian, Britain and the West in general, and describe it as an effort by Russian leadership to counter perceptions of Moscow’s eroding authority in international circles.

In two incidents this summer Russian Tu-95 Bear nuclear bombers were spotted heading towards British air space off Scotland and over the US-held territory of Guam. In the most recent incident, which British officials confirmed occurred Friday, pilots of the Typhoon jets managed to photograph the Russian bombers.

The new push to place 24-hour nuclear patrols in the air for the first time in 15 years is apparently the result of the economic upturn Russia has experienced thanks to its recent bonanza in oil cash, analysts and military observers say.

Nuclear games making the world less safe

“The nuclear flights are an effort to assert that Russia, because it holds the key to so much internationally sought-after oil, is again a force to be reckoned with,” said one British official in an email to Bellona Web.

“Unfortunately, they are relying on archaic and dangerous assertions of power through the flexing of their nuclear arm to make this simple economic point.”

The official went on to write that “this makes the world’s nuclear situation all the more dangerous – with more pilots in the air with their fingers on the red button, the chances of a mistaken attack go up exponentially.”

The Russian Tu-95 Bear nuclear bombers were detected over the Atlantic on Friday, the Royal Air Force (RAF) said today. British Tornado F3 fighters and two Typhoons were scrambled from the RAF base of Leuchars in Scotland.

On Wednesday, contradiction arose in Russian Air Force circles when Major General Anatoly Zhikharev, the commander of the bomber groups buzzing the airspace of NATO allied countries, told ITAR-TASS Russian news agency that the TU-95s were only carrying “training missiles.” His superior, Major General Anatoly Zhikharev, however confirmed to other news sources that the bombers were carrying nuclear payloads.

Why nuclear patrols now?

On possible explanation for the nuclear patrols forwarded by British defence officials is that Russia could be testing the West’s air detection systems and response times. But these same officials question why Russia need to know that.

“It’s unlikely that they are planning an attack – we are under the impression we are at peace,” said one official by email.

“But the attempted intrusion of nuclear bombers into British airspace is an aggressive test balloon unprecedented in 15 years.”

The nuclear patrols also come at a time when Russia and other nations – including the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark – are in the process of making territorial claims to swathes of underwater territory beneath the North Pole, where a US study suggests as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden.

Russia two weeks ago planted its national flag under the polar ice cap on the ocean floor, which drew a bellicose warning from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper that Canada will be building more military bases along its Arctic coast to protect Canadian sovereignty.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the leader of British Parliament’s Liberal Democrat party, told British daily the Telegraph that: "These pictures (taken by British Typhoon pilots) convey disturbing echoes of the Cold War.”

The British Foreign Office – like it’s Washington counterparts in the US State Department – was keen to play down the incident, saying in statement to Bellona Web: "The event has no political significance and does not represent an increase in tensions."

Putin vows Russian air dominance

Speaking yesterday at the biggest air show in post-Soviet Russia, President Vladimir Putin announced plans to restore Russia’s role as the world’s leading producer of military aircraft.

"Russia has a very important goal which is to retain leadership in the production of military equipment," he said at a former secret military base outside Moscow.

"As a state that has acquired new economic capabilities, we will continue to attach special importance to high technology and development."

The announcement is the latest of Putin’s attempts to revive Russia’s military, which many analysts in the West see as a reaction to US plans to operate a missile defence shield in the former Soviet states of Poland and the Czech Republic.

Yesterday, General Yuri Baluyevsky, Russia’s military chief of staff, bluntly told the Czech Republic that it would be making a "big mistake" if it allowed America to site elements of its missile interceptor system on Czech territory.