bombers as Putin
flexes air power
· Encounter reminiscent of cold war incidents
· Shifting alliances raise tension with Moscow
Richard Norton-Taylor and Luke Harding in Moscow
Friday September 7, 2007
A Russian TU-95 bomber flies over international waters off the coast of Norway. Photograph: AP
In the latest of a series of aerial incidents reminiscent of the cold war, four Tornado F3s from RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, and RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, were scrambled early yesterday followed by an E3 early warning radar aircraft and a refuelling tanker to shadow eight Russian Tupolev Tu-95 "Bears".
The Tu-95s were designed as bombers but are now frequently used for maritime reconnaissance. The aircraft, originally shadowed by Norwegian F-16s, were "approaching but not in British airspace", said the Ministry of Defence, which played down the interception as "routine Nato procedure". The Russians were "upgrading and exercising their capabilities", a defence official said. He added: "It is not the start of a new cold war."
Nonetheless, the latest episode came against a backdrop of shifting military and strategic positioning in recent months that has seen Nato extend its presence deep into Moscow's former empire, the Russians court the Chinese in the biggest war games between the two countries, and the US develop a military relationship with Moscow's traditional ally, India.
Mr Putin served notice last month of his intention to resume long-range bomber flights which were discontinued after the fall of the Soviet Union. He said Russia was restarting the flights because other countries had failed to stick by an agreement to scrap the cold war practice.
Two of the RAF's new Eurofighter Typhoon jets were scrambled in August as a TU-95 flew over the north Atlantic. In May, two Tornados intercepted a TU-95 observing a Royal Navy exercise. Defence and diplomatic sources said such incidents were likely to become more frequent.
The incidents coincided with acute diplomatic difficulties between London and Moscow over the Litvinenko affair. The Foreign Office said in a statement that bilateral relations with Russia "continue unaffected outside the unresolved Lugovoi extradition request" - a reference to Moscow's refusal to extradite the former KGB bodyguard suspected of the murder of Litvinenko in London last year.
The Kremlin said yesterday that 14 of its strategic Tu-95MS bombers had taken off on Wednesday night on long-range missions across the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The aircraft had flown over "remote regions" and had not penetrated the airspace of any foreign country, Russia's air force commander, Alexander Drobyshevsky, told the Russian news agency Interfax.
Despite the Foreign Office statement, official relations between Moscow and London have more or less ceased following the Litvinenko affair, and the tit-for tat expulsion in July of four Russian and four British diplomats. Reports that yet another Russian oligarch, the oil baron Mikhail Gutseriyev, has recently fled to London have done little to ease the strain.
As well as showing that Russia is a resurgent military power, Mr Putin has also gone out of his way to show that regional blocs outside Nato are growing in strength and influence.
Nato, meanwhile, recently announced a big naval exercise based on the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol next week, a move likely to annoy Moscow. Sevastopol was formerly the Soviet Union's principal warm-water port.
Last month Russia and China staged a series of elaborate war games with four central Asian countries. Yesterday Mr Putin signed a $1bn (£500m) deal with Indonesia, the world's most populous Islamic country, to provide assault helicopters, amphibious tanks and advanced submarines - expanding Moscow's military reach deep into south-east Asia.
One British defence expert expressed surprise that Russia was continuing to mount expensive long-range bomber missions on a big scale. But he said Russia's ageing Tu-95s posed little more than a symbolic threat. "It's willy-waving," Robert Hewson, editor of Jane's Air-Launched Weapons, told the Guardian. "They are out to make a point, that they are still here, and that they can't be forgotten about or ignored. But it isn't something anyone has to worry about."
The Russian bombers were flying the same "well-worn" route that Soviet pilots used to take in the 1970s and 1980s, threading through a gap between Greenland and Iceland, Mr Hewson said. Then the flights took place daily but ended abruptly in the 1990s when Russia ran out of cash.
Games without frontiers
A burst of war games and military manoeuvres around the world hints at a new strategic landscape.
· Nato plans next week to conduct exercises in Sevastopol, the Black Sea port once in the Soviet Union but now part of Ukraine. The exercises involve three former Soviet republics not yet in Nato: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine.
· The US, Japan, Australia and Singapore this week staged five days of war exercises in the Bay of Bengal with India.
· Russia and China held their largest ever war games in the Urals last month.
· China has built an intelligence listening post on the Cocos Islands in the Bay of Bengal and is helping Pakistan and Bangladesh to build deep-water ports its navy could use.