Beginning with 28 October 2014, Europe’s airspace has recorded Russian military aviation presence of a magnitude that has never been made public. Russian aircraft combined in four groups each allocated to a determined itinerary crossed the airspace above the Baltic Sea, North Sea, North Atlantic and Black Sea, being recorded and monitored by the NATO anti-air defence. Allied fighters were immediately lifted and, once intercepted, the Russian aircraft returned to their territory gradually and in an orderly manner.
What instantly drew attention was the fact that, on 29 October, the Norwegian air force intercepted four Tupolev (Tu-95 Bear H) aircraft of strategic size and capable to carry nuclear cruise missiles within a range of 1,600 nautical miles (Raduga Kh -55). The nuclear load that is carried by the missile is 200 kilotons (the atomic bomb dropped at Nagasaki in August 1945 had a destructive capacity of 21 kilotons).
The Tu-Bear aircraft were escorted by four Ilyushin Il-78 air fuel supply planes. On the same day, a similar strategic group of aircraft with nuclear capabilities was reported in the Black Sea space.
Such exercises present a high level of danger, as Russian aircraft is not equipped with what it necessary to be identified by air traffic control towers (active transponders ) and do not conform to international traffic norms (announcement of a flight plan specifying routes). In this latter case the aircraft flew in areas with intense international air traffic, jeopardising flight safety.
Relevant specialists consulted by the international media say that the bombers were probably headed to a pre-set spot for launching their own nuclear charges. The same experts point out that such flights were performed by both sides during the Cold War and that they continued – indeed, on a smaller scale – also after the end of the Cold War. They were never publicised, but they virtually never ceased.
In an expert’s opinion, the most probably purpose of such an exercise made by the Russian air force was to test NATO’s monitoring and reaction capacity. ‘It is not farfetched that at some point within the next two years [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes a more aggressive move in Eastern Europe and uses a nuclear threat to deter a NATO response.’
On the contrary, such exercises named in army jargon ‘strategic deterrence practice missions’ are also performed by other nuclear powers. What was special about this Russian nuclear air exercise was its clear intention to attract the attention of the public opinion – both by the capabilities used and by the air zones crossed, each of them being of obvious interest to Russia in the current international context. This can be definitely asserted given the fact that they followed other actions of violation of international norms in the spaces under discussion, such as the annexation of Crimea, in the Black Sea region, the recent incursion of a submarine into the Swedish territorial sea in the Baltic region or the arrest of an Estonian officer on Estonian territory near the Russian border with the incursion of a similar Russian group into the air space neighbouring Alaska, intercepted this last September. From this point of view, another Western expert comments: ’I don’t read this as a specific nuclear or conventional scenario practice, rather an exercise in long-range navigation and provocation. It’s clearly designed to annoy NATO but from a purely tactical perspective, this was still a pretty small display of airpower.’ And another one adds: ‘More activity than in the recent past, yes. Nuclear strike rehearsal, unlikely. Capabilities are easy to measure. Intent is not.’ Another noteworthy fact is that these Russian groups were instantly intercepted by the NATO defence with fighters, forcing the Russian aircraft to draw back.
Russian experts do not hesitate to say about the exercises that are ‘out of the same Cold War textbook as Finlandization’, meaning ‘balancing on the verge of war’ to deter Europe from continuing to fight back the action of nuclear Russia in Ukraine. ‘Moscow seems intent on preventing Ukraine from floating westward, away from ‘the bear’s taiga’ domain, and is deliberately sending a signal: Russia will do what it takes (including war or threat of war) to prevent this outcome,’ analyst Pavel Felgenhauer was stating in the context of the Russian air exercises.
The worrying part of the episode recorded last week is that one can observe that, while conduction certain actions that violate the agreements made for a peaceful settlement of the situation in Ukraine – for instance the recognition of the election held by the separatists in the Donetzk and Luhansk regions in Eastern Ukraine last Sunday – Moscow resorts to such destabilising moves.
The comments made by readers to such mass media reports on Russian air actions suggest that the public is becoming concerned about the nuclear deterrence actions taken by Russia in Europe’s air space, looking at it as a means of pressure and blackmail to determine an accommodation of its geopolitical plans. One of the readers was stating: ‘Nothing the Russians are doing is inconsistent with rehearsals of nuclear attack plans. Most of these bombers are dedicated to executing nuclear strikes. Their crews are certified to carry out nuclear missions. The Russian government has a nuclear doctrine which states publicly that it will strike first with nuclear weapons if it believes its vital national interest is threatened.’
In order to stress that the Russian deterrence had not worked, the European Union did not recognise the result of the election organised in Eastern Ukraine on Sunday and, more than that, said it would impose further sanctions if Russia continued to destabilise the country.