19 Feb 2015

Why is Russia flying bombers off the coast of Cornwall?

The interception of two Russian Bear bombers off the south coast of England is the latest “show of strength” that could have dangerous implications, senior military figures tell Channel 4 News.

Why were two Russian long-range bombers flying off the coast of Cornwall on Wednesday? Reconnaissance? A dress rehearsal for an invasion? Or a basic declaration of war?

First impressions seem concerning. The Russian Tupolev TU-95 bombers, known as Bears, are capable of carrying nuclear weapons – although they are not thought to have been carrying any in this incident.

Both bombers, while close to British airspace, had not yet entered it. When detected and escorted by the RAF, they complied then turned around and flew off north.

It is safe to say that this probably was not a declaration of war.

If not war, what?

More likely then, this was the latest military grandstanding by a country eager to keep the international community on its toes. As the peace process in Ukraine remains hanging by a thread, these manouevres are a throwback to the cold war. Brinkmanship rather than bombs.

For despite Wednesday’s events, Britain is hardly a stranger to probing Russian planes. UK jets have intercepted more than 100 Russian aircraft in 2014 as tensions between President Putin and the west intensified in wake of the security situation in Ukraine and the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last July.

Just over a fortnight ago two similar Russian aircraft flew over the English Channel. It was suggested that those planes were flying without their transponders turned on, making them invisible to civilian aircraft. A number of flights arriving in Britain had to be diverted to avoid potential disaster. British authorities were furious and summoned the Russian ambassador to explain the reasons for the mission.

Above: footage filmed by a Russian military newspaper appearing to show Nato jets surrounding a missile carrier.

‘Typical probing mission’

Conservative MP Colonel Bob Stewart, the former chief of policy at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, told Channel 4 News that this latest flight was a “typical probing mission by a Russian military that are expanding rapidly”.

Similar manoeuvres were practised by both Russian and Nato military aircraft during the cold war, he says, and it serves more as a method to cloud judgement and create suspicion in the minds of military strategists.

Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, told Channel 4 News that the events were “deeply unsettling and another example of Russia’s ceaseless belligerence towards the west.”.

“Essentially these exercises are designed to showcase Russian strength and western weakness. But there are wider factors too. Each time these manoeuvres are carried out, the Kremlin is effectively testing UK defence capabilities that include reaction times, the chains of command, how well our pilots are trained and what they’re able to do.”

That will be viewed more cautiously, with the relationship between Britain and Russia in flux. Britain, which along with other western leaders has imposed crippling financial sanctions on Russia, is also where the trial of murdered KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko has so far seen explosive testimony condemning Russia and President Putin.

Recognising the tensions the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon today said Russia poses a “real and present danger” to European security and that tensions between Moscow and Nato are “warming up”.

As the temperature rises, expect Britain to be less tolerant of these probing missions taking place perilously close to its own airspace.