Days after Russian bombers were spotted off the coast of Alaska twice in a matter of hours, Russian bombers were intercepted two additional times in the same region on Wednesday and Thursday.
The first time Russian bombers were intercepted near Alaska this week occurred on Monday evening, when two Russian TU-95 Bear bombers were intercepted by American F-22 fighters as they entered the Alaskan air defense identification zone. The interaction between Russia’s planes and the American F-22s was characterized as “professional” by defense officials, as the Americans escorted the Russians without engaging in any cockpit to cockpit communications for approximately twelve minutes before the bombers changed course and headed back for Russia.
Just hours later, a TU-95 bomber was once again spotted entering Alaska’s air defense zone, this time it was intercepted by an American E-3 surveillance plane only about forty-one miles off the Alaskan coast. Technically speaking, American airspace extends only twelve miles from the coastline, meaning the Russian bombers did not violate it, but many would still consider forty miles “a little close for comfort.”
The two most recent sightings occurred on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. On Wednesday night, two Russian spy planes, Ilyushin IL-38s, were tracked flying near the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea. They remained in the U.S. air defense zone for a few hours but did not violate U.S. airspace. The defense department has not yet revealed whether or not they were intercepted or escorted by U.S. aircraft.
On Thursday night, another pair of nuclear-capable TU-95 Bear bombers conducted another flight through both American and Canadian air defense zones, remaining within them for hours as well. There has been no word as to whether or not these flights were subject to American intercept either.
Tensions between the United States and Russia have been high since President Trump ordered a bevy of 59 Tomahawk missiles to strike an air base belonging to the Russian-allied Syrian government. The strike was the result of a chemical weapon attack believed to have been ordered by Syrian President Bashar al Assad on Syrian civilians, and was intended to limit his regime’s ability to conduct similar attacks in the future. Russia, though forewarned of the attack, assumed an aggressive posture after the strike, calling it a violation of international law.
Russian long-range bombing flights near a foreign country’s airspace is certainly not unheard of, but these flights mark the first such occurrence near the U.S. since July 4th of 2015, when a pair of Russian Tu-95 bombers were intercepted by American fighters in the same region. At that time, however, communications between aircraft were conducted.
“Good morning, American pilots. We are here to greet you on your Fourth of July Independence Day,” they said, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in a clear bit of military posturing.
“We haven’t seen this sort of level of activity for a couple of years,” said John Cornelio, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, though he emphasized that these flights were not “unprecedented” or “unusual.”
Russia is also toeing the line between regular military operations and the underlying message they seem to be trying to send to American forces.
“All such missions are carried out in strict compliance with international regulations and with respect to national borders,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a written statement. While technically true, their response ignores the proximity their nuclear-capable bombers are flying to American airspace, particularly as TU-95 have nuclear missile capabilities that make them a risk to American soil from significantly greater distances than forty or so miles.
“This kind of cat-and-mouse stuff has been going on for a while now,” Howard Stoffer, a former State Department staffer, said before adding that Putin “is trying to put the US on notice that the Russians are everywhere and are back to expanding the limits of expanding their military power.”
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