Moscow decided to double down on its complaints about joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises being conducted on the Korean peninsula by conducting their own show of force: flying intelligence gathering aircraft and nuclear capable “Bear” bombers through the region on Wednesday, an uncommon act even for Russia’s often aggressive air force.
The United States levied new sanctions against a number of Russian and Chinese organizations and officials earlier this week over their support of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Although none of those sanctioned were official government entities for either state, this announcement makes it increasingly difficult for either nation to claim support for a denuclearized Korean peninsula. Furthermore, intercepted weapons shipments between North Korea and Syria seem to indicate not only that Russia has a funneling method to support North Korean efforts by way of their third-party ally, but also serves as further proof that Russian officials have lied about Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s possession of chemical weapons.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has seemed outwardly dismissive of concerns about a nuclear North Korea, while criticizing the United States’ efforts to dissuade Kim’s pursuit of the weapons systems.
“The US and South Korea holding yet more large-scale military and naval exercises does not help reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said during a news briefing in Moscow. “We urge all sides to exercise maximum caution. Given the arms build-up in the region, any rash move or even an unintended incident could spark a military conflict.”
Ironically, that statement was made on the same day Russia flew its Tupolev-95MS bombers over the region, accompanied by Russia’s advanced Sukhoi-35S fighter jets and one A-50 early warning and control aircraft. The A-50 is designed to track targets, both in the air and on the ground, from long distances and could be compared to the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft employed by the U.S. military.
“Our long-range aviation pilots, according to an established plan, regularly carry out flights over neutral waters over the Atlantic, the Arctic, the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean from their bases and from tactical airfields,” the defense ministry said in the same statement regarding the flight. Russia has made a habit of probing foreign airspace with their TU-95MS “Bear” bombers, which have been in service since 1956, but are rumored to have received significant upgrades since 2007.
The massive, four prop, strategic bomber is nuclear capable, and serves as the airborne component of Russia’s own nuclear triad, not unlike America’s aging B-52 Stratofortress, which first entered into service a year prior to the TU-95.
Japan and South Korea both scrambled fighters to escort the Russian aircraft as they flew over the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea.
The United States and South Korea are currently amid ten days of joint military exercises near the North Korean border called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. The drills are an annual occurrence, but they have received harsh criticism from diplomatic rivals in the Pacific due to heightened tensions with North Korea, who claim the drills are a rehearsal for an invasion. The U.S. has countered these complaints by claiming the drills are entirely defensive in nature.
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