Ukraine crisis: Can the UK handle the Bear threat from Russia?

Nato flew no fewer than 400 intercepts last year

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 19 February 2015 21:00
Footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry yesterday shows a Nato jet escorting a Tu-95 Bear bomber of the kind involved in Wednesday’s incident
Footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry yesterday shows a Nato jet escorting a Tu-95 Bear bomber of the kind involved in Wednesday’s incident

The presence of Bears in the sky off the coast of Cornwall is nothing new. Russian warplanes, especially the bombers with that name, have been probing Britain, and Western Europe’s, air defences regularly as relations with Vladimir Putin have deteriorated: Nato flew no fewer than 400 intercepts last year: a 400 per cent increase from 2013.

It comes, however, at a time when the Kremlin is enjoying diplomatic and military triumphs with an agreement in Minsk on the Ukraine civil war signed on terms favourable to the separatists. And the Russian-backed fighters then going on to inflict a humiliating defeat on the troops of Kiev at Debeltseve.

Moscow may, under the circumstances, want to ratchet up its show of force with more flights to test its former Cold War opponents; but British defence chiefs insist that its fleet of Typhoon fighters will be able to cope with any “uptick” from the one Russian aircraft a month they have had to escort away from UK airspace.

Britain has, however, had to call in the past for help from allies over Russian military incursions. Maritime patrol aircraft from France, America and Canada flew to RAF Lossiemouth to take part in the hunt for a submarine off the coast of Scotland last December.

Critics claimed the “embarrassing” need for help was due to the Cameron government’s decision to scrap the Nimrod reconnaissance fleet which had a central role in anti-submarine warfare: a replacement upgrade programme is running nine years late and £800m over budget. The question of defence budgets has become increasingly enmeshed in any Nato military action. And RAF officers say they are only too glad that the Typhoon has been able to get so much coverage over the Russian flights. The development of the plane, also known as the Eurofighter Typhoon, was a controversial and costly project, and there had been claims that the RAF could have obtained cheaper and better alternatives.

So the threat of Bears is not necessarily a bad thing for the British military. But there is always the apprehension that the brinkmanship which comes with the Russian challenges will lead to a mistake by one side or the other. Robert Emerson, a security analyst specialising on Russia and eastern Europe, said: “The more this goes on, more is the danger from something going wrong, and, in the current febrile atmosphere, the increasingly toxic confrontation, this could have severe unintended consequences.”

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