The Russian Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily – VVS) has conducted a series of ‘long-range aviation patrols’ with its Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear’ strategic bombers over the Atlantic Ocean and Norwegian Sea in the west and the Barents Sea in the east, state media announced on 29 January. The flights were conducted out of Engels Air Force Base in the Saratov region on the same day as the announcement, the TASS news agency reported. During the more than 19-hour missions, the Tu-95MS bombers were accompanied by Ilyushin Il-78 ‘Midas’ tankers and MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’ interceptors.
According to the reports, the aircraft remained in international airspace throughout the patrol, although they were shadowed by UK Eurofighter Typhoons, Norwegian Lockheed Martin F-16s, and French Dassault Mirage jets for portions of the flight. While such long-range Russian flights were commonplace during the Cold War they largely ceased in 1992 with the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, in 2007 President Vladimir Putin restarted them during a period of declining relations with the West. They have continued since then at a level generally dependent on the political climate between Russia and the West.
The current crisis over Ukraine means that such ‘patrols’ are at the highest level they have been since 1992. Over recent months Russian bomber flights over European air space in particular have increased markedly, and in November 2014 the Russian president announced that long-range overflights spanning the Arctic region to the Gulf of Mexico soon would begin. Apart from the increased number of flights, what sets these patrols apart from those conducted in previous years is the different aircraft types involved. Whereas in the past the VVS would typically send just a bomber or two with perhaps a tanker in support, now we are seeing the bombers accompanied by interceptors and sometimes even surveillance aircraft. More