On Friday two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-160 “Blackjack” strategic bombers were detected in the Arctic just off the North American coastline in an area patrolled by the Royal Canadian Air Force. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) reported that two Canadian CF-18 fighter jets, and two US F-22 jets from Alaska, escorted the Russian bombers out of the Alaska Air Defense Identification Zone.
This follows last month’s widely-publicized visit to Venezuela of two Russian Tu-160s. The bombers flew a 10-hour patrol over the Caribbean before returning to Russia. In late December, Russian news services reported that Moscow is preparing to establish a long-term military presence in Latin America, though Russia would be hard-pressed to support any bases and Venezuela’s constitution forbids foreign military bases on its territory.
Yesterday’s events also follow an incident in September where the Pentagon protested after US Air Force jets intercepted Russian bombers west of Alaska, along with several incidents in April 2017 that occurred after a two-year absence of activity.
The swing-wing Tu-160 has a range of about 13,000 km (8,000 mi) and is the largest and heaviest aircraft ever built that can travel twice the speed of sound. It can carry up to 40,000 kg (88,000 lb) of weapons, and is designed to act as a standoff missile carrier that volleys long-range, nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Although it is enormously expensive and only about two dozen were made, Russia has begun production of an upgraded version, dubbed the Tu-160M2.
On December 18 at a meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board, while criticizing Trump’s moves to withdraw from the US–Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Vladimir Putin also criticized the INF Treaty itself as resulting in “unilateral disarmament” of Russia. Putin said that nuclear-capable cruise missile development would be a priority for Russia.
Abolishing the INF Treaty seems to be something that Putin wanted to do anyway, and Trump is helping Putin by taking the blame for it. Russia’s Tu-160 saber-rattling and the impending INF withdrawal both fit right in with Putin’s and Trump’s threats of a new nuclear arms race.