Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 226

Russian military officials were uncharacteristically subdued last week in confirming reports that the Russian air force had transferred a handful of long-range strategic bombers to bases in northern Siberia, near Alaska. On December 1, a day after a U.S. Defense Department spokesman had told reporters about the move, the Russian Defense Ministry said that it had indeed deployed five nuclear-capable Tu-95 “Bear” bombers to bases at Anadyr and Tiksi in Russia’s remote far northeast. An additional two Tu-95s were reportedly sent to Vorkuta, in northwestern Russia. Russian air force officials attributed the redeployments to the start of a new training cycle and to the need to give Russian bomber pilots additional training in areas with–in the words of one report–“difficult meteorological conditions and strong geomagnetic fluctuations.” Russian officials also pointed to the fact that Russian bomber pilots now get about ten hours of flight training per year while their counterparts in the West average 180-200 hours. Training hours in Russia have been down over the past decade in part due to fuel shortages. This situation has apparently been mitigated for the time being.

The redeployment of the propeller-driven Tu-95s looks at first glance like another bit of saber rattling by a defense establishment desperate to demonstrate–to audiences both at home and abroad–that it remains a potent military force. In that regard, the Russian move appears to be reminiscent of two incidents over the past year in which the Kremlin has unexpectedly sent Russian strategic bombers to probe Western air defenses. In late June of 1999 U.S. fighters intercepted two Tu-95s near Iceland and escorted them around the island. Then, in September of last year, U.S. radar detected a pair of Tu-95s heading toward Alaska. U.S. fighters were sent to intercept them, but the Tu-95s turned back before crossing into U.S. air space. More recently, the Russian air force tried to grab some headlines by twice buzzing the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk while it was refueling in the Sea of Japan.

Whether Moscow intends to use these most recent deployments in a similar fashion remains to be seen. Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon suggested on November 30 that the Russian air force could be planning to fly the Tu-95s near U.S. airspace off Alaska. He also said that a move of this sort would constitute no threat to the United States and would probably be done mostly to bolster the public image of the military in Russia.

But Russian officials appeared to play down the Pentagon claim. An air force spokesman said that the recent deployments were “not some saber-rattling in the Cold War style.” He added that “the bombers aren’t going to approach Alaska or pose any threat to the United States. They will stay in the Russian airspace.” The spokesman also said that the Tu-95s would not carry weapons during their flights.

The uncharacteristically low-key Russian approach to the redeployment of the Tu-95s may be a result of several recent developments. One is the humiliating and tragic loss of the Kursk submarine in August. In addition to focusing international attention directly on the navy’s many shortcomings, the loss of the Kursk short-circuited a plan to dispatch a high-profile naval mission to the Mediterranean Sea–where it was to show the Russian flag. Russian military leaders may also be acting in a more subdued fashion following the announcement of a Kremlin plan to slash the size of the armed forces by more than 350,000 men over the next several years. Enunciation of the military restructuring plan has been accompanied by some sharp Kremlin criticism of the High Command’s performance.

Pentagon officials have apparently given no indication as to whether the U.S. air force has shifted its air defenses in response to the Russian redeployments. The Canadian government did, however, announce on December 1 that it had deployed three CF-18 fighter jets to a base in the northwestern Arctic in a move to counter possible probes by the Russian bombers.