Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 128

Russia and the U.S. yesterday downplayed the significance of a published report suggesting that U.S. fighters had been forced to intercept two Russian strategic bombers as they approached the borders of Iceland last week. The incident, reported by yesterday’s “Washington Post,” occurred in the early morning hours of June 25 and involved a large scale military exercise conducted by Russia’s armed forces (see the Monitor, June 24). The “Washington Post” quoted U.S. officials as saying that two Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers were intercepted by four U.S. F-15 fighters and a P-3 Orion plane near Iceland, and that the bombers were escorted in a clockwise flight around the island. At the same time, Norway reportedly scrambled jets of its own to meet two Russian Tu-140 Blackjack bombers as they flew down the Norwegian coastline. Russian sources said that the Norwegian jets failed to reach the bombers before they turned back. Iceland and Norway are NATO members.

In Moscow, military officials denied that the Russian Tu-95s had crossed into Iceland’s air space or that the exercise had in any way violated international laws. Clinton administration officials appeared to concur. National Security Council officials were quoted as saying that there was apparently no violation of either Iceland’s or Norway’s air space, and that the Russians had been “completely within bounds in doing what they did as part of a military exercise.” U.S. officials yesterday also played down the report that the U.S. fighters had escorted the Russian bombers on June 25. They described the action instead as a routine one, and White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters that it “was not a militarily significant event.” U.S. officials indicated that Washington considers the incident to be a military matter and has not raised it formally with the Russians.

For all of that, last week’s Russian move apparently raised more than a few eyebrows. U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said that it was the first time in a decade that Russian bombers had approached Iceland. During the Cold War period Soviet military aircraft routinely flew around Iceland and probed the air space near other NATO countries. U.S. officials suggested yesterday that last week’s action by Russia was related to events in the Balkans and was intended to show that the Russian military is still a viable force and should not be ignored by NATO. The exercise will also undoubtedly raise new questions about President Boris Yeltsin’s grip on power in Moscow, and whether hardline military leaders were calling the shots on this occasion as they appeared to be doing on June 12 when Russian paratroopers unexpectedly moved into Kosovo (Washington Post, Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, June 1).