Moscow is stepping up its information campaign against the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) by using classic mirror imaging. For more than a decade, Russian strategic bomber flights close to US and NATO airspace designed to test the response of local air defenses have become commonplace. In turn, in late August 2020, the US Air Force flew B-52 strategic bombers in the Baltic and Black Sea regions as well as over Poland as part of Washington’s wider ongoing efforts to reassure allies on NATO’s eastern flank and send a strong deterrence signal to Moscow. Russia’s response came rapidly: Moscow widely publicized its intercepts and shadowing of these flights, and it exploited news of this and additional US bomber flights to allege hostile intent on the part of the West (Izvestia, September 11).
On September 11, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, the commander-in-chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) briefed foreign defense attaches in Moscow. In response to the US B-52H strategic bomber flights staged as part of the Allied Sky exercise on August 28, Surovikin alleged that this had included the rehearsal of cruise missile strikes against targets inside the Russian Federation. The VKS commander explained that the US assets had trained to launch precision strikes against Russian targets from airspace in the Black Sea region and also Estonia. “Simultaneously, two B-52Hs, operating from the continental United States, were practicing similar combat training missions in the Arctic latitudes over the territory of Canada,” Surovikin stated, adding that such training flights close to Russia’s borders “are hostile and provocative” (Izvestia, September 11).
Surovikin also used the opportunity to praise the professionalism of VKS pilots: “The actions of the US Air Force and NATO fundamentally contradict the statements of the officials of the Alliance about the desire to avoid incidents during the training activities. They can be avoided only thanks to the high level of professional training of the Russian VKS pilots” (Izvestia, September 11). Surovikin highlighted the risk of an accidental confrontation, yet neglected to mention the very same possibility during Russian strategic bomber flights close to NATO airspace. The VKS commander noted the use of over-the-horizon radars for early detection of the US bombers.
Similar allegations about the training mission of the US strategic bombers were made by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, suggesting these flights train for attacks against Russian targets. The National Defense Management Center (Natsionalnogo Tsentra Upravleniya Oboronoy—NTsUO) in Moscow acted as a focal point for disseminating information concerning US bomber flights, presenting these as a potential military threat to Russia’s security. In a statement by the NTsUO issued on September 15, an additional intercept was confirmed. Russian fighter jets were scrambled to escort US B-1B Lancers over the Bering and Okhotsk seas. “The crews of Russian fighters have identified the aerial target as the US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bomber. After escorting the foreign aircraft, the Russian fighters safely returned to the home airfield,” the statement noted (Izvestia, September 15).
Russian media reported further details about the VKS intercepts. A small number of Su-35S fighters from the Eastern Military District (MD) acted alongside MiG-31 naval aviation jets of the Pacific Fleet; these identified the potential aerial targets as US Air Force B-1B Lancers (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 15). The Russian defense ministry’s department for information and mass communication also issued a statement in relation to the US Air Force flights: “The MiG-31 fighters of the Pacific Fleet naval aviation and the Su-35Ss of the Eastern Military District escorted the US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bomber in the airspace over the Bering and Okhotsk Seas,” according to the defense ministry. The statement made clear that at no time was Russian airspace violated (Rossaprimavera.ru, September 15).
The increased attention to such flights by Russia’s military leadership underscores a concerted drive to utilize this opportunity to attack US and NATO defense postures by portraying their training and reassurance missions as potentially dangerous for Moscow. Likewise, on September 14, the NTsUO announced the interception of another three US B-52s over the Black Sea. On this occasion, two Su-27s and two Su-30s from the Southern MD flew to intercept. One Russian media report on the intercept of US bombers flying in Ukrainian airspace in the direction of Russia conceded that, on the same day, the Norwegian Air Force had intercepted a Russian Tu-160 strategic bomber (Izvestia, September 15).
The NTsUO declared that three aerial targets were detected by the radar reconnaissance systems of the air-defense forces of the Southern MD, confirming that the US aircraft were approaching the state border of the Russian Federation from the Ukrainian side. “The crews of the Russian fighters identified the air targets as three B-52H strategic bombers of the US Air Force and escorted them over the Black Sea,” the NTsUO said. Again, there were no violations of Russia’s airspace. However, the statement added that such flights were becoming “regular,” noting that US bombers had flown over the Black Sea on September 4. The NTsUO alleged that in early September, “43 reconnaissance aircraft were conducting intelligence activities along the Russian borders, and three drones were also found” (Izvestia, September 15).
These incidents have resulted in claim and counter claims, notably allegations by the US Air Force and NATO that the Russian VKS intercepts involved dangerous flying and accused Russian pilots of harassing the strategic bombers. Equally, Moscow has played up the US bomber flights to present these as hostile, criticizing US and NATO defense policy, while attempting to portray the training flights as part of a regular activity close to Russia’s borders. Such incidents carry the risk of accidental escalation; yet, judging from each of these intercepts, for now this remains a manageable scenario, and the VKS is clearly tasked to undertake such risks.