Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 79

It looks as if Ukraine’s frustrating five-year effort to reach an agreement with Russia on the repatriation of forty-four Soviet strategic bombers inherited by Ukraine is coming to end. Last week, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council decided to scrap all but four of the warplanes. Of these, two will be put on display as museum pieces. The other two will be rebuilt and presumably used in other, non-combat aviation roles. (Russian media, April 17)

When the Soviet Union collapsed, two of its most important strategic air bases were in Ukraine. Stationed at Uzin, seventy kilometers south of Kyiv, were twenty-five Tu-95MS turbo-prop nuclear missile carriers. At Pryluky, 130 kilometers east of the capital, was the Soviet’s only operational unit of nineteen new, supersonic Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

These aircraft, supposedly part of an amorphous CIS strategic nuclear command, became a problem for the two countries from the onset. In February 1992, the unit at Uzin declared allegiance to Ukraine. In May 1992–just one week after Russia announced it was forming its own national armed forces–Ukraine announced that it was taking command of all the long-range aviation units on its territory. This included the Tu-160 base at Pryluky.

Because the Russians had other Tu-95s, they were ultimately able to augment their initial force with another forty that had been based in Kazakhstan. The Tu-160s in Ukraine were, however, another matter. This aircraft had been designed to match the American B-1B bomber, but was significantly larger and faster. It remains the largest combat aircraft in the world: It can carry large amounts of conventional ordnance or, significantly, up to twelve nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Only a handful remained in Russia–either at the Kazan plant where they were built or at the Air Forces’s test base outside Moscow.

Having renounced nuclear weapons, Ukraine had no need of these Tu-160s. In recent years the two sides have seemed several times to be on the verge of an agreement, only to see the talks collapse over money. Repeatedly, high-ranking Russian Air Force officials would declare that Russia had no need of the bombers–and then renew the talks a month or so later. The truth is that without the Ukrainian Tu-160s, the air-launched leg of Russia’s nuclear triad is hardly credible. Last week’s announcement in Kyiv might be one last bluff in this high-stakes’ poker game. It might force the Russians to put some more chips on the table.