Russia bomber patrols near US shores: How provocative is that?

Russia's decision to increase its military patrols of the West comes amid increasing tensions over the situation in Ukraine.

Pavel Golovkin/AP/File
In this Wednesday, May 7, 2014 file photo Russian Air Force Tu-95 strategic bombers fly in formation over Red Square during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade, slated for May 9 at the Square to celebrate 69 years of the victory in WWII, in Moscow, Russia. Russia’s defense minister says the military will conduct regular long-range bomber patrols, ranging from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Russia announced Wednesday that its Air Force will conduct regular bomber patrols from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, a move that's likely to further raise tensions with the West.

The show of military muscle marks the most recent example of Russia returning to its cold war tactics. Western analysts say Russia has been resuming such methods amid renewed tensions over Ukraine, the BBC reports.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the patrols at a top-level military meeting on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal reports. He noted that the long-range missions would put a greater burden on Russia's Soviet-era Air Force and ordered additional maintenance for the flights.

"In the current situation, we are obliged to ensure our military presence in the western part of the Atlantic and the eastern Pacific Ocean and in the Caribbean Basin and the Gulf of Mexico and also conduct aerial reconnaissance with long-range aircraft of foreign military forces and shipping," said Gen. Shoigu, according to a ministry statement.

The announcement came as NATO accused Russia of sending fresh troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine, The New York Times reports.

A senior NATO official confirmed on Wednesday what Ukrainian military officials and monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been saying for days now: Russian troops and military equipment are crossing the border into Ukraine, seemingly preparing for renewed military action, though what exactly remains unclear.

In light of the military buildup, Western officials finally seemed ready to acknowledge that a cease-fire agreement signed in September had fallen apart, and that the threat to peace in Europe posed by the Ukraine crisis had returned in a possibly more virulent form.

Moscow, which for months has denied any military intervention in eastern Ukraine, dismissed NATO's allegation as unfounded. 

Earlier this week, a London-based think tank published a new report that found Russian military confrontations and "near misses" with NATO nations have dramatically increased this year. The US and its European allies have complained for months about the growing number of flights by Russian bombers and reconnaissance planes beyond the country's borders.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote that the report, released Monday by the European Leadership Network, says that Russia must reevaluate its military policy and that NATO and Russia must improve communications to avoid potentially catastrophic confrontations. It chronicled almost 40 military encounters between Russia and the West over the past eight months, including several bomber flights late last month around European airspace.

The Monitor noted that those flights, mostly carried out by Tu-95 bombers, would be difficult for Russia to maintain. "The Russians have had a hard time keeping any significant number of [the bombers] in the air over the past two decades," it wrote.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to call the expanded air patrols a Russian provocation, Reuters reports. He said that Russians have the right to operate in international airspace so long as they do so safely and in accordance with international standards. 

The Associated Press reports that such long-range patrols are not unprecedented

Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers were making regular patrols across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during Cold War times, reaching areas from which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could be launched at the United States. But that stopped in the post-Soviet economic meltdown.

The bomber patrol flights have resumed under President Vladimir Putin's tenure, and they have become even more frequent in recent weeks, with NATO reporting a spike in Russian military flights over the Black, Baltic and North seas as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

An unnamed senior US military official told the AP that the pace of Russian flights around North America, including the Arctic, has largely remained steady, with about five incidents per year.

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