WASHINGTON, November 13, 2014 — In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and the world started paying attention. More recently they invaded Crimea. They are now actively engaged in fighting with and over Ukraine.
And now officials confirm that Russia will begin patrol missions from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia says it plans to send long-range bombers to patrol the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean even as NATO accuses Russia of supporting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
“In the current situation, we need to secure our military presence in the western part of the Atlantic, eastern part of the Pacific oceans and the waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico,” Shoigu said.
This is the first time the super power has sent bomber patrol over the Gulf of Mexico, though during the Cold War (1985-1991) surveillance flights and anti-submarine aircraft patrols were conducted in over the Gulf. From these locations, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could reach the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren is not classifying this as a Russian provocation, stating that Russia, as any other nation, has rights to operate in international airspace and waters.
“The Russians have patrolled in the Gulf (of Mexico) in the past, and we’ve seen the Russian Navy operate in the Gulf of Mexico. These are international waters,” Warren says.
Earlier this month, Portuguese air force planes intercepted Russian bombers along its coast and flying near the Lisbon International airport commercial aircraft approach path. NATO confirms more than 100 intercepts of Russian bomber patrols in 2014 — a three-fold increase over all of 2013 — citing the “unusual level of air activity over European airspace.” NATO reports a spike in Russian military flights over the Black, Baltic and North Seas as well as the Atlantic Ocean.
News reports say that “experts are concerned” with the increased activity.
“The more instances you have of NATO and Russian forces coming close together, the more chance there is of having something bad happening, even if it’s not intentional,” said Ian Kearns, director of the London-based European Leadership Network (ELN) told Associated Press.
ELN is concerned about increasing military incidents with Russia, with the group recently listing nearly 40 “incidents,” three of which carried what they call a “high probability” of triggering a military confrontation.
In March, a Scandinavian airliner taking off from Copenhagen to Rome encountered and narrowly avoided a Russian military plane. Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network confirms that the Russian plane’s transponder was off.
“This was an instance of the Russian military trying to move around European airspace without being detected but doing so in commercial airline corridors,” Kearns says. “In this instance, there was very nearly a tragic accident.”
ELN and Kearns are noting the “irresponsible nature of some of the Russian military activity, “with some cases of Russian and NATO aircraft coming within [30 feet] of each other.”
“We are talking about an attempt to intimidate … in the air,” Kearns says.
Capt. Jeff Davis of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) says that Wednesday evening two Alaskan-based F-22 fighter jets intercepted two Russian IL-78 refueling tankers, two Russian MIG-31 fighter jets, and two Russian Bear long-range bombers.
That encounter was followed with two Canadian FG-18 fight jets intercepting two Bear bombers in the Beaufort Sea, within 40 nautical miles of the Canadian coastline and just outside sovereign territory.
NORAD reports that in September, U.S. jets intercepted six Russian planes near Alaskan and Canadian airspace, about 40 miles off the Canadian coastline.
The area the planes entered is the ADIZ zone, extending about 200 miles from the coastline with the outer limits of the ADIZ extending beyond the U.S. sovereign air space.
It is a bit of a free zone, meaning that sovereign nations are not required to file flight plans to enter the airspace. However NORAD confirms that more than 50 Russian aircraft have been intercepted in the last five years.
U.S. officials confirm that the incidents were related to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Canada and the U.S., with the U.S. promising Ukraine $46 million in nonlethal aid.
In response to allegations of an aggressive Russian military, Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States told reporters that the Russians “fly a little more than we used to,” but he said Russian crews have to train and not only in Russian airspace.
Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, says no one has a problem with the fact that the Russians are training more actively.
According to Kearns, they are doing much more than that.
“They are flying into other countries’ airspace unannounced and conducting simulated attack runs against other countries,” Kearns says. “They also abducted an Estonian intelligence officer on Estonian soil — which is NATO soil; they used stun grenades and the jamming of local communications to make that happen.”
International news reporters DW.de writes that an October anti-Western speech given by Putin at the Valdai club laid the blame for the conflict in Ukraine on the West.
“Russia was a strong state more than two decades after the end of the Cold War and that Moscow would not ‘beg’ in response to the sanctions imposed on it by the United States and the European Union over the crisis in Ukraine,” says Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at Britain’s RUSI think-tank
“What Putin effectively said is that the world is the taiga and Russia is the bear in this taiga. And the bear never asks anybody’s permission to act.”
According to Sutyagin, the second part of Putin’s message is the rise in Russia’s military activities.
“The idea is to have Russia act absolutely freely without any restrictions applied by the universally recognized rules.”
News of the patrol missions coincide with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg accusing Russia of sending fresh troops and tanks into eastern Ukraine.
“Over the last few days, we have seen multiple reports of large convoys moving into Eastern Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said in an announcement. “We assess that this significant military buildup includes Russian artillery, tanks, air defense systems and troops.
His statement called the situation a “severe threat to the cease-fire.”
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors say that Russia is moving soldiers from Russia into Ukraine, noting that a vehicle marked “CARGO 200”, Russian military code for soldiers killed in action crossed into Ukraine on Tuesday. Both Ukraine and the West claim that Russia is sending support to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, which the Kremlin denies.
Moscow is denying allegations of incursion into Eastern Ukraine, however Shoigu says disputes with the West over Ukraine mean Russia will increase their troops, now numbering about 800,000 in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that was taken by Russia earlier this year.
Flying long-range strategic bombers over airspace in the Gulf of Mexico brings what is arguably the greatest nuclear power in the world uncomfortably close to American soil.
Shoigu’s comments do not include how frequent these patrol missions might be, however he notes that a directive to industries to increase the possible pace and duration of such flights has been issued and that long-range planes will also be conducting “reconnaissance missions to monitor foreign power military activities and maritime communications.”
Marcel de Haas, a Dutch expert on military affairs at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan says that these moves are being made to bolster Putin’s popularity, which had suffered following the crises in Crimea and Ukraine.
“Russians always like a strong leader,” says de Haas. “They like to see their country as a strong country which opposes other countries, especially the West, and this is simply what he is doing.”
CNN contributed to this report