- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2015

The number of long-range Russian strategic bomber flights that buzzed U.S. airspace doubled last year from their norm, forcing American jets to frequently scramble and capturing the attention of hawks in Congress who believe the Kremlin is sending a veiled warning to President Obama to keep out of its affairs in Ukraine.

Russian bombers intruded into the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone — a transition area around U.S. airspace where the U.S. does not claim sovereignty but keeps close watch — at least 10 times in 2014, double the average of five incursions a year dating to 2006, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, known as NORAD.

The Air Force monitors for such incursions and requests information from all aircraft entering the Air Defense Identification Zone, and the Navy patrols the oceanic Exclusive Economic Zone below, a 200-mile buffer to the territorial sea.

“We saw last year both an increase in their frequency as well an expansion of the areas where they flew. While these flights are ostensibly for training, they are also clearly intended to message to us,” Adm. William Gortney, the commander of NORAD, told The Washington Times.

Rep. Michael K. Conaway, a Texas Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said he believes the Kremlin’s message is crystal-clear and that it ultimately could trigger a dangerous response.

“On a tactical level, this is a pattern that shows they’re testing our responses to see what we’re doing and how we do it,” he said. “They’re very provocative, they’re subject to miscommunication, and some event could happen that no one wants.

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“So why do the Russians continue to do it? I think they’re rattling sabers in a sense. I think this is definitely coming from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. They’re flexing their muscles, they’re trying to reclaim the superpower status that Putin has always wanted to. It’s a great concern, it’s dangerous and it’s provocative. There’s no good that can come from it, and it needs to stop,” Rep. Conaway said.

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests seeking comment.

The Russian bombers also have entered the buffer zones around other NATO allies. In all, The Times identified from public reports at least two dozen incidents since 2012 in which a Russian bomber buzzed U.S. or other NATO airspace.

Such aerial incursions were common during the Cold War era of the Soviet Union but became almost nonexistent until 2006, when they resumed under the leadership of Mr. Putin. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said there were on average about five such incidents per year within the American Air Defense Identification Zone, but that spiked in 2014.

“It was a fairly steady clip and then last year there was a big spike, which coincided with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine,” Capt. Davis said in an interview. “The flights tend to be seasonal — they usually stand down in the winter, gear up in the spring and in the summer and then wind down in the fall — so we don’t know what it’s going to be this year. The jury’s still out since summer just started.”

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, a retired four-star Air Force general and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, said the flights present a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States and threaten to damage U.S.-Russian relations.

“There is something both dangerous and pathetic about these Russian actions. Dangerous, in the sense that accidents and missteps happen and these kinds of provocations can lead to unwanted confrontations. Pathetic, in the sense that they are a faint reflection of Soviet power of decades past,” Mr. Hayden said.

“Tickling NATO airspace with a ‘Bear’ bomber was tough-looking perhaps in the 1960s. Now it is simply a reminder that Putin’s current tools of power — nuclear weapons, the veto at the U.N. and these bomber missions — are the detritus of a bygone era, not evidence of a resurgent Russian state,” he said.

(Corrected paragraph:) The Pentagon makes public only incidents in which American military aircraft intercept Russian bombers. Last year, the U.S. acknowledged several aerial incursions, including incidents off the coasts of Alaska, California, Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. In August, four Russian bombers came within 50 miles of the California coast and illegally flew directly into airspace of NATO allies Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden.

In many cases, Russia has sent ‘Tu-95 Bear H’ bombers, which are powered by four turbo-propellers and are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and electronic warfare gear. The planes have a range of about 9,400 miles without refueling, but sometimes fly alongside IL-78 aerial refueling tankers.

David Satter, a Moscow correspondent who in 2013 became the first American expelled from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, said the flights are extensions of the Kremlin’s tactics to try to manipulate public opinion in the U.S.

“They’re trying to affect the atmosphere and political dialogue in the United States by making people reluctant to challenge them over Ukraine, reminding us that they have nuclear weapons, that they are unpredictable and that they don’t play by the rules.” Mr. Satter said. “These close-range military flights are a way good way of doing that because Americans will respond by being cautious, and by not doing the maximum to resist their aggression,” Mr. Satter said.

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro can be reached at jshapiro@washingtontimes.com.

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