Officials: Norwegian, British Fighters Scramble to Monitor Russian Bombers

Norwegian and British fighters scrambled Thursday to intercept eight Russian bombers that neared the Nordic country's territory in the latest show of air power by the Kremlin, defense officials said.

The Tu-95 strategic bombers rounded Norway's northern tip over the Barents Sea and flew south over the North Atlantic before turning back, Norwegian defense officials said.

The Russian planes, known as "Bears" in NATO lingo, stayed inside international air space during the maneuvers, which officials described as an assertion of Russia's increasingly assertive posture on the world stage.

"This is a message that Russia is back as a superpower," Norwegian Deputy Defense Minister Espen Barth Eide said.

Norway did not see the increased activity as a threat "but a signal that Russia wants to be taken seriously by the West," he told The Associated Press.

British defense officials said four Royal Air Force fighters scrambled to monitor the flight, which did not enter British territory.

Lt. Col. John Inge Oeglaend, of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters, said two Norwegian F-16 fighters were sent up both times that the Russian aircraft approached the northern tip of Norway, in keeping with normal practice. He said it was the third time since mid-July that Norwegian fighters have scrambled to monitor Russian air maneuvers.

"They followed a normal route in international air space," Oeglaend said by telephone from the western Norway port of Stavanger.

Norway, a member of the NATO alliance, and Russia share land and ocean borders in the Arctic, including the vast Barents Sea.

Alliance spokesman James Appathurai said Norway and Britain launched quick-reaction interceptor and airborne-warning planes and tankers "as part of routine NATO procedure."

He added that the Russians had every right to carry out the maneuvers: "There is no controversy about this."

Russian news agencies quoted air force spokesman Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky as saying the Tu-95 bombers had begun patrols of distant areas of the globe late Wednesday, in accordance with plans announced by President Vladimir Putin for a resumption of the flights.

The long-range bombers began the patrols "over the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans involving in-flight refueling," ITAR-Tass and Interfax quoted Drobyshevsky as saying.

According to ITAR-Tass, he said the bombers were "flying over neutral waters, not approaching close to the air borders of foreign countries."

"About 20 NATO jets were scrambled to escort our strategic bombers, including F-16s and Tornadoes, but there were no excesses from the foreign planes," Interfax quoted Drobyshevsky as saying.

Putin said in August that he had ordered strategic bombers to resume regular long-range patrols, which analysts say signaled a significant change for Russian military policy.

Analysts said the increased activity shows that the Russians have the aircraft, the trained pilots, the fuel and the funds to use them, all of which were lacking in the years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fredrik Westerlund, an analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Russia was reviving maneuvers along Soviet-era routes down the North Sea and toward Guam in the Pacific.

"These are Cold War routes," he said. "These are the routes they had before for nuclear weapons strikes. ... The closest route to the U.S. is over the North Pole. And the route over the North Sea makes it possible to reach Great Britain.

Jakub M. Godzimirski, an expert on NATO and Russia at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, said the increased activity is directed at the West in general.

"It shows they have the ability to do it, that they have the economic means and the political will to take steps that could increase tensions," he said by telephone.

In mid-August, Norwegian fighters scrambled to monitor a flight of 11 Russian bombers off western Norway in the biggest show of Russian air power over the Norwegian Sea since the early 1990s.

In recent months, there have been repeated incidents, including two of the RAF's new Typhoon Eurofighter jets last month shadowing a Tu-95 over the North Atlantic, and in July two Russian aircraft were warned off by RAF jets as they headed toward British airspace.

In May, two Tornado F3s were scrambled to intercept a Tu-95 observing the Royal Navy exercise Neptune Warrior.