The Bear Approaches: Russia’s Cold War Challenge to the United Kingdom


Russian aircraft are probing UK airspace at an alarming rate

Throughout the Cold War, one of the most harrowing images for much of the world was the possibility of ginormous Soviet Tu-95 “Bear” flying overhead. With propellers beating at the speed of sound, these aircraft were designed to paralyse and dismember enemy strongpoints to facilitate the dreaded attack from the Shock Armies strategically placed on the East-West border. Though never used in anger, the Tu-95 served as a symbol for the Soviet Union that has seeped through into the culture of the modern day Russia. In classic Cold War style, the Bear gained prestige from dropping the largest nuclear bomb ever created – the Tsar Bomba. Equivalent to detonating twenty one thousand tons of dynamite, a sense of twisted pride was gained from “The bomb that dwarfed the Sun”. Yet as the East-West divide becomes more obvious again, the Tu-95 is gaining further notoriety.

In the past four years, Russian aircraft have either skirted or entered British airspace uninvited some thirty times. Flying from northern Russia, Tu-95 “Bears” and Tu-160 “Blackjacks” skirt the fringes of airspace close to Scotland more than enough times to be dismissed as accidental. International airspace is available for all nations, but Russian aircraft is testing the integrity of its post war rival- NATO. The long held Russian superiority complex, especially in the post-Soviet theatre, has often found refuge in the actions of its air force. As Russian forces advanced into South Ossetia in 2008, Russian “Blackjacks” landed in Venezuela, much to the delight of then President Hugo Chavez and the annoyance of the already disgruntled United States.

However, exclusive events are not the sole reason for Russia’s strategic deployment of aircraft. The United Kingdom serves as a pinnacle NATO member but thanks to its geographical location, sits on the doorstep of easily accessible international airspace. Secondly, the United States European Command (EUCOM) uses the UK to house deeply important assets. As well as having Special Forces based in the UK, the Joint Intelligence Operations Centre Europe Analytic Centre is based at RAF Molesworth as well as the ECHELON interception system at RAF Menwith Hill. Both of these intelligence branches are of vital importance to both the United States and NATO, and a potential threat to Russia. Knowing this, Moscow is keen to exert supposed dominance over the UK as long as it remains as a NATO centrepiece and a valued EUCOM component.

Operating from RAF Leuchars in Scotland, Eurofighter Typhoon pilots are on a twenty-four hour shift. Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) has similarities to the dogfights over the English Channel with the Luftwaffe, but this is a very different enemy. Russian planes serve to test reaction times and also conduct airborne surveillance. The Tu-95RT variant was specifically designed to track US carrier movements, but can also be used for electronic intelligence. It is impossible to know if Russian aircraft are at all successful in picking up any electronic communication, but this is rendered somewhat irrelevant. Crucially, Russia hopes to express dominance through the skies above, and with the situation in Ukraine at no obvious conclusion, this incident is not arbitrary.

With the annexation of the Crimea into Putin’s Novaya Rossiya, the Kremlin is keen to reaffirm its new geo-political position. With European countries hollowing out their defence capabilities and the US funding 75% of NATO, the Kremlin can become even more assertive. As the peace talks in Geneva falter, the outcome of this entire saga has multiple possibilities For Russia, it cannot be one that portrays them as a weak and decaying post-Cold War power. Thanks to the ongoing situation, Russia has gone a step further with one of their destroyers, the Vice Admiral Kulakov, trailing close to British waters in the North Sea. Yet whatever the result maybe, Russian incursions towards NATO airspace are not going to disappear. With the United Kingdom on the “frontline” of this battle, would an independent Scotland be up for the challenge? Salmond’s manifesto promises twelve Eurofighter Typhoons to be stationed at RAF Lossiemouth accompanied by high levels of NATO integration. However with NATO concerns over the possibility of Scottish membership, Salmond’s proposal is weak. Currently five QRA squadrons operate from Scotland as the direct challenge to any Russian incursions. Any air force tactician knows that not all planes are in service at once, and Salmond’s paltry twelve planes are a worryingly low number already.

NATO’s concerns deride from Scotland’s proposed Armed Forces been a possible weak point in the overall concept of collective security. This chink in the armour, along with Scotland’s geographical location, makes the rest of the United Kingdom vulnerable – something Russia would easily realise. With the possibility of Scotland not gaining NATO membership because of this, would Salmond allow elements of the RAF to remain in Scotland? For the UK, this would immediately become leverage for the Trident system to remain at the Clyde Naval Base. With the In/Out referendum months away, Salmond is faced with some major defence questions and the Ministry of Defence in London knows it. Salmond’s rhetoric argues solely for Scotland and aboutScotland at the expense of any overarching foreign policy issues. His underpinning reliance on NATO membership is risky for both his own nation, but also for the collective security of Europe and the West. Something the Russian Air Force Headquarters has duly noted.


  1. Good article on the ongoing flexing of Russia’s muscles. A couple of quick points:
    The yield of the Tsar Bomba was 50 megatons, or 50 million tons of TNT. The yield you describe (21 thousand tons of dynamite) is that of Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Tsar Bomba created a fireball five miles across that was visible for almost a thousand miles, and broke windows almost six hundred miles away.
    QRA is performed at both RAF Leuchars and RAF Coningsby with the Typhoon. You are right that there are five Typhoon squadrons, however this is the total number and not the number based in Scotland. Of those five, four are frontline operational squadrons and one is a training squadron for converting pilots onto the aircraft. Two of these (1 squadron and 6 squadron) are at Leuchars and two (3 squadron and 11 squadron) are at Coningsby. The Leuchars-based squadrons will be moving to RAF Lossiemouth this year prior to the closure of RAF Leuchars, and will subsequently be joined by 2 squadron when they get Typhoon early in 2015.


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