Russia flies nuclear-capable bombers to region facing Alaska

FILE PHOTO: Russian army Tupolev Tu-160 (R) and Tupolev Tu-22M3 fly in formation over St. Basil's Cathedral during the rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it had flown two nuclear-capable TU-160 bombers to a far eastern Russian region opposite Alaska as part of a training exercise that state media said showed Moscow’s ability to park nuclear arms on the United States’ doorstep.

The Tupolev TU-160 strategic bomber, nicknamed the White Swan in Russia, is a supersonic Soviet-era aircraft capable of carrying up to 12 short-range nuclear missiles and of flying 12,000 km (7,500 miles) non-stop without re-fuelling.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement that the planes had covered a distance of more than 6,000 km (3,728 miles) in over eight hours from their home base in western Russia to deploy in Anadyr in the Chukotka region, which faces Alaska.

The flight was part of a tactical exercise that would last until the end of this week, it said, and was designed to rehearse the air force’s ability to rebase to operational air fields and to practise air-to-air refueling.

Footage released by the Defence Ministry showed the planes taking off in darkness and landing in daylight at an airfield set amid flat grassy terrain in the Russian far east.

The flight comes amid heightened tensions over arms control between Moscow and Washington. The United States withdrew from a landmark nuclear missile pact with Russia this month after determining that Moscow was violating that treaty, an accusation the Kremlin denied.

The U.S. ambassador to Moscow said earlier on Wednesday that another arms treaty, the last major nuclear pact between Russia and the United States, was outdated and flawed and could be scrapped when it expires in 2021 and replaced with something else.

And on Tuesday, the Kremlin boasted that it was winning the race to develop new cutting-edge nuclear weapons despite a mysterious rocket accident last week in northern Russia that killed at least five people and caused a brief spike in radiation levels.

“20 MINUTES FROM ALASKA”

Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta said on its website on Wednesday that the TU-160s’ flight showed Moscow’s ability to base nuclear bombers within 20 minutes flight time from U.S. territory.

“The distance from Anadyr to Alaska is less than 600 km (372 miles) – for the TU-160 that takes 20 minutes including take-off and gaining altitude,” it said.

“Moreover the capabilities of the missiles which the plane carries would allow it to launch them without leaving Russian airspace. If necessary, the bombers’ first target could be radar stations and the positions of interceptor missiles which are part of the U.S. missile defense system.”

TU-160s, codenamed Blackjacks by NATO, have flown in the past from bases in Russia to Syria where they have bombed forces opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, one of Moscow’s closest Middle East allies.

The Defence Ministry said a total of around 10 TU-160 bombers and TU-95MS and IL-78 planes were involved in the exercise, suggesting it covered other areas too.

Russia is in the process of modernizing the TU-160. President Vladimir Putin last year praised the upgraded version after watching it in flight, saying it would beef up Russia’s nuclear weapons capability.

Ten of the modernized TU-160M nuclear bombers are due to be delivered to the Russian Air Force at a cost of 15 billion rubles ($227 million) each between now and 2027.

Tupolev, the plane’s manufacturer, says the modernized version will be 60 percent more effective than the older version with significant improvements to its weaponry, navigation and avionics.

A similar flight was made a year ago to Anadyr, where state media say the local airfield has been modernized to be able to receive bigger planes like the TU-160.

(Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Toby Chopra and Gareth Jones)

Russia to move troops into new barracks on disputed islands near Japan

FILE PHOTO: A bust of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin is seen in front of a Russian Orthodox church in Yuzhno-Kurilsk on the Island of Kunashir, one of four islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, December 21, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev/File Photo

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Monday it had built new barracks for troops on a disputed chain of islands near Japan and would build more facilities for armored vehicles, a move likely to anger Tokyo after it urged Moscow to reduce its military activity there.

The announcement, from the Ministry of Defence, said Moscow planned to shift troops into four housing complexes on two of the four disputed islands, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, next week.

The news came after the Kremlin said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might visit Russia on Jan. 21 as the two countries step up a push to defuse the territorial dispute to allow them to sign a World War Two peace treaty, something the disagreement over the Pacific islands has long prevented.

FILE PHOTO: A dog stands in front of a Soviet IS-2 tank, a World War II monument, in the village of Malokurilskoye on the island of Shikotan, Southern Kurils, Russia, December 18, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A dog stands in front of a Soviet IS-2 tank, a World War II monument, in the village of Malokurilskoye on the island of Shikotan, Southern Kurils, Russia, December 18, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Maltsev/File Photo

There was no immediate reaction from Japan. Tokyo said in July it had asked Russia to reduce its military activity on the islands, a plea Moscow dismissed as unhelpful megaphone diplomacy at the time.

Soviet forces seized the four islands at the end of World War Two and Moscow and Tokyo both claim sovereignty over them. Diplomats on both sides have spoken of the possibility of reviving a Soviet-era draft agreement that envisaged returning two of the four islands as part of a peace deal.

President Vladimir Putin and Abe have held numerous face-to-face meetings to try to make progress.

But tensions have remained high. Tokyo says it is concerned by what it regards as an unhelpful Russian military build-up on the islands – which has included warplane, missile defense and other deployments. Moscow, meanwhile, says it is perturbed by Japan’s roll-out of the Aegis Ashore U.S. missile system.

Russian politicians say they fear Japan might agree to deploy U.S. missile facilities on the islands if it ever got any of them back and that Moscow could only countenance a deal if it received a cast-iron guarantee that ruled out such a scenario.

In the meantime, Moscow is fortifying the islands.

The Defence Ministry said on Monday it wanted troops and their families to move into the two new housing complexes on one of the four islands, Iturup (Etorofu in Japan), and into two others on the island of Kunashir (Kunashiri in Japan), on Dec. 25.

It said troops were moved into two such similar facilities last year with three more barracks planned for 2019.

“Also on both islands, we have modern and heated storage facilities for weapons and armored vehicles,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that more such facilities were planned.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Heinrich)