Putin orders military exercises amid new Ukraine tensions

Russia_bombers_missilesby Bill Gertz

Russian strategic air forces fired six new, precision-strike cruise missiles in test launches Friday amid new tensions between Moscow and the West over the crisis in Ukraine.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Friday that the missile firings took place during exercises involving eight Tu-95 Bear bombers—the same type of strategic bomber recently intercepted 50 miles off the California coast by U.S. jets.

Russian bombers, meanwhile, continued saber-rattling air defense zone incursions against Canada’s arctic and in Europe over the Baltic Sea.

On Monday, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced that Russian military forces had launched a large-scale “surprise” readiness exercise that was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Obama discussed the Ukraine crisis with Putin by phone on Monday and urged the Russian leader and separatist rebels to implement a peace plan proposed by the Ukrainian government.

“The president called upon President Putin to press the separatists to recognize and abide by the ceasefire and to halt the flow of weapons and materiel across its border into Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.

Russia also announced last week it will deploy Tu-160 strategic bombers to neighboring Belarus, a key Moscow ally, for a military celebration.

The new cruise missile was not further identified by the ministry statement, other than being described as a “new, high-precision” guided cruise missile.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said the recent testing of Russia’s newest air-launched cruise missile is part of a pattern of nuclear saber rattling by Moscow.

The nuclear missile test firings followed a large-scale nuclear forces exercise in May that Haney said was a cause for concern in light of Ukraine.

“In light of increasing tensions, Russia has also been busy exercising and demonstrating its strategic capabilities, reaping the benefits of decades of modernization,” Haney said during a defense industry breakfast June 18.

The large-scale nuclear exercise May 8 drills involved “significant nuclear forces and associated command and control in just six months since the last one back in October,” Haney told a defense industry breakfast June 18.

“Additionally, we have seen significant Russian strategic aircraft deployments in the vicinity of places like Japan, Korea and even our West Coast,” Haney said. “Russia continues to modernize its strategic capabilities across all legs of its triad, and open source [reporting] has recently cited the sea trials of its latest [missile submarine], testing of its newest air launch cruise missile and modernization of its intercontinental ballistic force to include its mobile capability in that area.”

A former Pentagon official said the new missile was likely an air-launched cruise missile designated KH-101 or KH-102. The Kh-101 is armed with a conventional warhead and the Kh-102 is a strategic nuclear delivery vehicle.

“The Obama administration Defense Department says the KH-102 is operational, and that is consistent with what the Russian press is saying,” said Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic weapons analyst. “There is less Russian press on the KH-101.”

Schneider said the missile also may have been a variant of the Cold War-era KH-55 nuclear cruise missile or its conventional variant, the KH-555.

The Russian Defense Ministry said eight Tu-95s based at Engels airbase in central Russia flew from the Far East airbase called Ukrainka.

“One Tu-95MS strategic missile carrier carried out launches of six new high-precision airborne cruise missiles, using a multi-role launch system, against ground-based targets on the Kura aviation range (Kamchatka),” the Russian ministry said, according to Interfax-AVN.

“The crew precisely fulfilled the tasks set for the flight. Practice targets on the range were hit. While fulfilling the task, the crew of the Tu-95MS spent about seven hours in the air.”

The war games in central Russia mark the second time in recent weeks that short-notice, large-scale military exercises were held.

“In line with [Putin’s] orders, the Central Military District’s troops and also units and garrisons deployed on its territory have been put on full combat alert since 11:00 a.m. [Saturday],” Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu said, adding that the maneuvers began June 21 and will continue until June 28.

The war games include airborne forces and will simulate the rapid deployment of forces over long distances using combined road and rail transport between the Ural Mountain area and western Siberia.

The exercises are taking place amid NATO reports of a new buildup of Russian military forces along Ukraine’s eastern border.

The exercises and massing of troops appears to be part of what Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently is a Russian campaign of military “coercion, subversion, and misinformation” toward Ukraine.

Canadian government officials expressed new concerns about Russian strategic bomber flights over the arctic that encroached on the country’s air defense identification zone and prompted the scrambling of CF-18 jet fighters to intercept the bombers.

The bombers were detected over the Canadian arctic twice in the past two weeks, Canada’s defense minister said, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.

The Free Beacon first disclosed June 11 that two Bear bombers flew within 50 miles of the California coast on June 9, the closest the bombers have flown since the Cold War with the Soviet Union. U.S. F-15 jets were launched to intercept and follow the bombers.

Canadian officials told the Globe and Mail the increased Russian bomber flights appear to be “strategic messaging from Moscow” coinciding with tensions over the Ukraine crisis.

The bomber flights were disclosed by Canadian Defense Minister Rob Nicholson in comments to parliament June 19. He said the flights showed the need for “ongoing vigilance” in monitoring Canada’s northern borders.

“We continue to see Russian military activity in the Arctic. The Canadian armed forces remain ready and able to respond,” he said.

The expressions of concern by Canada are a change in policy. Three months ago, the Ottawa government had played down competition with Russia over the arctic.

Also last week, British jet fighters were dispatched to intercept Russian warplanes over the Baltic Sea.

British Typhoon fighters were sent to meet four groups of Russian aircraft over air defense zones in the Baltic Sea. The jets included Su-27 fighters, a Tu-22 Backfire bomber, an A-50 airborne warning and control aircraft, and an An-26 transport plane.

“The Russian aircraft were monitored by the [Royal Air Force] Typhoons and escorted on their way,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement, Sky News reported Thursday.

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Bill Gertz is senior editor of the.

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