Washington (UPI) Sep 11, 2008
Two Russian Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan supersonic bombers landed Wednesday night in Venezuela, where they were personally acclaimed by President Hugo Chavez as heralding the end of Yankee imperialism.
The 1,380 miles per hour Tu-160s -- NATO designation Blackjack -- flew into Liberator air base in Venezuela. Fiercely anti-American Chavez greeted them with an address on Venezuelan national television with the words "The Yankee hegemony is finished."
The U.S. Air Force and NATO took the Blackjacks very seriously and sent combat aircraft to shadow them closely in their flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
For the two Tu-160s are historic and strategic game-changers. They can carry 99,000 pounds of munitions, including Mach-2, nuclear-capable X-555 cruise missiles capable of annihilating targets 2,000 miles inland in the continental United States when fired from outside U.S. air space
Sending the beautiful gigantic aircraft -- which look remarkably like the old Concorde supersonic airliner -- to Venezuela marks a serious Russian strategic counter-move to the unprecedented concentration of U.S. and NATO warships in the Black Sea -- regarded by Russia as a private lake for 250 years since the time of the Empress Catherine the Great -- and they are also the most aggressive strategic challenge or gambit the Kremlin has laid down in the Western Hemisphere in at least a quarter of a century.
Arguably, their deployment could prove as epochal as the Soviet deployment of deadly nuclear missiles in Cuba within 90 miles of the U.S. mainland that set off the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Venezuela is thousands of miles south of the Rio Grande, the southern border of the United States, but the Tu-160 Blackjacks with their long range, their astonishing speed -- well over twice that of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress -- and their enormous munitions carrying capacity are ideally designed to close that gap.
Russia's Defense Ministry described the Tu-160s as being on a training mission and said they would soon return to Russia. They landed in Venezuela the same day the U.S. frigate USS Taylor and three warships from NATO allies Spain, Germany and Poland left the Black Sea after an 18-day exercise that infuriated Russia. Senor Russian Adm. Eduard Baltin told reporters in Moscow last week that if a shooting war erupted, the Russian navy could sink all American and NATO warships in the Black Sea within 20 minutes.
In retaliation, the Kremlin is sending its nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky on a visit to Venezuela in November to flex Russian naval power in the Caribbean.
Back on July 24, as previously reported in these columns, unnamed Russian defense officials were quoted unofficially in the Moscow press as saying Russia might send its Tu-160s and other strategic bombers to be deployed out of Venezuela in retaliation for continued NATO military and political expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.
Three days earlier, on July 21, an earlier unofficial report had hinted that Russia might even base the Blackjacks in Cuba. The Bush administration took that report so seriously that four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz July 22 at his confirmation hearing to be the next USAF chief of staff told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that sending the giant Blackjacks to Cuba would be crossing "a red line in the sand."
Four-star Russian Gen. Pyotr Deinekin, former head of the Russian air force, told the RIA Novosti news agency in July that allowing the Blackjacks to operate from bases in Venezuela would allow the aircraft to operate on an almost 24/7 basis within very close distance of the United States itself.
RIA Novosti also noted the bombers could loiter in the air outside Russian territory, equipped with extensive electronic signals intelligence -- SIGINT -- and replace the capabilities of Russian military intelligence's SIGINT station at Lourdes outside Havana, which was shut down six years ago.
Schwartz's tough comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 22 confirmed how seriously the U.S. Air Force takes the threat of a forward deployment of Tu-160s in Cuba. Schwartz knows that U.S. military planners cannot afford to bet against Blackjack.
earlier related report
"It's like the good old days," Oleg Mikhailishchin, a pilot in camouflage uniform, told reporters during a rare visit by foreign media to the Engels base last month, before the war with Georgia further raised tensions with the West. More than 20 Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers could be seen on the runway near the Volga River at this once top-secret base, where the two Tu-160 "White Swan" planes that landed in Venezuela on Wednesday flew from.
Russia is also dispatching a nuclear cruiser and other warships and planes to the Caribbean for the joint exercises with Venezuela, seen as a direct rebuff to the United States in the first such deployment since the Cold War.
Mikhailishchin spoke in a cafeteria dominated by a red Soviet emblem and a portrait of World War II commander Georgy Zhukov. The base was filled with a mixture of hi-tech equipment and crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure.
Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now the prime minister, gave the order in August 2007 for the Russian air force to resume long-range bomber patrols -- just like in the Cold War -- after a lull of 15 years.
The flights are a sign of Russia's new-found confidence on the world stage and have spread fear in Western capitals. For the Engels base, they have restored a sense of pride that was all but lost after the Soviet collapse.
"It's getting better and better," said Alexander Khaberov, a 36-year-old wing commander, after returning from a 12-hour mission across the North Atlantic during which he was intercepted by British and Norwegian fighter jets.
Khaberov flew a "White Swan," named after its Concorde-like sleek shape.
-- 'We wouldn't have any problems flying to Cuba' --
"It's nice to feel needed," said Gennady Stekachyov, 39, a flight commander, before roaring off the five-kilometre runway on exercises within Russia on a Tu-95 bomber, a Cold War icon better known by its NATO codename "Bear".
It was a Tu-95, a plane first developed in the 1950s, that dropped the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in northern Russia in 1961. The Tu-160 began to be built in the 1980s.
Asked about a newspaper report that the nuclear bombers could be based in Cuba in response to US plans to base a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, Stekachyov said: "We wouldn't have any problems flying to Cuba.
"If we're told to fly there and base ourselves there, then we'll do it.... Everything that's in the interests of our state is right," said Stekachyov, who graduated from an air force academy in Soviet times.
"I was here during the good times, then there was a period of stagnation," he said, remembering with bitterness the 1990s, when the base destroyed part of its fleet under a disarmament deal with the United States.
"All glory to the Americans," sneered Vladimir Dyakov, an officer at the base. Sergei Voronov, a former bomber pilot who now manages the local flight museum, said: "We gave in. It was hurtful for all our compatriots."
Yeltsin's deals with the United States are a painful memory, making Putin's role in reviving long-range bomber patrols all the more heroic. Putin's flight on a Tu-160 bomber in 2005 is remembered fondly at the Engels base.
His note in a guest book is repeated like a mantra: "Precise, efficient, beautiful." While things are looking up, however, pilots still complain their salaries of around 1,000 dollars (719 euros) a month are disappointing.
Putin "revalued the role of long-range aviation," Dmitry Kostyunin, deputy commander of the long-range bomber division based in Engels told reporters.
But Kostyunin also emphasised that the resumption of bomber patrols was not about Russian muscle-flexing but about global "friendship."
When Russian bomber pilots are intercepted by fighter jets in the air, the feeling is one of camaraderie, he said. "I think the fighter jets are also happy. The young pilots can see our planes, see how beautiful they are."
His comments contrasted with the numerous complaints from Western countries since the resumption of Russian bomber patrols, including in February this year when Japan accused the Russian bombers of violating its airspace.
Kostyunin, who once piloted long-range bombers in the Baltic states during the Cold War, said: "It is a symbol of power but also a symbol of goodwill... The more you know about us, the more you'll love and respect us."
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