Russian bombers could be conducting nuclear strike drills over the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea, United States Air Force officials warn.
In a period of 24 hours this week, Russia sent 19 combat aircraft to test NATO defenses and also test-launched a ballistic missile in the Barents Sea, north of Sweden. The incidents follow a trend of military activity, as this year NATO has scrambled fighter jets to intercept Russian jets more than 100 times, three times more than all of last year.
Now officials from the U.S. Air Force say the flurry of activity is an effort on Russia's part to test western alliance defenses, with propeller-driven Tu-95 planes possibly flying to pre-determined launch points for nuclear missiles.
"That could certainly be the case," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service's influential former intelligence chief, told the Daily Beast. "It is not farfetched that at some point within the next two years [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes a more aggressive move in Eastern Europe and uses a nuclear threat to deter a NATO response."
Not all analysts contacted by the Daily Beast agreed that Russia could be testing nuclear launches.
"Another former Air Force officer -- one with extensive experience with Russian tactics -- cautioned not to interpret either the European or Alaskan flights too darkly. 'A probe to test western responses, yes,' the former officer wrote in an email. 'More activity than in the recent past, yes. Nuclear strike rehearsal, unlikely. Capabilities are easy to measure. Intent is not.'
Russia and President Vladimir Putin have also been accused of flexing their nuclear power, both by moving nuclear weapons into strategic locations and by outright threats to drop nuclear bombs on Ukraine if the conflict there continued on for too long.