In yet another incident that may feel like World War 3 but seems to actually be part of Cold War 2, two Russian nuclear bombers steered away from their planned routes to fly dangerously close to British air space, over a region that United Kingdom defense officials called the U.K. "area of interest."
The Russian Tu-95 "Bear" long range bombers are each capable of carrying two nuclear bombs, but whether the two planes intercepted over the English channel Wednesday were actually armed with their nuclear payloads is not known.
The Royal Air Force scrambled a squadron of Eurofighter Typhoon jets to cut off the Russian bombers, taking off from bases in Scotland as well as Lincolnshire, England. In a scene similar to the earlier confrontation between Tu-95 bombers and RAF Typhoons pictured above, the Eurofighter jets came as close as 1,000 feet away from the imposing, propeller-powered bombers.
The bombers followed the disturbing pattern of many Russian military aircraft that have confronted fighter jets from NATO, Britain, and even Japan over the past year, in that they did not file a flight plan, appeared to fly with their transponders switched off, and failed to communicate with air traffic controllers in the ground.
But the RAF fighter pilots flew close enough to the Russian bombers that they could communicate with visual hand signals.
Are the Russians, who have flown close to or even inside European airspace on hundreds of occasions since the spring of 2014 when the situation in Ukraine escalated tensions with Russia, making secret preparations for World War 3?
One British defense expert, while not quite going that far, believes that the Russians may be probing U.K. aerial defenses, looking for any weakness that could be exploited the moment the new Cold War turns hot.
"This case is very unusual. Normally Russian Bears come past Norway and down the North Sea. It could have been used to probe the RAF speed of reaction south," said Elizabeth Quintana, of the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K. defense think tank.
"Flying any military aircraft in or close to the sovereign airspace of another country signals displeasure or at worst aggression."
Litvenko, on his deathbed, fingered Russian President Vladimir Putin as the man who ordered his poisoning, an accusation that Russia has denied. But the current death investigation is aimed at determining Russia's possible involvement in the former KGB agent's murder.
The U.K. defense ministry issued a statement, making clear that the Russian T-95 nuclear bombers did not enter British air space, but the confrontation in the skies can only raise fears that World War 3 is more possible than most would believe.
[Image Credits: Royal Air Force]