The Russian Ambassador to Britain has been summoned to explain why two Russian long range bombers flew over the English Channel on Wednesday.
The RAF scrambled Typhoon jets to escort the Russian bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, out of the UK’s airspace, the Telegraph report.
The TU-95s flew dangerously close to passenger planes in the South of England, a marked escalation on previous provocations by Putin and his administration who had only sent aircraft near Scotland before.
A British government source said the move was seen as “a significant escalation” and furthermore the Russian planes were flying without their transponders turned on, making them invisible to civilian aircraft. This consequently resulted in the Aviation Authorities having to divert a number of flights arriving into the busy airports in the South of England, where planes sometimes land only seconds apart.
“It was very dangerous. Civil aircraft flying to the UK had to be rerouted,” the source said. “The Russians were flying with their transponders turned off so could only be seen on military radar. They haven’t flown this far south before.”
The Foreign Office described the situation as an “increasing pattern of out-of-area operations by Russian aircraft.” In recent weeks, the Russian military have not just been making new excursions in aircraft, but a number of marine based craft have been sighted off the coast of Scotand and other northern European countries.
The move was described as the Russians “strutting their stuff” in a demonstration of power by former RAF pilot Andrew Brookes from the defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute.
He told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, “They are showing they are still a force to be reckoned with.”
“There is no threat, just massive disruption. It is two fingers from the Russians saying we are not beholden to your rules when we do not want to obey them.”
The RAF launched the Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire after the aircraft were detected on long-range radar.
The bombers travelled from the north, past the west coast of Ireland and on to the English Channel before returning home via the same route.
They were escorted by British jets from around 1000ft away for about an hour as they passed along the south coast of Dorset and Hampshire.
A source in the RAF said: “The area around the south of England is extremely congested airspace. Two planes arriving without a flight plan is incredibly dangerous, and was bound to cause disruption.”
Although the aircraft did not enter British air space at any time, experts say the manoeuvre could still be interpreted as an act of aggression or to test the RAF’s response times.
In December Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the UK was concerned about the “extremely aggressive probing” by the Russian military.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “Russian aircraft manoeuvres yesterday are part of an increasing pattern of out of area operations by Russian aircraft. While the Russian planes did not enter sovereign UK airspace and were escorted by RAF Typhoons throughout the time they were in the UK area of interest, the Russian planes caused disruption to civil aviation.
“That is why we summoned the Russian Ambassador today to account for the incident.”
Airspace is determined by international law which both Russia and the UK are signed up to. The UK have a legal right to deal with any threats to the country as long as the response – or occasionally pre-emptive attack as would be necessary in the case of nuclear weapons – is deemed necessary and proportionate to the threat.