RAF confirms scrambled Typhoons were to intercept four Russian ‘Bear’ bombers amid Ukraine tensions

Typhoon fighter jets have been scrambled to intercept four Russian Bear aircraft approaching the UK, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has confirmed, amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Ukraine.

Jets were launched from RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland, after unidentified aircraft were spotted approaching the UK area of interest, the RAF said at around midday on Wednesday.

“Subsequently we intercepted and escorted four Russian Bear aircraft,” a spokesperson said several hours later, once the operation was declared over.

At no time did the Russian aircraft – two Tu-95 Bear H and two Tu-142 Bear F bombers – enter UK airspace, it is understood.

The RAF routinely intercepts aircraft approaching what it describes as the “UK area of interest” – international airspace for which the UK is responsible in certain ways, such as air traffic control services.

The latest intervention comes hours after Boris Johnson returned from a meeting with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

Insisting that the massing of as many as 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border represented a “clear and present danger”, the prime minister warned Vladimir Putin that invading Ukraine would be a “military disaster” for Moscow.

Accusing the Russian president of effectively “holding a gun ... to the head of Ukraine”, Mr Johnson said the UK would hit Moscow with sanctions the “moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory” – and that Kyiv would put up “a very fierce and bloody resistance”.

An RAF Typhoon moves to intercept a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear heading towards UK airspace in March 2020 (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020)
An RAF Typhoon moves to intercept a Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear heading towards UK airspace in March 2020 (UK MOD © Crown copyright 2020)

The typhoon jets scrambled from Lossiemouth the following day were also supported by a Voyager air-to-air refuelling tanker from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

UK Defence Journal editor George Allison said on Twitter the the Voyager was transmitting a specific transponder code which meant that the aircraft was conducting a Nato air policing mission – one “which aims to preserve the security of Alliance airspace”.

The RAF works closely with Nato partners to monitor Russian aircraft as they pass through international airspace, and is constantly on call to intercept and escort these aircraft when necessary.

In an article written for the UK Defence Journal in March 2020, after a similar incident in which Russian Tupolev bombers – which are codenamed “Bears” by Nato – were escorted from the UK area of interest, former RAF pilot Andy Netherwood said one of multiple reasons for the UK to intercept these flights is “to demonstrate capability and intent”.

“One of the reasons Russia carries out these exercises is to test Nato and the UK. A failure to intercept would be interpreted as weakness and encourage further probing,” Mr Netherwood said.

In a more recent event, RAF jets were launched last November in response to Russian TU-160 Blackjack strategic bombers. Officials said at the time the fighters escorted the Russian aircraft out of the area of interest, and that the bombers did not enter UK airspace.

On Monday, the French military said that it had monitored two Russian ships, the Soobrazitelniy and the Stoykiy, and later handed over the responsibility to the Royal Navy’s HMS Argyle warship and the US Navy’s USS Roosevelt. A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said the operation was a “normal response”.

It also comes after Irish officials confirmed this weekend that “absolutely routine” Russian artillery drills which had been due to take place at the start of February in international waters – albeit in Irish-controlled airspace and the country’s exclusive economic zone – had been relocated. It followed protests by Irish fishermen outside the Russian Embassy in Dublin.

Shortly after the RAF operation concluded on Wednesday, Downing Street said that Mr Johnson had held a phone call with Mr Putin – reportedly delayed due to the domestic Partygate scandal – in which the prime minister warned any Russian incursion into Ukraine would be a “tragic miscalculation”.

"The prime minister expressed his deep concern about Russia's current hostile activity on the Ukrainian border. He emphasised the need to find a way forward which respects both Ukraine's territorial integrity and right to self-defence,” No 10 said.

It added: “The leaders agreed that aggravation was in no-one's interest. The prime minister stressed the importance of dialogue and diplomacy, and the need to include Ukraine in talks.”

In his first direct public comments on the Ukraine crisis for nearly six weeks, Mr Putin yesterday accused the West of ignoring Russia’s security concerns.

In December, Russia submitted a list of demands to the US and Nato, including a ban on Kyiv being permitted to join the alliance.

After Nato formally rejected those demands last week, Moscow foreign minister told Russian media: “There won't be a war as far as it depends on the Russian Federation, we don't want a war ... But we won't let our interests be rudely trampled on and ignored.”

Have you got a story you would like us to report on? Contact us by clicking here.

Additional reporting by PA