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Blackjacks and Backfires and Bears, Oh My!

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 15, 2009

OK, I give. I’ve gotten at least fifteen requests for my take on yesterday’s AP story about the Russians talking about using airbases in Venezuela & Cuba for bomber stopovers, so here goes.

Let’s start by saying that I’m not impressed, and I don’t think you should be, either.

Non-stealthy strategic bombers as a vector for global war are about as relevant as horse cavalry, so I think we can immediately dismiss this conjectured move having any military import; the TU-95 Bear, the most frequent visitor from the Russian Long Range Aviation stable to our shores, is a propellor plane of 1950s design that has been updated over the years. As a long range maritime patrol plane in an environment where there is no fighter coverage I suppose it could be considered a threat to shipping; flying out of Cuba and Venezuela that would never be the case. The Backfire is more of a carrier killer (at least it was in 1984) than it is a strategic bomber, and the Blackjack is a B-1 knockoff with more mechanical problems than the latest offerings from Detroit. The biggest threat in having them making brief stopovers and visits in Cuba & Venezuela is posed by the chance that they might fall out of the sky and crash onto a fishing boat working the canyons for tuna.

So, if we dispose of the notion of these aircraft and their basing arrangements posing a military threat, we’re left with the concept of them posing a PR risk. That’s certainly a more realistic assessment, but not one I’m ready to buy into, at least as far as an American audience goes. A news story like the one we’re hearing today is going to make the broadcast and the papers, true; the problem is that it’s the high water mark for this kind of thing. The next step is one that we’ve seen oh so many times– pictures of a pair of F-15s or -16s sitting, one on each wing, on a turboprop Bear that has wandered too close to the US shoreline. It almost looks like a gag– an ultramodern US fighter juxtaposed with some WWII looking piece of junk with a big Russian emblem emblazoned on it; if I’m Vlad Putin I really don’t want that image flashed too many times to emphasize just how archaic and technologically backwards my nation is as compared to the Americans. Want a really good laugh? Let a Bear trail its toes in close to the Virginia Capes or the Carolinas and we can see what it looks like when one of the F-22s stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia Beach¬† flies formation with Tupolev’s best idea of 1954. Again, not an image I’m courting if I’m Putin.

I hardly think that many Americans would be either impressed or overly distressed by a visit fromt he Occasional Bear or even Blackjack; indeed these visits aren’t something newly renewed, despite what the press would have you believe; indeed since 2006 we’ve been seeing frequent Bear fly-bys, especially around Alaska with the occasional trip downt he East Coast. No big deal– we see the lumbering Bear on radar at a range of hundreds of miles, shoot off a couple of fighters for what amounts to a slightly enhanced training mission, the pilots wave to each other or if the Russians are feeling frisky offer up a serving of pressed ham, and everyone goes home.

Would Americans, though, be concerned about the appearance of Russians operating from thie side of the Atalantic again? That’s a bit trickier question that was posed at RotoJunkie by a frequent poster, but again I’m not in the market on this one.¬† I think that the ridiculousness of the imagery above is going to allay any concern and make anyone attempting to use it for political advantage look a bit silly. Talk about China setting up shipping ports in Baja California and Peru and there’s cause to be concerned; Russia occassionally landing obsolete bombers in the farcical Venezuela or Cuba? Set threat level to “marshmallow”. We aren’t even talking about permanent basing rights and the Russians establishing infrastructure in Venezuela and Cuba; even that wouldn’t be particularly threatening, but it would be worth noting as it would show long term Russian commitment. Occasional landing rights, though? Not too much to hang anyone’s hat on there. If that’s how Putin is planning to test the Obama Admin then the Oval Office should be sending the Kremlin several dozen roses.

So, if there’s no military threat and no tangible PR/moral victory to be had from the American people, then why bother with this bit of nonsense? In my sight the target audiences are the Russian, Venezuelan and Cuban working classes, all of whom have been growing quite restive of late. The Russian economy is in tatters; the promise of an end to the concept of peasantry was never realized and now the people are starting to see that it never will be under the current system. The modern traditional authoritarian response to a large underclass that is unhappy with a situation at home with no easy answer is easy– appeal to nationalism. We’ve seen Mr. Putin play this card several times even before the economic collapse– the cyber attacks on Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial, the war in Georgia, showdowns with the Ukraine over Gazprom pipelines that were cast in the Russian press as Ukrainian ingratitude and attempted theft; this is simply a continuation in that pattern. The men of Soviet Long Range Aviation were the sex symbols of the Soviet Era– they ate the best food, they made the most money, they lived the most glamorous of military lifestyles. They were the ones who took all of the indignities inflicted upon the Soviet Union and flew them right back to the American shores, threatening the running dog imperialists every hour of every day with the might of the Worker’s Paradise. Putin and Medvedev first announcing a resumption of Bear patrols late in 2008 and now having their military drop this silliness about occasionally landing in Cuba & Venezuela is just attempting to stir that old nationalist pride at patrolling American shores to distract the Russian people from their daily woes.

The same is even more true in Venezuela, where the economy is in ruins beyond even the damage caused by the Chavez Regime. With oil prices less that a third of their previous high, the redistribution of wealth that Chavez had purported to deliver has become even more a redistribution of misery; his political future is bleak if he can’t do something to shore up his regime and distract his people Enlisting the Russians in his “great cause” of resisting the United States is tailor made both to do that and elevate the imnprtance of the Venezuelan nation in the eyes of the Venezuelan people whose favor he has lost. Raul Castro, too, needs a prop for his regime; even as he tries to chart a course less belligerent than his brother’s, Castro could certainly use a reminder to the Cuban people of a time when tons of money flowed across the Ataltntic into Cuban society fromt he Soviet Union and the false promise that it could return even as he moves to court the American Administration to remove the blocks between America and Cuba.

In the end, this theater of the absurd is actually recorded in Russian and Spanish with only the subtitles set in American English. Something tells me that it won’t be playing to rave reveiws in any language; the problems of the Russian, Venezuelan and to a somewhat lesser extent the Cuban governments face are growing beyond the potential for the distraction of the circus to calm the populace. All the creaky planes in the Russian arsenal are not going to change that.


Posted in Foreign Affairs, Latin America, Russia | Leave a Comment »

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