Kim Jong-un has become somewhat of an expert at getting the attention of the U.S. as well as the entire globe with his temper tantrums. Stealing a page from his book on July 20th, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to have his TP-160 supersonic bombers, also known as “White Swans”, and some MiG-31 fighter jets in the air, while he visited Iran. Unlike Kim, Russia as well as these bombers are capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
Setting their course through the Barents Sea just north of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, the bombers made runs across the open airspace almost as if attempting to taunt the previously militarily neutral countries into issuing the first strike. Given Putin and the Kremlin’s previous comments that none of these three countries should even look at joining NATO, tensions were high.
When Russia was called out over this aggression and their previous comments they would only say “There is nothing that could bother us about Sweden and Finland joining NATO. They can join whatever they want.” This scramble to save face is something Russia has become adept at doing in recent years, but even more so since Putin decided to invade Ukraine.
Flying a mission like this wasn’t the only Russian show of force that day, either.
For only the second time since invading in February, Putin took the steps to travel outside the country, and this wasn’t just a peacekeeping visit. In Tehran, Putin met with top Iranian officials and took a closer look at their drone program. These drones can carry various types of munitions and are incredibly fast. Given the advancement of the Russian campaign in Ukraine, it seems nearly a certainty that Putin will be acquiring some to help his front lines.
That wasn’t the only purpose of his visit though. Given the U.S. sanctions both nations face, they find a common need in one another to open their borders to trade. Meeting with everyone from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Putin glad-handed everyone who can help his country to stay afloat during their attempted invasion.
With the UN backing a program to safely get Ukrainian food exports out, this tripod partnership could spell disaster across the globe.
Putin and Erdogan also had a chance to meet and put the topic of a peaceful end to the Russian-Turkish conflict on the table, as well as allowing Ukrainian grain to pass through the Black Sea without problems. Turkey is a member of NATO, and as such, not a country Putin is a fan of. He does seem to see the value in this kind of meeting and trying to bring his attempts to conquer Ukraine to an end, though.
Given how poorly this has played out compared to how he war-gamed it, saving face at this point might be his safest option.
Getting these bombers in the air is not a step toward ending the conflict in Ukraine. It is, however, a way to help develop the relationship with Turkey. As the only country to unequivocally object to the Nordic countries joining NATO, they are continuing to have a very solid and cozy relationship with Russia. Given their deal to upgrade their airforce with the U.S., this is a very fine line for Turkey to be walking.
Thankfully, this bomber-led saber rattling ended without further provocation. Given how defenseless the bombers are (hence the MiG fighter jets for security), this could have easily gone wrong very quickly. Unlike North Korea, the whole northern hemisphere must be at least slightly concerned about the choices Putin is making.