RAF Typhoon fighters have been scrambled to escort two Russian Bear bombers off the coast of Cornwall, as a diplomatic row broke out after the defence secretary, Michael Fallon, issued a warning over Moscow’s threat to Nato’s Baltic states.
The latest instance of Russian planes manoeuvring close to British air space comes amid heightened tensions between the UK and Russia over Vladimir Putin’s backing of separatist rebels in Ukraine.
Fallon warned on Thursday that Putin could repeat the tactics used to destabilise Ukraine in Baltic members of the Nato alliance, saying that Nato must be ready for Russian aggression in “whatever form it takes”.
The tactics could involve irregular troops, cyber attacks and inflaming tensions with ethnic Russian minorities in nations seen as part of the country’s “near abroad” by Moscow. He said there was a “real and present danger” that such tactics could be used.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Aleksander Lukashevich, said Fallon’s words were “beyond diplomatic ethics” and warned that the Kremlin would “find a way to react”.
A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said on Thursday: “RAF quick reaction alert Typhoon fighter aircraft were launched yesterday after Russian aircraft were identified flying close to UK air space. The Russian planes were escorted by the RAF until they were out of the UK area of interest. At no time did the Russian military aircraft cross into UK sovereign air space.”
David Cameron said that Moscow appeared to be trying to make “some sort of a point” with the latest incursion by Russian warplanes.
“I think what this episode demonstrates is that we do have the fast jets, the pilots, the systems in place to protect the United Kingdom,” he said during an event at Felixstowe in Suffolk.
“I suspect what’s happening here is that the Russians are trying to make some sort of a point and I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response.”
Last month, Moscow’s ambassador was summoned to London by the Foreign Office after a flight by two Russian bombers over the Channel, which Britain said posed a potential danger to civilian flights.
Russian warships have also passed through the English channel on a number of occasions in recent months. On Tuesday, the Yaroslav Mudry was tracked by the Royal Navy as it sailed back to Russia after a deployment in the Mediterranean with its accompanying tanker, the Kola.
British warship HMS Argyll, based in Plymouth, Devon, was deployed and used its Lynx helicopter and sensors to locate and monitor the movement of the Russian ships off the coast of France and through the English Channel.
As well as the war in Ukraine, where fighting has continued despite a ceasefire being agreed, relations between the UK and Russia have also been strained by a public inquiry in London into the 2006 killing of a former Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko, by radioactive poisoning.
Flights close to other Nato members’ air space have also become more frequent as tensions have increased between Moscow and the west. Nato said it flew 400 intercepts last year, four times more than in 2013.
The UK is now facing a “genuinely dangerous situation” when it comes to dealing with Russia, according to Rory Stewart, chairman of the House of Commons defence committee, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
The senior Conservative said there was now a “razor edge which western policy makers need to walk” and to do nothing could lead to as much violence as taking action.
“If they do nothing, Putin who is a real opportunist, will be encouraged to push his luck and see if he can humiliate Nato. If on the other hand we do too much, we could risk provoking an overreaction,” he said.