Ireland drawn into New Cold War as Putin flexes muscles
Coveney warns planes' flight plan constituted 'unacceptable situation'
IRELAND found itself at the centre of the latest muscle-flexing exercise by Vladimir Putin after Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons flew past the west coast.
A diplomatic spat erupted as the Government warned it was “absolutely unacceptable” that the two Tupolev 95s were in Irish-controlled airspace for five hours without notifying the Irish authorities.
The planes were flying with their transponders switched off – meaning they could not be ‘seen’ by civilian aircraft as they passed through the busy airspace, where around 1,800 planes a day travel.
The aircraft were tracked by RAF Typhoon jets for more than 12 hours as they flew from the Norwegian Sea, along the west coast before banking east and travelling south of the UK.
Defence Minister Simon Coveney warned Russian military aircraft “should not” enter Irish airspace without notification but said there would be no “knee-jerk reaction”. He will discuss the matter with the Taoiseach to decide a course of action.
But a spokesman for Russian ambassador to Ireland Maxim Peshkov insisted the aircraft were in international airspace and there was no threat to commercial airlines.
Mr Coveney last night told the Irish Independent: "What happened was two Russian planes, without filing any flight plan or giving any pre-notification, came into international airspace that is controlled by the IAA.
"It should not happen and it did. That is a very busy airspace - about 1,800 planes a day fly through that. The IAA did a really good job in managing it."
He said the matter would be discussed with the Taoiseach, Transport Minister Pashcal Donohoe and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan as any "knee-jerk" move would not be helpful.
"This isn't the first time Russian planes have flown along the western coast of the EU. We need to deal with this calmly.
"But we will make it very clear ... this is an unacceptable situation," said Mr Coveney.
The UK RAF was involved because Ireland is considered to be within its 'area of interest' in defence matters.
Irish air traffic controllers were notified of the incident by UK authorities at 11am, and remained on high alert until 4pm when the pair of Russian planes flew north.
The Tu-95s, nicknamed 'Bears', were 50 nautical miles off the coastline at their nearest point on Wednesday, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) said.
Last night, the Department of Foreign Affairs said it could seek to resolve the issue through the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
The IAA said the planes did not enter Irish airspace, which extends 12 miles from our coastline, but were in an area under IAA air traffic control, which extends to 256 nautical miles from the Irish coast.
NATO has reported a surge of intercepts of Russian aircraft last year, with 100 intercepted in 2014, three times the rate in 2013.
Military experts believe the manoeuvre could have been political posturing - or an attempt to gauge British military response times.
It is not clear what would have happened had the Russians entered Irish airspace. One source said they could be asked to land, or fly over the country.
The Bear reconnaissance aircraft are equipped with sophisticated search radars, and is typically used to examine air defences and monitor the movements of aircraft carrier groups and submarines.
They are capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
A spokesman for Maxim Peshkov, the Russian ambassador to Ireland, insisted the country did not violate aviation rules.
However, Andrey Nikeryasov highlighted "dangerous manoeuvres" recently made by NATO air forces near Russia, saying his government had warned NATO "many times" about aircraft flying "very close" to Russian borders.
He added he did not know why Russian bombers were flying near a neutral country like Ireland.
He said the flights were conducted "totally and fully" in line with international law.
"This flight did not enter the air space of any sovereign country," he said.
"It was some sort of planned Russian air force flight that's it, why did it fly I don't know, but there was no threat to commercial flights."
It is understood the bombers departed Engels airbase on the Volga River in Russia on a "routine" air patrol, flying north to the Barents Sea before turning west and flying over the Norwegian Sea.
RAF long-range radars detected the aircraft over the North Sea, and RAF Typhoons were scrambled. They tracked the bombers for over 12 hours as they passed the west coast of Ireland before turning east towards the UK.
Air traffic controllers at Shannon monitored the position of the two Russian long-range bombers as they flew down and back up the west coast between 11am and 4pm on Wednesday.
The IAA said at no point did they enter Irish airspace. Aviation sources said last night that no commercial aircraft had to be diverted.
"There was no commercial craft in the area occupied by the monitored flights and, as a result, we did not have any major problems," said one aviation source.
The Department of Foreign Affairs refused to be drawn on the protocols in place to protect Irish airspace.
Britain has summoned the Russian Ambassador to meet Foreign Office officials amid concerns the incident could have serious air safety implications.