Putin rides nuclear-capable bomber as relations with West take nosedive

Flight on modernized Cold War-era plane likely to be seen as reminder of Moscow’s nukes as Kremlin calls foul over Biden ‘SOB’ jibe

Russian President Vladimir Putin climbs down from a modernized Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber, in Kazan, Russia, February 22, 2024. (YouTube screengrab: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Russian President Vladimir Putin climbs down from a modernized Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber, in Kazan, Russia, February 22, 2024. (YouTube screengrab: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin flew on a modernized Tu-160M nuclear-capable strategic bomber on Thursday in a move likely to be seen in the West as a pointed reminder of Moscow’s nuclear capabilities.

The giant swing-wing plane, codenamed “Blackjacks” by the military alliance NATO, is a modernized version of a Cold War-era bomber that the former Soviet Union would have deployed in the event of nuclear war to deliver weapons at long distances.

State TV showed Putin clambering down a ladder from the plane after the half-hour flight and telling reporters it was a reliable and modernized aircraft that could be accepted by the Russian Air Force.

“It’s a new machine, a lot about it is new. It’s easier to control. It’s reliable,” said Putin.

Putin, who is expected to easily win another six-year term next month, made the flight at a time when Moscow and the West are at bitter odds over Russia’s war in Ukraine and the death in prison of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Some Russian and US diplomats say they do not remember a time of worse relations between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, including during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

State TV showed the giant plane taking off from a runway belonging to the factory in Kazan which makes the modernized supersonic aircraft, with correspondent Pavel Zarubin excitedly calling it “a unique event.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the plane’s flight path was a military secret, TASS state news agency reported.

The Tu-160M, which has a crew of four, is capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles or 12 short-range nuclear missiles and can fly 12,000 km (7,500 miles) nonstop without refueling.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine sets out the conditions under which a Russian president would consider using a nuclear weapon: broadly as a response to an attack using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or to the use of conventional weapons against Russia “when the very existence of the state is put under threat”.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has repeatedly warned of the risk of a nuclear conflict with the West since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in 2022.

But Putin, who is commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces, said in October that the existence of the Russian state was not under threat and that “no person of sound mind and clear memory would think of using nuclear weapons against Russia.”

Putin, 71, flew in an older version of the aircraft in 2005 during a training exercise.

Under a contract signed in 2018, 10 of the modernized Tu-160M nuclear bombers are meant to be delivered to the Russian Air Force at a cost of 15 billion roubles ($163 million) each between now and 2027.

Later Thursday, Putin said he believed US President Joe Biden had called him a “crazy SOB” in reaction to a comment last week saying he would rather have Biden as president than Donald Trump.

Putin agreed in response to a TV reporter’s question that Biden’s remark was “rude.”

The US president made the “crazy SOB” remark as part of a sentence about threats to the world — including “that guy Putin and others,” the risk of nuclear conflict and the existential threat to humanity from climate change.

“The use of such language against the head of another state by the president of the United States is unlikely to infringe on our president, President Putin,” Peskov told Reuters. “But it debases those who use such vocabulary.”

Peskov said the remark was “probably some kind of attempt to look like a Hollywood cowboy. But honestly, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“Has Mr. Putin ever used one crude word to address you? This has never happened. Therefore, I think that such vocabulary debases America itself,” Peskov said, adding that such language was a disgrace for the United States.

Others were less restrained.

Medvedev, who served as president from 2008-2012, said the existential threat to the world came from “useless old geezers, like Biden himself.” He said Biden was “senile” and “ready to start a war with Russia”.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that the next time Biden used the phrase “crazy son of a bitch” he should “try to remember that Americans associate it best with his own offspring, Hunter Biden.”

Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said “Biden insulted Putin” while Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said the Biden remark shows that the West was intensifying its attempt to demonize Putin ahead of the March election.

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