US Air Force jets on Thursday intercepted two Russian bombers escorted by a pair of Russian fighter jets flying near Alaskan airspace, in an incident that was described as a first by US defense officials.
The Cold War-era Russian Su-35 “Flanker” jets were escorting two nuclear-capable Russian Bear bombers, also known as Tu-95 bombers, in Alaska’s Air Defense Zone, airspace that surrounds the United States and Canada, officials told Fox News.
The Russian formation was intercepted by two US Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets on patrol in the area.
The Russian fighter jets were not armed and remained in international airspace, officials indicated.
Last month, over two consecutive days, Russia flew Tu-95 aircraft off the Alaska coast, prompting the US to scramble fighter jets on at least one occasion.
Before those incidents, Russia last flew aircraft close to the US in 2015 when bombers were seen flying close to the coasts off California and Alaska.
Earlier Thursday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a speech to State Department staff that there was “almost no trust” between the US and Russia, but that the Trump administration was trying to rebuild relations by looking at one issue at a time.
A day earlier, US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled improving prospects for cooperation in Syria, in what the White House called a “very good” phone discussion that included a focus on setting up safe zones in the war-torn nation.
The call marked the first time Trump and Putin have spoken since the US launched missiles against an air base in Syria, an attack that outraged Russia, one of the Syrian government’s strongest backers. The US military action sparked new tensions between Washington and Moscow, with top US officials sharply condemning Putin’s continued support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
The Kremlin characterized the call as “businesslike” and “constructive.” It made no mention of safe zones.
The US has long sought Moscow’s help in Syria, where the civil war has created a vacuum for the Islamic State and other extremist groups. But Russia’s ongoing support for Assad has been a persistent roadblock.
As a candidate, Trump argued that the US focus in Syria should be on terrorism, not seeking Assad’s removal from power. And he vowed to work with any country — particularly Russia — that wanted to play a role in that effort.
But last month, Trump was moved by the gruesome images of children killed in a chemical weapons attack that the US has pinned on the Assad government. The US launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian air base, marking the first time America has directly targeted the Syrian government since the conflict there began.
Some of Trump’s top advisers, including Tillerson and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, leveled blistering criticism on Russia and Putin following the chemical weapons attack.
Yet Trump has continued to hold out the prospect of a stronger relationship with Russia, which was a cornerstone of his foreign policy platform as a presidential candidate. He took to Twitter days after the Syria strikes to say that “things will work out fine” between the US and Russia and “everyone will come to their senses.”
The shifts in the Trump administration’s posture came amid a steady swirl of controversy surrounding possible ties between the president’s associates and Russia during last year’s election.
The FBI and congressional committees are investigating whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia as it meddled in the election.