RUSSIA is today conducting major aerial exercises including missile launches and bombings involving 50 warplanes over the Black Sea as it flexes its military muscle.
The US has warned commercial pilots against overflying the potential war zone around eastern Ukraine, according to a report, amid fears they could be shot down like flight MH17.
During the last “hot” conflict in the region, a Malaysia Alrlines Boeing 777 – flight MH17 – was shot out of the sky by pro-Moscow rebels, killing 298 people, in July 2014.
The provocative show of force comes as new videos indicate Russia continues to mass its military might close to the Ukrainian frontier.
One video showed a detachment of warships moved by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, the first such switch since Soviet times, according to reports.
Another highlights armaments and troops being moved by road and rail in Krasnodar, Rostov and Bryansk regions.
Some 50 Russian fighters, bombers and attack aircraft were due to be involved in “exercises over the Black Sea”, reported Interfax, in a move only likely to exacerbate tensions.
Taking part are Su-27SM and Su-30SM fighters, Su-24M and Su-34 bombers and Su-25SM3 attack aircraft, reported Interfax.
“During the exercises, the planes will perform missile launches and bombardment of naval targets,” said the report.
Crews from the Russian air force and the Black Sea Fleet would “perform tasks to accompany ship strike groups and actions as part of reconnaissance strike complexes while ensuring security in the Black Sea.”
The war games come amid the greatest period in tension between Russia and Ukraine with almost 100,000 Russian troops believed to be massed on its borders with its ex-Soviet neighbour.
Su-25SM3 attack aircraft from the Stavropol Territory were relocated to airfields in Crimea, annexed by Russian from Ukraine seven years ago, said Interfax
“The Su-25SM3 squadron from the Crimea has been relocated to the Ashuluk test site in the Astrakhan region.”
What happened to flight MH17?
Flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down on July 17, 2014, with the loss of 298 lives.
The dead included ten Britons, 193 Dutch, 38 Australians and 43 Malaysians. Eighty victims were children.
The Boeing 777-200ER left Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport at 12.31pm local time and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6.10am Malaysian time.
Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane two hours and 49 minutes after takeoff when it was about 50km from the Russia-Ukraine border.
Smouldering debris and personal belongings were found scattered over a large area in territory controlled by pro-Russia rebels.
A 15-month investigation by the Dutch Safety Board revealed the aircraft had crashed after being hit by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile.
Naval aircraft and helicopters and the Black Sea Fleet are also involved.
The detachment includes the Admiral Makarov frigate equipped with Caliber cruise missiles, the Grayvoron and Vyshny Volochek small missile ships, as well as large landing ships, the Samum hovercraft and the Ivan Golubets minesweeper.
On Tuesday Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow was conducting major exercises in response to threats from NATO.
The exercises come despite the US abandoning plans to deploy two missile destroyers to the Black Sea.
In a separate report, Russian state-owned TASS news agency reported that the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had recommended American pilots to show extreme caution when flying above certain regions of Russia and Ukraine.
The FAA had issued two notices to airmen (NOTAM), said the report.
“Air crews were told to exercise extreme caution when flying ‘into, out of, within, or over’ the areas of the Moscow flight information region (FIR), as well as the Rostov-on-Don, Simferopol, Dnepr and Kiev FIRs.
The notices were issued “due to potential safety-of-flight risks associated with escalating regional tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
Thesecould “potentially result in no-notice cross-border skirmishes, increased military activities, and/or conflict”, said the FAA, according to TASS.
“Both notices were issued for all US air carriers and commercial operators.”
In Ukraine, a warning was given by army commander Colonel-General Ruslan Khomchak not to form private militias amid fear of Russian attack.
“I request representatives of state authorities and local administrations to refrain from instigating the situation and sowing panic sentiments in society.,” he was quoted as saying.
“I urge to refrain from shifting the emphasis by creating militarised formations that are not stipulated by law.”
The Ukrainians fear that formation of unofficial armed bands could be exploited by Russia.