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.

Britain cannot defend itself against Putin’s military might, top brass warn

File image of planes from Russia's military aerobatics teams Strizhi (Swifts) and Russian Knights


Britain cannot defend itself against the military threat posed by Russia, senior army figures have warned.

As two RAF Typhoon fighters were scrambled on Wednesday evening to escort Russian long range bombers flying off Cornwall, military chiefs said that the UK “could not cope” with an all-out attack as our defences have been “decimated”.

David Cameron said Moscow appeared to be “trying to make some sort of a point”.

“I don’t think we should dignify it with too much of a response,” he said.

However, Sir Michael Graydon, former head of the RAF, appeared to take the threat far more seriously.

“I very much doubt whether the UK could sustain a shooting war against Russia. We are at half the capabilities we had previously,” he told the Daily Mail .

“They fly in these regions to check our air defences and have probably worked out we are not as sharp as we were.

“They know it is provocative and they are doing it at a time when defence in the west is pretty wet compared to where they are.”

As tensions between Nato and Russia have worsened over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has significantly increased the number of military flights probing Nato airspace.

The number of interceptions over the Baltic States trebled last year and Nato members including Britain have stepped up air policing support in the area.

Air Commodore Andrew Lambert, who commanded Allied forces in northern Iraq in 1999, said: “If the Russians turned up the heat, we would struggle badly.

“If Putin wanted to attack, he would not send a pair of bombers, he would send the lot and saturate our defences; we couldn’t cope”.

He told The Daily Mail: “The Typhoon is a really good aircraft but with their relatively small numbers they would be overwhelmed: the Russians would outflank us, go around us or just go through us.

“The modern generation of politicians has grown up in absolute security – they’ve never felt a threat to their existence, safety or security.

“They’ve taken peace for granted and decimated the Armed Forces. Let’s hope we don’t pay the price.”

The Russian Tupolev TU-95 bombers, known as Bears, were picked up in international airspace to the north west of Britain at round 6.30pm on Wednesday and escorted as they flew south, then turned around and flew off north.

The interception of the Bears comes a fortnight after similar aircraft flew into the English Channel, prompting the Government to demand an explanation from the Russian ambassador.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said there is a “real and present danger” that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will launch a campaign of undercover attacks to destabilise the Baltic states on Nato’s eastern flank.

He added tgat Putin might try to test Nato’s resolve with the same Kremlin-backed subversion used in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.