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US spy planes seem to be searching for Russian nukes in European enclave

Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg. (The Kremlin/Released)
September 29, 2022

U.S. Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft have been spotted flying around a Russian enclave in Europe, raising concerns they’re monitoring for any nuclear weapon activity.

The flight monitoring website AirNav tracked a Rivet Joint on Wednesday as it flew from Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall in the United Kingdom and traveled east before loitering near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Politico has reported other Rivet Joint flights have been spotted in the area in recent days.

The string of U.S. surveillance flights come in the days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial mobilization of 300,000 Russian reserve troops and issued new veiled threats to use nuclear weapons.

The Kaliningrad Oblast is a 5,800 square mile patch of territory that is separated from the main Russian territory by Lithuania and Belarus. The territory shares a northeast border with Lithuania and a southern border with Poland, while its west has access to the Baltic Sea, making it a semi-enclave territory.

As Putin announced the new military mobilization last week, he said western nations “have even resorted to the nuclear blackmail.” 

“I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have,” Putin said last week. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland began discussions on joining the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In response, Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened that Russia could deploy nuclear weapons to the Baltic region, raising the possibility of a Russian nuclear weapon buildup in Kaliningrad.

In 2018, the Federation of American Scientists published a report detailing renovations at an active nuclear weapons storage facility in Kaliningrad.

Aram Shabanian, an open-source intelligence expert at a D.C.-based foreign policy think tank called the New Lines Institute, told Business Insider that the U.S. surveillance flights around Kaliningrad indicate “an increased interest in Russian military movements by high-level decision makers in the United States.”

“This comes at a time when we are, as far as I can ascertain, at the closest point to nuclear war since 1983,” Shabanian added, referring to a 1983 false alarm incident in which Russian nuclear defense officer Stanislav Petrov is said to have broken protocol and avoided triggering Russia’s nuclear arsenal after detecting a U.S. nuclear launch. The suspected U.S. nuclear launch had been a false alarm reportedly caused by a malfunction in Russia’s nuclear warning system.