The Russian airforce conducted a mock nuclear strike against Sweden during war games less than three years ago, Nato has said.
The 2013 exercise, which saw a contingent of Russian aircraft approach Swedish airspace after crossing the Gulf of Finland, was one of several examples of dummy nuclear attacks against Nato and its allies in recent years, according to a new Nato report.
“As part of its overall military build-up, the pace of Russia’s military manoeuvres and drills have reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War,”Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of Nato, wrote in his annual report for 2015.
“Over the past three years, Russia has conducted at least 18 large-scale snap exercises, some of which have involved more than 100,000 troops.”
“These exercises include simulated nuclear attacks on Nato Allies (eg, ZAPAD [a large-scale Russian military exercise]) and on partners (eg, March 2013 simulated attacks on Sweden),” he added.
Two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters crossed the Gulf of Finland and came within 24 miles of Swedish territory off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm, on March 29, 2013.
They veered off after apparently completing dummy bombing runs against targets believed to include a military base in southern Sweden and the headquarters of Sweden’s signals intelligence agency outside Stockholm.
The incident caused controversy in Sweden at the time because the Swedish military was caught unprepared and had to rely on Danish airforce jets, operating as part of a Nato’s Baltic air policing mission, to respond.
Nato declined to comment further on the incident, saying it has “nothing to add” to the statement in the report.
Russia’s ministry of defence has not publicly responded to the claims, but one retired general told the Telegraph that the report was “nonsense designed to stir up hysteria about the Baltic states”.
“This statement about a supposed nuclear strike on Sweden is nothing more than a provocation,” said Evgenny Buzhinsky, a former general who now heads the PIR analytical centre in Moscow.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine have raised military tensions in Europe to Cold War levels.
British defence officials have expressed mounting concern at an increase in the number of Russian military flights probing Nato airspace, including around the British Isles.
The United States on Tuesday said it wanted to quadruple military spending in Europe as a direct result of Russia’s actions in the region.
Ash Carter, the American defence secretary, said spending on military deployments designed to reassure eastern European countries who fear Russian meddling or attack will jump from £547 million ($789 million) to £2.4 billion, according to a 2017 budget proposal.
“We haven’t had to worry about this for 25 years, and while I wish it were otherwise, now we do,” he said while unveiling the plans.
The announcement followed the release last month of an “updated theatre strategy document” that identified countering Russian aggression as the number one priority for EUCOM, the United States European Command.
Most concern has focused on the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three former Soviet republics which share a border with Russia and are home to Russian-speaking minorities.
Some analysts have speculated that Russia could use protection of those minorities as a pretext for a Crimean-style annexation.
Nato has deployed an air-policing contingent of jet fighters to the region and conducted a series of joint exercises to reassure eastern allies and deter possible Russian adventurism.
But a recent report by the RAND corporation concluded that even with these precautions it would take Russian forces just 60 hours to overrun the three countries.
Gen Buzhinsky dismissed such concerns as unfounded, saying seizing the Baltic states would bring no strategic benefit to Russia and that the Russian speaking minority has no interest in military “protection”.
But he warned that Russia would respond to any increase in Nato’s military presence in the region.
“Of course that is a reason for concern from the Russian side, and of course if the United States deploys heavy equipment towards us, we would do the same,” he said.