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US bombers arrive in Europe as Russia preps for war games

US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bomber is displayed during "Air Power Day" preview at US Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek on September 23, 2016. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

Two US B-1 bombers and one B-52 Stratofortress arrived in the United Kingdom on Wednesday for an annual international war games event taking place at the same time as a controversial Russian military exercise.

The long-range B-1s, from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, and the B-52, from the Air Force Reserve Command’s 307th Bomb Wing at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, landed at Royal Air Force Fairford in Gloucestershire. They will conduct flyovers in Slovakia and Poland before taking part in the Ample Strike 2017 exercises hosted by the Czech Republic, according to US European Command.

More than 30 aircraft, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles from eight allied nations are expected to conduct live-fire drills from August 28 to September 9, according to NATO.

“The exercise will focus on advanced air and land integration training, as well as strengthening interoperability between NATO ally and partner nations,” US European Command said in a statement.

Unofficially, the joint military display is meant to serve as a not-so-subtle show of force aimed at Russia, which is preparing to conduct large-scale war games in Belarus next month.

Of all the major exercises on the Russian military calendar, “Zapad,” which is Russian for “West,” causes the most excitement and concern because it is the one that most closely resembles practice for invading Russia’s neighbors, according to Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House.

Held every four years, the exercise can even develop its own mythology: Much of the Western coverage said that the 2009 exercise ended with a simulated nuclear attack on Warsaw, Poland, even though there is no evidence at all from unclassified sources to suggest this was the case, Giles said.

“In Poland, Lithuania and especially Ukraine, some fear this year’s Zapad could provide cover for preparing another Russian military adventure,” Giles wrote in a recent op-ed for CNN.

The US and its NATO partners have closely monitored Russian military maneuvers since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and routinely engage in military chest-thumping to deter potential Russian aggression.

Wednesday’s announcement comes as President Donald Trump considers sending defensive aid to Ukraine. Defense Secretary James Mattis is expected to meet with the Ukrainian defense minister in Kiev on Thursday.

Tensions between the West and Russia have increased in recent years, in large part because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists elsewhere in eastern Ukraine.

In June, the US Air Force deployed long-range B-52 bombers and 800 airmen in support of joint exercises with NATO allies and partners taking place across Europe.

The nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress took part in a series of joint exercises on Russia’s doorstep — specifically in the Baltic Sea, the Arctic and along Russia’s border with several NATO partners.

The 185,000-pound B-52 is one of the oldest active aircraft in the US Air Force, having first entered service in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War. They were originally designed to serve as long-range, high-altitude intercontinental nuclear bombers that could strike deep into the Soviet Union.

The planes have been modified heavily since the end of the Cold War and have been upgraded with precision-guided missiles, electronics and high-tech sensors. Each aircraft can carry up to 70,000 pounds of bombs, mines and missiles, according to the Air Force’s official fact sheet.

The highly versatile, supersonic B-1 is considered the backbone of the US long-range bomber fleet and carries the largest conventional payload of any aircraft in the US Air Force, but is no longer armed with nuclear weapons.