MELBOURNE, Australia — The Russian Air Force has for the first time sent strategic bombers to visit an airport in eastern Indonesia on Tuesday, as the Russian military increases its presence in Southeast Asia following years of relative inactivity.
In a statement, Russia’s Defence Ministry said two Tupolev Tu-95MS Bears flew from the Amur region, in Russia’s far east, to Frans Kaisiepo Airport in Biak, on the northern coast of Indonesia’s eastern province of Papua as part of an international visit.
The ministry said that during the flight, the Tu-95MS bombers were refueled in the air by Ilyushin Il-78 tankers over the Pacific Ocean, adding that “the flight was carried out in strict accordance with the International Air Law.”
The bombers were supported by two Ilyushin Il-76MD airlifters that had landed at Biak the day before. The Indonesian Air Force, in announcing the visit, said that the bombers were conducting a long-range navigation exercise.
Col. Fajar Adriyanto, the commander of the adjoining Manuhua air base, also said that the arrival of the Russian aircraft was part of an agreement between both militaries that “included choosing Biak as the location of the visit.”
According to Indonesia’s Jakarta Post newspaper, the total number of visiting Russian military personnel totaled 110, including the bomber crew. Quoting a spokesperson from the airport, the newspaper also reported that the Russian military personnel would be in Biak until Dec. 9.
The visit by the aircraft is part of an increased Russian military presence in Southeast Asia in recent years. Russian Navy ships from the Pacific Fleet have made port visits to Indonesia in both 2016 and 2017, while also taking part in international maritime reviews in Singapore and Thailand earlier this year.
However, the director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, Euan Graham, told Defense News that Russian military engagement in the region still does not appear to be strategically meaningful beyond the north Pacific, and that it is more about selectively maintaining presence as a means to relationship-building in the region, most likely to be driven by a desire for arms sales.
Indonesia also operates several types of Russian military equipment including the Sukhoi Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker fighter jets. Indonesia is currently negotiating the acquisition of the latest Su-35 variant.
The Tu-95MS is a variant of the original Cold War-era turboprop bomber, which first flew in 1952. It is currently used by the Russian Air Force as a cruise missile carrier and has been used in that role during Russia’s military campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad’s government.