Kyiv, Ukraine – The Tu-160, also known as the White Swan, is the world’s heaviest and fastest supersonic bomber, capable of circling half the globe, flying as high as 20km above Earth and carrying 45 tonnes of bombs or a dozen Kh-55 nuclear missiles. Moscow currently possesses 16 of these flying fortresses and has been utilizing them as a means of confrontation with the West. In recent years, they have flown over the North Pole to violate US and Canadian airspace, landed in Venezuela, and launched cruise missiles at Syria. Since last March, the White Swans have targeted Ukraine, taking off from an airbase near the Volga River city of Saratov and launching non-nuclear missiles without entering Ukraine’s airspace.
It may come as a surprise that half of Russia’s White Swans once belonged to Kyiv, along with hundreds of missiles they can carry. This transfer of weapons from Ukraine to Russia was a result of Western pressure to destroy Cold War-era stockpiles and transfer them to Russia, a decision made in 1991 as part of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation in newly independent nations emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This pressure was exemplified by a visit from then-senator Barack Obama, who in 2005 visited the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a future hotbed of pro-Russian separatism, and helped secure $48m to fund the destruction of 400,000 small arms, 1,000 portable anti-aircraft missiles and 15,000 tonnes of ammunition. A local photographer named Sergey Vaganov took pictures of Obama in the arms depots. A decade later, Vaganov fled a Russian-backed separatist conflict in Donetsk and, in March, barely survived the Russian siege of Mariupol.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyiv inherited a colossal arsenal, including nuclear weapons and 19 White Swans, which were based at the Priluky Air Base in northern Ukraine. Russia had only two such bombers at the time. However, maintaining strategic aircraft was unnecessary after Kyiv, along with all other former Soviet republics, gave in to Western pressure and “returned” thousands of nuclear warheads to Moscow. Washington was predictably worried about nuclear arsenals in the 15 newly independent nations that emerged from the USSR as they were undergoing painful economic transitions, often along with political instability.
As a result, Kyiv agreed to get rid of all its heavy bombers, the missiles these planes could carry, and the airfield equipment to maintain them within 10 years. Washington funded the destruction of 11 White Swans, 27 smaller Tu-95s, almost 500 air-launched cruise missiles, 130 SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles, their silos and launch-control centers. And then there were the small arms, including AK-47 assault rifles and light weapons – about 7 million units in dozens of depots throughout Ukraine.
For years, Ukraine has also been getting rid of other weapons systems such as air defense systems, ships, and submarines. Libya, the United Kingdom, and the US bought hundreds of thousands of AK-47s, and Pakistan purchased 320 tanks from Ukraine. Even the Varyag, a 300-meter-long aircraft carrier, was sold to a Macau company for conversion into a floating casino a decade later, and later became China’s first carrier, the Liaoning.
However, a significant portion of Ukraine’s weapons were taken to Russia, mostly in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, as payment for Kyiv’s multimillion-dollar debt for natural gas.
Russia has used the Tu-160 strategic bomber, centre, in attacks on Ukraine, which once had far more of the aircraft than its larger neighbour [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]
The shipments included almost 575 Kh-55 subsonic missiles used on White Swans along with 386 Kh-15 short-range nuclear-capable missiles. This transfer of weapons not only reduced Ukraine’s military capabilities but also increased Russia’s. It was a decision that had long-term implications for the region and for Ukraine’s sovereignty, as it currently lacks the military capability to defend itself against the White Swans and other advanced weapons systems that were once in its arsenal.
The story of the White Swans and the transfer of weapons from Ukraine to Russia is a reminder of the complex political and economic factors that shape the post-Soviet world. It highlights the challenges faced by newly independent nations, as well as the power dynamics at play in the international arena. The events of the past decade, including the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and the increased military activity in the region by Russia, have brought these issues back to the forefront.
The international community must continue to be vigilant in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as supporting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations. This includes providing support for disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation efforts, as well as promoting stability and security in the region through diplomatic and economic means. Only through continued cooperation and efforts can the international community help ensure that the White Swans and other advanced weapons systems are not used to threaten the peace and security of the region and the world.