A report from Yahoo! News has revealed that a former Russian military bomber engineer tried to seek asylum at the southwest border of the United States in December 2022. Arriving with his family in an armored vehicle, he offered up top-secret military information in exchange for being allowed to enter the country.
The Russian engineer, whose name Yahoo! omitted from their report out of concern for his safety, claimed to have fled because he feared retribution for his participation in protests in support of anti-Putin campaigner Alexei Navalny. The 45-year-old survived an attempt on his life in August 2020 and has since been imprisoned by Russian authorities, with the country’s government upset over his continued criticism of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
His detainment sparked numerous protests across Russia, with thousands being arrested by local authorities.
Yahoo! claims to have obtained an unclassified report from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), dated January 11, 2023, which states that the man who arrived at the border in December claimed to be a civil engineer whose “past employment had included working […] from 2018 to 2021 in the making of a particular type of military airplane at the Tupelov production facility in the city of Kazan in west-central Russia.”
The CBP report added that the man “described the aircraft type as ‘an attack jet’ and said it ‘was called White Swan-TU160.'”
The White Swan-TU160 – officially known as the Tupelov Tu-160 and nicknamed “Blackjack” by NATO – is the most advanced strategic heavy bomber flown by the Russian Aerospace Forces. Developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and entering service in 1987, it’s capable of hitting supersonic speeds of Mach 2+.
While many have compared the Tu-160 to the Rockwell B-1 Lancer operated by the US Air Force, the two aircraft really aren’t all that similar. The Tu-160 is faster and has a greater combat range than the B-1, and it’s also larger. As well, while the latter is used in a number of combat scenarios, the former is typically viewed as a strategic missile carrier.
To perform its role as a missile carrier, the Tu-160 was designed with two weapons bays, each capable of holding either 44,000 pounds of free-fall weapons or a rotary launcher for nuclear missiles. When paired with the bomber’s ability to carry additional weapons on its exterior, the overall payload is estimated to be around 88,000 pounds.
According to the CBP report, the Tu-160 has been used to conduct airstrikes on enemy positions throughout the Russo-Ukrainian War. It adds that steps have been taken by the Russians to upgrade and modify the aging fleet, with outside outlets reporting that the country’s military announced it was planning to equip the aircraft with hypersonic missiles.
For a week after the Russian engineer’s arrival at the border, CPS and the Department of Homeland Security worked to verify his identity and story. He was subsequently deemed reputable and placed under the custody of the FBI for further questioning, according to two officials who spoke with Yahoo! about the January 11 report.
According to a senior military intelligence official, the US government will likely be most interested in learning if the reports about equipping the Tu-160 with hypersonic missiles were true and, if so, how far along Russia is in accomplishing this.
As far as Yahoo! was aware, the man is still in custody with US officials and is likely also being questioned on topics not related to the strategic heavy bomber. These could include anything that would allow Russia to launch a cyberattack on other countries and general information that would aid in the expansion of America’s intelligence gathering efforts.