Putin began using Russian heavy bombers for nuclear signaling in 2007 when he announced that, “Combat alert has begun today. Twenty strategic missile carriers are taking part in it. The planes that have scrambled will be in the air for 20 hours with refueling and in interaction with the Navy.” Russian bomber patrols dramatically increased in 2019 and 2020. According to state-run Sputnik News, the intent of the bomber flights is to “…survey the skies around Russian borders reminding everyone that Russia is a power to be reckoned with.”

The nuclear ballistic missile submarine phase of Umka-21 may be nuclear signaling relating to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine. In late March, CBS News reported a buildup of Russian forces along the Ukraine border. On March 31, there were reports that “Trains loaded with large amounts of Russian military hardware, including tanks and other heavy armored vehicles, as well as heavy artillery, appear to be streaming toward the country’s borders with Ukraine.” Serious Russian-supported fighting resumed in Eastern Ukraine. The New York Times reports, “The [four Ukrainian soldiers] deaths, along with a buildup of Russian forces on the border, has seized the attention of senior American officials in Europe and Washington.” U.S. troops in Europe and Ukrainian troops were put on highest alert. On March 11, Pavel Felgenhauer predicted that “Maybe six to eight weeks remain before belligerent rhetoric and sporadic bombardments in Donbas might truly transform into something much more ominous.” Umka-21 may be related to this. This would not be the first time nuclear threat posturing has been used by Russia to deter NATO support for Ukraine, but this is perhaps the most dangerous nuclear threat posturing yet. The threat of general nuclear war, a throw-back to Soviet days, could be related to the deterrence of a NATO response to a serious Russian incursion into Ukraine.