updated 1/30/2004 2:23:25 PM ET 2004-01-30T19:23:25

Russian nuclear forces are preparing for a massive exercise that would be their largest in more than 20 years, a newspaper reported Friday.

The one-day maneuvers, which were set for next month, would involve test-firing several ballistic missiles and taking almost the entire fleet of Russia’s strategic bombers into the air in a simulation of a nuclear conflict, according to the business newspaper Kommersant.

Official comments on the exercise have been sketchy. The chief of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, Col.-Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, was quoted Thursday by the Interfax-Military News Agency as saying the exercise would involve several launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles in various regions of Russia, but he gave no further details.

Kommersant said the maneuvers would be the largest since a 1982 exercise of Soviet nuclear forces, which the West dubbed the “seven-hour nuclear war.”

Cruise missiles, bombers over Arctic
In the new exercise, Russian Tu-160 bombers are set to test-fire cruise missiles over the northern Atlantic, and other strategic bombers are to conduct flights over Russia’s Arctic regions and test-fire missiles at a southern range near the Caspian Sea, the newspaper said.

In addition, Russia’s strategic forces are scheduled to launch military satellites from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Plesetsk launch pad in northern Russia, Kommersant reported.

A system warning of an enemy missile attack and a missile defense system protecting Moscow would also be involved in the exercise, which President Vladimir Putin is set to attend, the newspaper said.

Putin has tried to revive Russia’s military might, eroded by post-Soviet funding shortages, and the ambitious exercises are certain to further bolster his popularity in the run-up to the March 14 presidential election, which he is expected to win in a landslide. Kommersant acerbically dubbed the exercises “pre-election maneuvers.”

It said Moscow had warned Washington about the exercises, describing them as part of efforts to fend off terror threats.

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