President Vladimir Putin said Friday that he had ordered the military to resume regular long-range flights of strategic bombers, a show of Russia’s resurgent military power which comes amid a chill in relations with the United States.
Speaking after Russian and Chinese forces completed major war games exercises for the first time on Russian turf, Putin said a halt in long-range bombers’ flights after the Soviet collapse had affected Russia’s security as other nations had continued such missions — an oblique reference to the United States.
“I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation,” Putin said in televised remarks. “We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia’s strategic aviation with understanding.”
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. was not troubled by the Russian decision.
“We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union,” said the spokesman, Sean McCormack. “It’s a different era. If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that’s their decision.”
'A new life'
The Russian-Chinese war games, which took place near the Ural Mountain city of Chelyabinsk, coincided with Russian air force maneuvers involving strategic bombers which ranged far over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
Putin said that 20 Russian bombers were involved in the exercise.
“Starting today, such tours of duty would be conducted regularly and on the strategic scale,” Putin said. “Our pilots have been grounded for too long, they are happy to start a new life.”
Soviet bombers routinely flew such missions to areas from which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could be launched at the United States, but stopped in the post-Soviet economic meltdown.
“Starting in 1992, the Russian Federation unilaterally suspended strategic aviation flights to remote areas,” Putin said. “Regrettably, other nations haven’t followed our example. That has created certain problems for Russia’s security.”
Booming oil prices have allowed Russia to sharply increase its military spending.
In recent years, Russia’s bombers have resumed flights to areas off Norway and Iceland, as well as Russia’s northeast corner, across the Bering Strait from Alaska several years ago. However, such missions have been rare, and Putin’s statement signals that they would become more frequent.
The announcement comes amid a growing chill in the U.S.-Russian relations, strained over Washington’s criticism of Russia’s democracy record, Moscow’s strong criticism of U.S. missile defense plans and differences over global crises.
“This is a significant change of posture of Russian strategic forces,” Alexander Pikayev, a senior military analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations, told The Associated Press. “It’s a response to the relocation of NATO forces closer to Russia’s western border.”
Earlier this month, a pair of Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers approached the Pacific Island of Guam — home to a major U.S. military base — for the first time since the Cold War.
Last month, two similar bombers briefly entered British air space but turned back after British fighter jets intercepted them. Norwegian F-16s were also scrambled when the Tu-95s headed south along the Norwegian coast in international air space.
Russian Air Force spokesman Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky said that Friday’s exercise involved Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M bombers, tanker aircraft and air radars. NATO jets were scrambled to escort the Russian aircraft over the oceans, he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
As of the beginning of this year, Russia had 79 strategic bombers, according to data exchanged with the United States under the START I arms control treaty. At the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet long-range bomber fleet numbered several hundred.