Chebarkul Testing Range, Russia: President Vladimir Putin said on 17 August he had ordered strategic bombers to resume regular long-range patrols as Russian and Chinese forces held their first joint military exercise on Russian soil — a show of armed muscle aimed at sending a pointed message to the United States.
The resumption of bombing patrols, which analysts say signaled a significant change for Russian military policy, comes amid a growing chill in US-Russian relations, strained over Washington’s criticism of Russia’s democracy record, Moscow’s objections to US missile defence plans and differences over global crises.
Both Moscow and Beijing share a heightening distrust of what they see as the United States’ oversized role and influence in global politics, and the two former Cold War rivals have forged a “strategic partnership” aimed at counterbalancing Washington’s policies.
The Russian-Chinese war games, which took place near the Urals Mountain city of Chelyabinsk, coincided with Russian air force maneuvers involving 20 strategic bombers which ranged far over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
One of those drills, involving 11 Russian aircraft, prompted Nato member Norway to scramble F-16 fighter jets to observe and photograph the Russian planes as they flew over the Norwegian Sea.
The group of strategic bombers, early warning aircraft, fighter jets and refueling planes represented the biggest show of Russian air power in that region since the early 1990s, said Brig. Gen. Ole Asak, chief of the Norwegian Joint Air Operations Centre.
“We haven’t seen that kind of activity in a very long time,” Asak told The Associated Press. “Not since the early 1990s. It was quite impressive to see.”
In announcing the policy change, Putin said halting 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.”
“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. Booming oil prices have allowed Russia to sharply increase its military spending.
“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.”
Nato in recent years has expanded to include the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sounded neutral.
“We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union. It’s a different era,” he told reporters. “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.”
Sino-Russia military exercise
The war games involved some 6,000 troops from Russia and China along with soldiers from four ex-Soviet central Asian nations that are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group dominated by Moscow and Beijing.
Putin, Chinese leader Hu Jintao and other leaders of the SCO nations attended the exercise, which followed their summit on Thursday in Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek.
The summit concluded with a communique that sounded like a thinly veiled warning to the United States to stay away from the strategically placed, resource-rich region: “Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations.”
Putin hailed the exercise — which involved dozens of aircraft and hundreds of armoured vehicles countering a mock attack by terrorists and insurgents striving to take control of energy resources — “as another step to strengthen relations between our countries.” Hu said the maneuvers “underlined the SCO’s readiness to confront terror.”