By Anton Troianovski and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 10, 2007
MOSCOW, Aug. 9 -- Two Russian bombers flew thousands of miles across Pacific Ocean waters to the vicinity of Guam, site of a major U.S. military base, where U.S. jets intercepted them, the Russian air force said Thursday. The flights renewed a type of military gamesmanship that has been largely dormant in the Pacific since the Cold War ended.
"It was always a tradition for our long-range aircraft to fly far over the ocean, where pilots met American airplanes and visually greeted them," Maj. Gen. Pavel Androsov told reporters Thursday. "On Wednesday, we renewed that tradition."
U.S. officials confirmed the bombers' flight but not an interception.
The maneuver was Moscow's latest display of a resurgent armed forces after years of decline in the 1990s. Restoring the luster of the military has been a key element of President Vladimir Putin's effort to renew Russian pride, which collapsed along with the Soviet Union.
An influx of oil money has allowed Russia to invest in new weaponry, expand its military presence in Europe and Asia, and conduct costly, elaborate exercises using aging elements of its arsenal. This week, Androsov said, the armed forces also carried out long-range flights over the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and launched eight cruise missiles.
Last week, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that the armed forces had received 36 new models of arms and equipment, while Russia's top navy commander called for a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.
Military analyst Alexander Golts said Russian military aircraft have flown training missions annually over the Atlantic since 1999 to simulate the launching of cruise missiles against the United States. "Since there's a lot of money, it seems they decided to try a flight to the Pacific reaches of the United States," Golts said in a telephone interview.
Interceptions of long-range bombers over international waters were a staple of Cold War tensions. The Soviet Union routinely sent Tu-95s, huge four-engine aircraft that entered service in the 1950s, far from its borders. NATO air forces sent fighters to fly alongside them; sometimes the crews playfully communicated across the few feet of air with hand signals and scrawled signs.
U.S. defense officials in Washington said Thursday that the Russian move in the Pacific was not seen as a provocation but that it did get attention. U.S. forces -- including 22,000 troops, 30 ships and 275 aircraft -- are working alongside Japanese forces in the waters near Guam this week as part of a massive war game dubbed Exercise Valiant Shield.
A U.S. Pacific Command spokesman in Hawaii said the bombers came within about 300 miles of the U.S. ships and within about 100 miles of U.S. aircraft. While U.S. officials were closely tracking the Russian planes, no visual contact was made and they ultimately withdrew.
"U.S. forces detected two Russian Tu-95 Bear aircraft midday on August 8 as they were flying south toward Guam," said Lt. Cmdr. Chito Peppler, a Pentagon spokesman. "U.S. forces were prepared to intercept the bombers, but they never came close enough to a U.S. Navy ship or to Guam to warrant an air-to-air intercept."
News of the flights came as Russia defended itself for a third day against allegations from Georgia that a Russian warplane fired a missile toward a Georgian radar site. By Georgia's account, the missile landed near a village but did not explode.
Georgian officials said they had radar records proving their version of events; the Russian air force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Igor Khvorov, dismissed the claims as "political fabrications."
Georgia called the missile incident evidence of Russian aggression toward other former Soviet republics. While denying that its warplanes fly over Georgia, Moscow has said it must take a more assertive military stance in the face of expansion by the NATO alliance and U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, which Russian military officials believe will be used to spy on Russian territory.
Last month, Russia suspended its participation in a key treaty limiting military deployments in Europe.
White reported from Washington.