By Anton Troianovski
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 18, 2007
MOSCOW, Aug. 17 -- In Russia's latest assertion of a broader global military presence, President Vladimir Putin announced Friday that the country had resumed the regular long-range air patrols that ended after the Soviet Union collapsed. The flights are necessary to protect Russia because "other states," an allusion to the United States and its allies, continue patrols of their own, he said.
Speaking after completion of the first Russian-Chinese joint military exercise held on Russian soil, Putin said the flights began at midnight Friday morning and involved 20 aircraft that would stay in the air for about 20 hours.
"Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly," Putin told reporters at a military range near Kazakhstan, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin. "We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding."
In making the announcement, Putin advanced a common Kremlin theme that Russia needs to assert its sovereignty in the face of what it calls potential threats from an expanded NATO alliance and plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
"In 1992, the Russian Federation unilaterally ended the flights of its strategic aviation in faraway areas patrolled by the military," Putin said. "Unfortunately, not everyone followed our example, and strategic aviation flights by other states continue. This causes certain problems for guaranteeing the safety of the Russian Federation."
Washington officials reacted coolly to the news. "We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union. It's a different era," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "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."
Norway reported that its air force intercepted a number of Russian aircraft over international waters Friday. Norwegian crew members photographed a Tu-22M bomber, a Tu-95 bomber and an A-50 radar plane. They also observed two Russian fighter jets refueling from a tanker.
During the military exercise, Putin sat next to Chinese President Hu Jintao; both men watched through binoculars as military units went through their paces.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the exercise, dubbed Peaceful Mission 2007, involved 6,000 service personnel from Russia, China and four former Soviet Central Asian countries that are part of the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). One thousand pieces of military equipment were in use.
Putin denied Friday that the organization was meant as a counterbalance to NATO, saying that economic progress was its prime mission and adding that the military aspect of the grouping was mainly devoted to fighting terrorism. The joint exercise was described as a simulated battle against a large-scale terrorist group.
An SCO summit this week concluded with a statement suggesting that outside powers had little legitimate security role in the oil- and gas-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."
The Russian military -- benefiting from an influx of oil income in the country -- has grown increasingly assertive this summer. Russian strategic bombers flying close to Scotland forced Britain's Royal Air Force to scramble jet fighters in an incident in July. Last week, a pair of Tu-95 bombers came close to the U.S. military base on the Pacific Ocean island of Guam for the first time in more than a decade.
The episodes recalled Cold War-era exercises in which Russian pilots trained by flying to points around the globe from which they would simulate firing nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States.
Putin portrayed the resumption of patrols as part of his effort to revive a once-proud military that had rusted away during the 1990s.
"Our pilots have been grounded for too long," he said. "From what I know, they are happy to be starting a new life."