Two Russian strategic bombers flew within striking distance of the United States last week as part of Moscow's largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War, astounding U.S. officials and underlining recent Western concerns about the military leadership in Moscow.
The TU-95 Bear bombers were intercepted by four U.S. F-15 fighters and a P-3 patrol plane near Iceland early Friday morning and escorted in a clockwise flight around the island, U.S. officials said.
Norway, which like Iceland is a NATO member, also scrambled jets to meet two other TU-140 Blackjack bombers that flew down the Norwegian coastline, but Russian reports said the interceptors failed to reach the bombers before they turned back.
U.S. officials said the flights formed part of extensive exercises by the Russian armed forces last week. Though Russian bombers often probed Western defenses during the Cold War, officials said no such activity had been recorded in a decade and the appearance of the Russian long-range bombers over Iceland and Norway surprised NATO.
The move was the latest in a pattern of perplexing Russian military actions in recent weeks that have prompted concern in Washington and elsewhere about President Boris Yeltsin's control over his government and armed forces. Two weeks ago, 200 Russian troops suddenly occupied the Pristina airport in Kosovo as part of a larger scheme to insert 1,000 troops into the province without the prior consent of NATO's leadership. The ensuing standoff was resolved only after days of tortuous negotiations over a role for the Russian troops in the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
White House officials said last night that the United States considers the Iceland incident a military matter and has not formally raised it with Russian officials. "We are aware of the incident, we are looking into it," said a National Security Council spokesman who asked not to be named. "We have not raised the issue with the Russians."
Other officials and outside experts said the incidents could reflect fears within the Russian military leadership about NATO's larger intentions in the wake of its victory over Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, in the recent 78-day conflict in Kosovo. They could also be a way for Moscow's poorly funded military to raise popular support and increase its budget, officials said.
"They want to show us they aren't afraid, that they too have missiles and that they consider" NATO's out-of-theater actions "their main military threat," said Stephen J. Blank, a Russian expert at the U.S. Army War College who returned from a trip to Moscow 10 days ago.
The bomber flights occurred five days into what Russia said was a previously scheduled exercise, West '99, that involved up to 50,000 troops from five military districts and three naval fleets. The exercise involved more than 30 ships, four submarines -- including the nuclear-powered Kirov -- as well as Russian air force and navy aircraft capable of launching air-to-air and air-to-ground cruise missiles.
U.S. defense officials noted that it was the largest Russian military exercise since Russia restructured its forces at the end of the Cold War. It was also the first since then to include what one intelligence report called "Soviet-style war-fighting doctrine."
Until the wee hours of Friday morning, it had been 11 years since any U.S. pilot had eyeballed a Bear or a Blackjack in friendly airspace.
But just after midnight, two Bears and two Blackjacks from the Donbass Red Banner 22nd heavy bomber division took off from Engels Air Base east of Moscow and headed across the central Norwegian Sea. When they got about halfway across, the Blackjacks, long-range naval strike aircraft, split off from the Bears and flew along the Norwegian coastline.
The Bears, which are turboprop bombers, flew to within 60 miles of the Icelandic coastline and were within striking distance of the United States because they are equipped with long-range missiles, defense officials said. At that point, the Bears were joined by two F-15s from the 85th Operations Squadron, flown by the Louisiana Air National Guard and part of NATO's Keflavik-based Iceland Defense Force. Halfway around a circuit of Iceland, the pair of F-15s broke off and were replaced by a fresh pair from the same unit, defense officials said.
Russian news agencies reported that the planes were on a 15-hour flight that took them across the North Pole. Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying the planes fired cruise missiles and hit targets in southern Russia. U.S. defense officials said the planes were not armed with active missiles.
Russian officials said the exercise was not a reaction to NATO's activities in Kosovo, which Russia opposed. In a published interview on Saturday, Col. Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, commander of the Russian air force, said the exercises were planned beforehand: "nothing more, nothing less."
"It is time we gauged the real state of affairs in the army and navy and their combat and mobilization capacities," he said.
The exercise, according to Russian news agency reports, drew NATO aircraft and ships into the region. A Norwegian reconnaissance ship, the Marjata, "turned up so close to Russian fighting ships taking part in the exercise that it had to be driven out of the dangerous area," a Russian newspaper reported on Friday.
An "Orion-class aircraft flew almost directly above the masts of the nuclear heavy missile cruiser Petr Velikiy and other combat ships of the Northern Fleet, while an American nuclear submarine took a position in the immediate vicinity of a target practice range," the paper reported.
Neither U.S. defense nor administration officials could comment on the accuracy of those reports last night.
Correspondent David Hoffman in Moscow contributed to this report.
CAPTION: On June 25 near Iceland, a Russian TU-95 Bear strategic bomber taking part in military exercises was shadowed by a U.S. F-15 fighter.