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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Rattles Nuclear Sword

Russian defense officials Friday dramatically raised the stakes in already tense relations between Moscow and Washington, threatening to fly nuclear-capable bombers to Cuba and Vietnam and slamming the U.S. for wanting to control the North Caucasus.

The latest edition of the weekly military Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Oboz-reniye newspaper quoted the head of long-range aviation forces, Mikhail Oparin, as saying that strategic bomber missions to Cuba and Vietnam were planned and would greatly surprise NATO.

Both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his defense minister launched Cold War-style attacks on Washington, saying the U.S. aimed to weaken Russia and control the energy-rich Caspian Sea basin.

In a speech at a major military meeting to review 1999 and look ahead to 2000, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said the United States and NATO were the main culprits in making this year "extremely unstable" because of the Western alliance's new post-Cold War strategic concept and its campaign against Yugoslavia.

"The West's policy is a challenge to Russia with the aim of weakening its international position and ousting it from strategically important regions of the world, above all the Caspian region, the Transcaucasus and Central Asia," he said in televised remarks.

Chechnya lies in Russia's mountainous North Caucasus region, bordering Georgia and close to the Caspian Sea's oil and gas riches. A vital oil pipeline crosses Chechnya from the Caspian to the Black Sea, but it is no longer under Russian control.

Speaking after Sergeyev, Putin vowed to boost defense spending and told military commanders the United States was bent on weakening Russia.

"I very much hope ... concrete decisions - we already have the drafts for these decisions - will allow us to mobilize all available resources to make our armed forces more powerful and effective so they can meet tasks set by the state," Putin said.

The newspaper Sevodnya said Friday next year's defense budget would be unprecedented in size but did not elaborate.

Russia, humiliated by its reduced circumstances despite still having nuclear arms, has often complained that the United States wants to exploit its position as the only superpower.

While analysts warned that the rhetoric coming out of Moscow could lead to a renewed period of East-West confrontation, a U.S. presidential hopeful called for Washington to cut its international funding to Russia unless it calls a halt to fighting in Chechnya.

"I think this can easily be the beginning of a new 'Cold Peace' if not Cold War, a period of Russia's isolated development when the West will be considered the enemy," said Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment think tank in Moscow.

Russia's new draft military doctrine, expected to be approved by next month, reflects this assessment, painting what NATO Secretary General George Robertson has called a "darker, more confrontational picture of international relations."

U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Russia should lose international funds if the war in Chechnya doesn't stop soon, the Associated Press reported.

Campaigning for the Republican nomination in the state of New Hampshire - site of the first presidential primary - the Arizona senator and Vietnam veteran said that if he were president he would give Russia one week to settle the dispute. The region will be destabilized if the conflict isn't resolved, he said.

"I would threaten to cut off [International Monetary Fund] funding if there is not a peaceful settlement," McCain said.

The United States holds great sway over International Monetary Fund decisions.

Friday's threat to send bombers to Cuba comes in the wake of Cold War-style maneuverings earlier this year when Russia sent strategic bombers on long-range exercises right up to Alaska and Norway for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye said those flights had made a big impression on NATO.

"It looks like the 37th Air Division will surprise the alliance's strategists even more next year," the newspaper said, referring to the unit which operates Tu-160 swing-wing supersonic bombers that can carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

"According to the chief of long-range aviation, in 2000 it is planned to carry out a flight to the air base at Cam Ranh in Vietnam and also to fly to Cuba," it said.

There was no suggestion that the planes would be based in Cuba or Vietnam, two communist countries where Russia still has signals, intelligence bases and military personnel.

But even bomber flights to and from those countries could evoke memories of the Cuban missile crisis, which ended in October 1962 when Moscow recalled Soviet missiles from the Caribbean island after a tense stand off with the United States.

The Soviet Union made its military might a priority and geared its economy to that end. Since Soviet rule collapsed in 1991, the armed forces have been cut in size.

But Russia's military campaign in Chechnya and NATO's Yugoslavia operation have prompted the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, to back proposals for an increase in defense spending despite a dire economic crisis.