Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Orders Resumption of Bomber Patrols

APAn Il-76 tanker refueling MiG-31 jets Friday in operations Norwegian officials called the biggest since the 1990s.
CHEBARKUL TESTING RANGE, Chelyabinsk Region -- President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered strategic bombers to resume regular long-range patrols Friday as the Air Force carried out maneuvers involving 20 strategic bombers over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

One of those drills, involving 11 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 Brigadier General Ole Asak, chief of the Norwegian Joint Air Operations Center.

"We haven't seen that kind of activity in a very long time," Asak said. "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 a 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 the country to increase its military spending sharply.

"This is a significant change of posture of Russian strategic forces," said Alexander Pikayev, a senior military analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations. "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.

The resumption of bombing patrols comes amid a growing chill in U.S.-Russian relations, strained over Washington's criticism of Moscow's democracy record, the Kremlin's objections to U.S. missile defense plans and differences over global crises.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sounded neutral about the patrols.

Norwegian Air Force / AP
A Tu-95 bomber flying off the coast of Norway as part of Friday's maneuvers.
"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."

Putin spoke as Russian and Chinese forces held their first joint military exercise on Russian soil -- a show of armed muscle that analysts said aimed to send a pointed message to the United States.

Friday's Russian-Chinese war games, which took place near the Urals Mountain city of Chelyabinsk, involved some 6,000 troops from Russia and China along with soldiers from four 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 a summit 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 "as another step to strengthen relations between our countries." Hu said the maneuvers "underlined the SCO's readiness to confront terror."