MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said yesterday that he has ordered the resumption of long-range strategic bomber flights, a return to a Cold War-era practice and another sign that the Kremlin is flexing its military might amid a deepening chill in relations with the U.S.
Putin's decision comes a week after Russian fighter jets flew within a few hundred miles of a U.S. military base in Guam. Yesterday, several pairs of Russian Tu-160 and Tu-95MC bombers were flying over Atlantic and Pacific waters, Russian Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
"We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding," Putin said while attending war games being held by Russian and Chinese armed forces.
"Starting today, such tours of duty will be regular," Putin continued. "Our pilots have been grounded for too long, and they are happy to start a new life."
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said the U.S. did not perceive Moscow's decision as a security threat.
"We have very good working relations with the Russians," Johndroe said. "This is not entirely surprising that the Russian military might engage in this kind of activity."
During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union regularly kept in the air strategic bombers designed to deliver nuclear weapons. With the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 and the economic troubles that followed, the Kremlin suspended regular flights of its long-range bombers and drastically cut back military spending.
Now, with Russia awash in cash generated by consistently high oil prices, Moscow has ratcheted up defense spending and sought to reassert its military prowess.
In explaining his decision, Putin said that while Moscow stopped the practice of regular bomber flights after the Soviet collapse, other nations continued such missions - an apparent reference to the U.S.
"Unfortunately, not everyone followed suit, and strategic bomber flights by other states continue," Putin said.
Putin said about 20 bombers will be used to protect Russia's shipping lanes and territory within its economic zone.
Alexander Pikayev, a military affairs analyst with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, said Putin's actions might stem from the Kremlin's frustration with the Bush administration's plans for a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.