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Bomber patrols a risky Russian 'response' to US, NATO challenges

Russia has eyed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into eastern Europe warily for years and has more recently expressed furious opposition to US plans to set up missile defenses in two of Moscow's former Warsaw Pact allies not far from Russian borders.
by Staff Writers
Moscow (AFP) Aug 19, 2007
Russia's decision to resume Cold War-style strategic bomber patrols confirms it has revived the political will and economic means to challenge US global dominance and NATO expansion with more than just rhetoric, military analysts say.

But while the move, announced by President Vladimir Putin on Friday, will play well with domestic audiences and may also win the odd plaudit on the international stage, it is fraught with real security risks and ultimately subverts Russia's own long-term national interests, they say.

"The decision was taken many months ago and specially announced on that day and at that place," said Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected independent Russian military expert, referring to the site of joint Russian-Chinese military exercises where Putin chose to announce the renewed patrols.

"This of course is very dangerous. The planes will be flying carrying nuclear weapons and flying in positions from which they can strike the United States," he told AFP.

Putin did not explicitly state that the bombers would be armed with nuclear weapons, but experts said his deliberate syntax would be recognised by strategic policy planners as code signifying that this would be the case.

The announcement on resumption of bomber patrols was the latest in a string of steps taken in the wake of a key Putin speech in Munich last February that analysts agree are taking Russian strategic policy in a more aggressive but also more predictable direction.

These steps have included retreat from a landmark treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, high-profile intercontinental missile tests, threats to retarget European cities with nuclear missiles and floating the idea of a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

Experts however differ in evaluating the Kremlin's motives and soundness of judgment in efforts to strike a more assertive pose on the world stage, with some writing the latest development off as theatrical chest-beating and others seeing a direct and dangerous response to US moves.

"Russia could not fail to respond to the expansion of NATO military infrastructure in Europe," said Vladimir Yevseyev, senior researcher with the Center for International Security within the Russian Academy of Science.

"It was important to demonstrate again that Russian bombers can reach targets in the United States," he said in comments published Saturday on a Russian website, www.gazeta.ru.

Russia has eyed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into eastern Europe warily for years and has more recently expressed furious opposition to US plans to set up missile defenses in two of Moscow's former Warsaw Pact allies not far from Russian borders.

Some analysts said Russia's decision to resume strategic bomber patrols was formulated in direct response to the US missile defense project in particular and to US global domination in general.

While Yevseyev indicated there was military logic in the resumption of long-range strategic bomber patrols, other analysts said the Kremlin's latest move was more about image than actual power.

"I think it's a little early to provoke the US in the context of the strategic balance," said Alexander Pikayev, an independent military analyst.

"It looks nice from a propaganda point of view, but it would have been better to do it a few years later since the United States has vastly more resources than Russia does for responsive measures," he said.

Yevseyev said Russia's resumption of strategic bomber patrols would ratchet up tension between Moscow and Washington and was likely to undermine nuclear non-proliferation efforts worldwide.

He insisted however it was wrong to characterise the trend in US-Russian ties as a return to the Cold War, a view that seemed supported by official statements both in Russia and the United States, where officials downplayed concern over the move.

Yet despite apparent official efforts in Moscow and Washington to portray Russia's increasingly assertive posture as a rational and safe shift in policy direction, Felgenhauer said it was neither.

"The danger is not only that they will be flying with nuclear weapons, like they did during the Cold War, with NATO planes flying alongside and ready to shoot them down instantly," he said.

"The problem also is that the Russian planes are old. The crews -- both pilots and ground crews -- are not as well trained as in Soviet times. There is a higher possibility than before that there will be accidents."

Apart from being dangerous, the decision to resume the patrols was also close to meaningless as a practical matter, Felgenhauer said.

While Russia officially still has around 70 strategic bombers, only between 20 and 30 are flight-worthy, meaning the renewed strategic air patrols "will not seriously enhance Russia's nuclear potential," he said.

earlier related report
Official text of Putin bomber announcement
Herewith the official English-language translation of President Vladimir Putin's announcement Friday of Russia's decision to resume strategic bomber patrols after a 15-year hiatus:

"In 1992, the Russian Federation unilaterally stopped sending its strategic aviation on long-range patrols. Unfortunately, not everyone has followed our example and other countries' strategic aviation continues patrols to this day. This creates certain problems for the Russian Federation in ensuring its security.

"In response to this situation, I have decided that Russia's strategic aviation will resume patrols on a permanent basis.

"At midnight, today, August 17, 14 strategic missile-carriers, support and refuelling aircraft took off from seven air force bases in different parts of the Russian Federation and began a patrol involving a total of 20 aircraft. As from today, such patrols will be carried out on a regular basis. These patrols are strategic in nature. The aircraft involved in today's patrol will spend around 20 hours in the air, with refuelling, in coordination with the Navy.

"The patrols will take place above all in areas where Russian Federation shipping and economic activity is most active.

"We hope that our partners will show understanding towards the resumption of patrols by Russia's strategic aviation.

"Our pilots have spent too long on the ground. We have strategic aviation but it spends practically no time in the air. Flights took place now and again only during large-scale military exercises, and as you know, we have held very few such exercises over the last 15 years. As I said, our pilots have spent too long on the ground. I know that they are happy to now have this chance to begin a new life and we wish them luck."

Source: Agence France-Presse
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Russia revives Soviet-era strategic bomber patrols
Chebarkul, Russia (AFP) Aug 17, 2007
Russia is immediately to resume the Soviet-era practice of sending strategic bombers on long-range flights well beyond its borders, President Vladimir Putin announced here on Friday.







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