CHEBARKUL TESTING RANGE, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin placed strategic bombers back on long-range patrol for the first time since the Soviet breakup, sending a tough message to the United States yesterday hours after a major Russian military exercise with China.
Putin reviewed the first Russian-Chinese joint exercise on Russian soil before announcing that 20 strategic bombers had been sent far over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans -- showing off Moscow's muscular new posture and its growing military ties with Beijing.
"Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on the strategic scale," Putin said. "Our pilots have been grounded for too long. They are happy to start a new life."
Putin said halting long-range bombers after the Soviet collapse had hurt Russia's security because other nations -- an oblique reference to the United States -- had continued such missions.
"I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation," Putin said in nationally televised remarks. "We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding."
US-Russian relations have been strained over Washington's criticism of Russia's democracy record, Moscow's objections to US missile defense plans, and differences over crises such as the Iraq war. But the Bush administration downplayed the significance of the renewed patrols.
"We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union. It's a different era," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "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."
Soviet bombers routinely flew missions to areas where nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could be launched at the United States. They stopped in the post-Soviet economic meltdown. Booming oil prices have allowed Russia to sharply increase its military spending.
Russian Air Force spokesman Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky said that yesterday's exercise involved Tu-160, Tu-95, and Tu-22M bombers, tanker aircraft, and air radars. NATO jets were scrambled to escort the Russian aircraft over the oceans, he said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Eleven Russian military planes -- including strategic bombers and fighter jets -- carried out maneuvers west of NATO member Norway yesterday, a military official said.
Norway sent F-16 fighter jets to observe and photograph the Russian planes, which rounded the northern tip of Norway and flew south over the Norwegian Sea toward the Faeroe Islands before turning back, said Brigadier General Ole Asak, chief of the Norwegian Joint Air Operations Center.
A pair of Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers approached the Pacific Island of Guam -- home to a major US military base -- this month for the first time since the Cold War.
Last month, two similar bombers briefly entered British air space but turned back after British fighter jets intercepted them.
"This is a significant change of posture of Russian strategic forces," Alexander Pikayev, a senior military analyst with the Moscow-based Institute for World Economy and International Relations, told the Associated Press.