The move to put nuclear bombs aloft again, a la the Cold War, is a disturbing signal from Russia that it is willing to at least hint, for the first time in more than a decade, that it is willing to use the weapon of last resort to deter the erosion of its national prestige. It is also a sign of the times ushered in by the White House of George Bush, which is un-shy about openly discussing nuclear conflict as a viable tool of foreign policy.
Putin’s decision comes a week after Russian fighter jets flew within a few hundred miles of Guam, home of the largest US military base in the Pacific Ocean. The fly-by – the first of its kind since 1992 – was announced Friday during war games in the Ural Mountains involving some 6,000 Russian and Chinese troops.
The move confirms Russia 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 will play well with domestic audiences, it is fraught with very real security risks and opportunities for serious accidents that go beyond its symbolic intention, the analysts 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. Russian daily Kommersant, citing Major General Pavel Androsov, the Russian Airforce’s commander of long-range (strategic) aviation, also reported the bomber sorties had been a long time in the coming.
"This of course is very dangerous,” said Felgenhauer. “The planes will be flying carrying nuclear weapons and flying in positions from which they can strike the United States."
On Friday, several pairs of Russian Tu-160 and Tu-95MC bombers were patrolling over Atlantic and Pacific waters, Russian Air Force spokesman Alexander Drobyshevsky told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.
Norway tracks the bombers
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, European media reported.
Two Russian bombers briefly entered British airspace last month but turned back after British fighter jets intercepted them.
"Starting today, such tours of duty will be regular," Putin told reporters Friday.
"Our pilots have been grounded for too long, and they are happy to start a new life."
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 direction.
These steps have included threats to retarget European cities with nuclear missiles.
A chill from Cold War history made possible by oil
During the Cold War, the United States and 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, it suspended regular flights and drastically cut back military spending.
Now, awash in cash generated by high oil prices, Russia has ratcheted up defense spending and sought to reassert its military prowess. In June, Russia tested a new cruise-missile system and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of penetrating American defenses.
"(The new bomber patrols) would be a laughable farce but for one serious thing: It is a very dangerous farce," wrote Alexander Golts, a military analyst with the Russian-language news website Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
"The strategic planes are up in the air. They may be carrying nuclear missiles or may not, which we will never know for sure, but this risk strongly exists (…) These planes will have to be watched at all times now by our Western colleagues."
As of the beginning of the year, Russia had 79 strategic bombers, according to data exchanged with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) agreement. At the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet long-range bomber fleet numbered several hundred.
Yet of these 79 bombers currently in service, only 20 to 30 are flight-worthy, said Felgenhauer, meaning the renewed strategic air patrols "will not seriously enhance Russia’s nuclear potential," he said.
Move described as tit-for-tat for US nuclear fly-bys
Putin said that, while Russia stopped the practice of regular bomber flights after the Soviet collapse, "other nations" continued such missions — an apparent reference to the United States.
Alexander Pikayev, a military-affairs analyst with the Institute for World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, called Putin’s move a "quite significant change in posture for Russian strategic forces."
But he warned that Russia might be rattling rusty sabers.
"I think it’s a little early to provoke the US in the context of the strategic balance," said Pikayev.
"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.
Conditions ripe for accidents
Felgenhauer expanded on this, saying Russian flight crews and dilapidated bombers are far from ready to resume anything like the demanding Cold War patrol schedule.
"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," he said.
Washington unfazed by fly-bys
The Bush administration downplayed the significance of the renewed patrols.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Russia’s decision was not perceived as a security threat.
"We have very good working relations with the Russians," Johndroe told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is vacationing.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called Putin’s decision "interesting," adding, "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."
Washington’s rhetoric has, over eight years of unmitigated conflict in the Middle East brought by President George Bush, grown increasingly strident regarding the use of nuclear weapons. The willingness to use the nuclear option – unthinkable as recently as eight years ago – has even become a test question put to US presidential candidates, and is spun by pundits to judge the toughness of pretenders to the US presidency.
US-Russian tensions over planned missile shield
Pikayev said the Russian leader’s actions might stem from frustration with the Bush administration’s plans for a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The United States has tried to reassure Russia that the system is meant to defend against the potential for Iran to develop long-range ballistic-missile capability, but Russia says it suspects the proposed missile shield is aimed at Russia.
"This might be a Russian military response to the military actions of the U.S. and NATO with respect to establishing military infrastructure in former Warsaw Pact countries," Pikayev said, referring to the Cold War Soviet-bloc alliance of Eastern European countries. NATO has expanded in recent years to include the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.