Russia resumes Cold War bomber flights

By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Last Updated: 1:26am BST 16/08/2007

Russian bombers have resumed the Cold War practice of flying close to North American airspace, providing the latest manifestation of the Kremlin’s determination to project Moscow’s growing military might.

An American general said that US fighter jets have had to scramble to intercept Russian bombers on an increasingly regular basis.

“Over the last few months the Russian air force has been flying a little bit more than we’ve seen in the past,” said Gen Gene Renuart, commander of Norad, the joint US-Canadian agency in charge of defending North American airspace.

“Certainly they are ranging farther than they have in the more recent past.”

The development is the latest in a series of indications that Russia’s armed forces have recovered some of the swagger that they lost in the long and humiliating decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the latest display of military might, aircraft from Russia’s strategic nuclear bomber command flew sorties over the North Pole yesterday, giving the world a timely reminder of Moscow’s claims to the Arctic.

While the sorties were passed off as exercises, few doubt that the Russian air force’s growing presence in the skies has a political dimension.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has made rapid rearmament and military modernisation a top priority amid a row with Washington over US plans to station a missile defence shield in central Europe.

Since he threatened to aim nuclear weapons at Europe at the end of May, Russia’s navy has declared its ambitions to reopen a base in the Mediterranean for the first time since the Cold War. Air force bombers have also flown close to both British airspace and a US base on the Pacific island of Guam.

During the Cold War Russian bombers regularly flew the length of the North American coastline, closely tagged by Nato jets.

The resumption of that practice in recent months is being taken as a sign that Russia is once more adopting a confrontational stance.

“They didn’t do it to practice alone,” said Colonel Andre Dupuis, a Canadian officer at Norad. “They’re making a point, doing it outside their normal training cycle.”

Military analysts in Russia suggested that the primary motivation for resuming flights close to North America was rather more prosaic: Russia’s air force can once again afford to pay its fuel bills.

But they also suggested that other developments, including a sharp rise in anti-US rhetoric, showed that Mr Putin was determined to return east-west relations to the time of the early 1980s, when Washington and Moscow spoke of détente but practiced confrontation.

“In the 1990s, it was suggested that we move from mutual containment to co-operation, but neither side supported it,” said Alexander Goltz, a leading Russian military commentator.

“While relations were good, it didn’t seem to matter as we no longer saw each other as enemies. But now they have deteriorated, the problem has resurfaced.”

While alarm is spreading over Moscow’s intentions, it is generally accepted that Russia’s military, though improving, does not pose nearly the threat of its Soviet predecessor.

Nor, indeed, is the Kremlin bent on a course of true enmity with the United States. Instead, commentators argue, Mr Putin is hoping that his bellicose rhetoric will persuade the West to trade an improvement in relations in exchange for reduced scrutiny of his questionable democratic record.