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Last Updated: Friday, 17 August 2007, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Russian air patrols 'a show of might'
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Tu-95 Tupolev long-range bomber aircraft (file picture)
Russia is modernising with new avionics and improved weaponry
It was one of the great military shadow-plays of the Cold War era.

Nuclear-armed bombers based in Russia's Kola Peninsula regularly flew patrols that took them close to Nato airspace.

Nato jets would be scrambled to intercept. Often the opposing aircrews would wave at each other and the Soviet bombers would return home.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian military activities of this kind dwindled.

It was not just the bomber patrols. The Russian navy reined in its operations far from its home ports.

But now all this is changing. President Vladimir Putin's announcement of the resumption of bomber patrols seems to have been previewed by recent Russian air force activity.

Image-building

Last month, two Tupolev 95 aircraft - "Bears" according to their Nato code-name - strayed south from their routine patrol pattern off the Norwegian coast and headed towards Scotland.

Russian Tu-95 bomber (file picture)
The Tu-95 is an old Cold War stalwart
Two RAF Tornado fighters were sent up to meet them. This month, two similar Russian aircraft flew thousands of miles across the Pacific towards the major US military base of Guam where an air and naval exercise was under way.

The Russians have also been making noises about re-establishing a naval presence in the Mediterranean, probably utilising Syrian ports.

Russia and China have just held highly visible military exercises along with troops from four Central Asian states and President Putin has warned of Russia's need to modernise its nuclear arsenal in the face of the Bush administration's plans to deploy limited anti-missile defences.

So what is going on?

Well it is not quite a Cold War mark II. But it is part of a new, more muscular Russian foreign policy; a result of a growing perception in Moscow that Russia's interests have been ignored for too long.

Domestic political factors are at play too. It is all about image-building; something that must be set against the enigma of Vladimir Putin's political future once his presidential term expires.

International player

Russia's armed forces are also badly in need of modernisation. The aircraft involved in these long-range patrols, the ageing Tupolevs, date back to the 1950s.

Russian flag planted on floor of Arctic Ocean (Copyright AP/Association of Russian Polar Explorers)
Russia staked its claim to the Arctic by planting a flag on the seabed
As a key element of Russia's nuclear forces they are being modernised with new avionics and improved weaponry.

Russia's military is slowly recovering after more than a decade of neglect.

Nonetheless, Russia can project only a shadow of the Soviet Union's military might. That is one good reason why this is not a reprise of the Cold War.

And while money from oil and gas will help to pay for new equipment it looks as though Moscow's nuclear forces will continue to receive preferential treatment in terms of funding.

Above all else the resumption of long-range bomber patrols must be seen as largely diplomatic symbolism; part of a new Russian military strategy of heightened visibility.

You could add in Russia's recent planting of an underwater flag in the Arctic.

But it is not just show of course. Real issues are involved and the message is simple: Russia wants it to be known that it is back as a player on the international stage.

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