Russia will stage its largest air force war games since Soviet times next week in the latest stage of the Kremlin’s strategy to show off the country as a military superpower reborn.
Their progress watched closely by increasingly jittery western militaries, dozens of nuclear bombers will take part in the exercise. Tu-95 Bear bombers will fire cruise missiles at targets in sub-Arctic Russia for the first time since 1984.
While Russia insists that the war games are not meant as a gesture of aggression, the West is growing increasingly uneasy about the scale of the manoeuvres.
The aerial exercises, which will take place close to American airspace in Alaska, are part of a month-long war game known as Stability 2008 that Russia claims is the biggest for 20 years.
As the bombers take to the air next week, Russian ships will also be conducting exercises in the North Sea and the Baltic as well as in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A flotilla of war ships is also sailing to the Caribbean for joint exercises with Venezuela, Washington’s greatest foe in South America, which will come within a few hundred miles of the US coastline.
A Russian nuclear powered submarine has also just docked in the Kamchatka peninsula after completing a one-month voyage under the Arctic Ocean without resurfacing. The Kremlin has made territorial claims to a large portion of the Arctic, which holds vast energy supplies under its rapidly shrinking ice.
Not since the end of the Cold War has Russia demonstrated its global military reach in such a manner.
Over 60,000 troops and 1,500 tanks and armoured personnel carriers have taken part in the first fortnight of exercises. Land-based and submarine launched nuclear missiles have also been tested. Once the bombers have fired their cruise missiles next week, Russia will have carried out its first near-simultaneous test launches of all elements of its nuclear triad since the Cold War.
The has worried military observers critical of the Kremlin, who say the scope and character of the exercises does not gel with official explanations that they are designed to train the country’s armed forces in counter-terrorism and military defence.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected military analyst, says the geographical reach of the exercises suggests that they are intended to simulate a nuclear war with the United States.
“Russia is preparing for the eventuality of a nuclear war,” he said. “These are the most elaborate war games for 20 years and is clear evidence that we are returning to the Cold War.”
As relations with the West have deteriorated, Russia has shown that it is increasingly willing to flex its military might. Long-range nuclear bombers are again patrolling the skies near Western airspace. One squadron came within 90 seconds of Hull last month after apparently escaping the detection of British warning systems.
Russia, which has become more aggressive in forming friendships with countries opposed to the United States, has also begun an ambitious rearmament programme that will see defence spending double over the next five years. New battleships, air craft carries and nuclear submarines have been ordered.
Not everyone is convinced as the Kremlin appears to be that Russia will soon be as militarily competitive as it was in the Cold War. Despite some improvements, the armed forces – and especially the air force and navy – are still in woeful condition and would be incapable of challenging a medium-sized European country in a conventional war, analysts say.
The Kremlin has been frequently embarrassed by the regularity with which Russian war ships break down.
There was further embarrassment for the administration on Friday after photographs surfaced on the internet showing Anatoly Serdyukov, Russia’s portly defence minister, stuck in a submarine hatch last week.
Mr Serdyukov, whose ministry has run a campaign to urge senior officers to lose weight, was inspecting the Russian fleet during exercises in Kamchatka with Dmitry Medvedev, the president, when the incident happened.
Mr Medvedev, a man of slight build, slithered into the submarine with little difficulty. But when Mr Serdyukov followed him, his belly allegedly became wedged in the hatch and he struggled for several minutes before servicemen managed to pry him free.
The photographs, posted on a Russian web site, were swiftly removed.
By Adrian Blomfield in Moscow
Last Updated: 5:18PM BST 03 Oct 2008
Source: The Telegraph