February 1, 2008 / 2:41 PM / 10 years ago

Russia sends bombers, fighters to Atlantic, Arctic

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia sent fighters and long-range bombers to the Arctic and North Atlantic on Friday to take part in manoeuvres demonstrating revival of some of the military power and reach it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin, set to hand the presidency to a chosen successor after an election that will gauge his own popularity, tapped feelings of national humiliation in rebuilding forces left to decay in the 1990s. The navy had lost the global role it had grown to in the 1970s, aircraft and ships lacked fuel.

The air force said more than 40 aircraft would take part in the manoeuvres, which follow similar exercises by warships and bombers last month off the Atlantic coast of France and Spain.

"Air force pilots will carry out practice in the areas involving reconnaissance, missile-bombing attacks on a navy attack force of a hypothetical enemy, air-to-air combat and refuelling and patrolling," an air force spokesman said.

The bomber group included two Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers, codenamed "Blackjack" by NATO, two turbo-prop Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bombers, and eight Tu-22 "Blinder" bombers. MiG-31 and Su-27 fighters were also sent to the region.

Putin, who plans to draw on his popularity and retain influence after the election, has renewed long-range bomber missions and approved an upgrade of nuclear forces he said was needed after NATO built up forces close to Russia's borders.

SPECULATION

But some key economic leaders, including Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, have questioned Russia's assertive foreign policy.

That has sparked speculation that there is a dispute at the top levels of the Kremlin about Russia's sabre rattling as Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, moves towards almost certain electoral victory.

Medvedev, a 42-year-old former lawyer who is board chairman at gas giant Gazprom, has made few references to foreign policy and seems more confident dealing with economics and trade.

Analysts say Medvedev faces a tough challenge to find compromise with hardliners inside the Kremlin who wanted Putin to back a different candidate for the presidency.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister, last month called for a revival of the navy to boost international respect for Russia, but he complained that reform of the navy had taken longer than envisaged.

Russian military spending in absolute terms is substantially lower than that of China, Britain or France and less than a tenth of the United States.

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