Russian "swans" spread wings to project Kremlin power

Wed Sep 24, 2008 8:51pm EDT
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By Dmitry Solovyov

ENGELS, Russia (Reuters) - Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Khabarov looks tired but surprisingly chipper for a man who has just piloted a nuclear-capable bomber jet on a 12-hour flight "somewhere over the Atlantic."

He makes a post-flight inspection of his Tu-160 bomber and then reflects on the deadly payload he may one day be ordered to launch. "Pilots have a toast: 'May our efficiency, knowledge, skills and performance capabilities never be used'," he said.

Khabarov and his bomber squadron are the frontline troops in a campaign the Kremlin has been waging to project its newfound confidence into parts of the world where, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has had unrivalled military dominance.

Two Tu-160 jets, known to Russian pilots as "White Swans" flew this month from this base on the Volga river to Venezuela, a mission calculated to show Russia was not afraid to flex its military muscles right under the nose of the United States.

That mission capped a 12-month period when Russian bombers resumed the Soviet-era practice of flying long-range patrols over the Atlantic, the North Pole and even Alaska -- often shadowed by NATO fighter jets wary of the visitors' intentions.

Military analysts disagree about what Russia is trying to achieve with the flights.

Some argue they are a threat to the security of Western states, others that they are just chest-thumping by a Kremlin anxious to please voters at home. Russian pilots, with tongues in cheek, call them friendship missions.

But what is clear is that the flights demonstrate the Russian bomber fleet -- for many years a laughing stock which grounded its pilots for weeks at a time because there was no money for fuel -- is once again a force to be reckoned with.   Continued...

<p>A Russian officer stands in front of a TU-160 bomber, or Blackjack, at a military airbase in Engels, some 559 miles south of Moscow, August 7, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin</p>