CHEBARKUL (Urals), August 17 (RIA Novosti) - President Vladimir Putin said Russia permanently resumed Friday long-distance patrol flights of strategic bombers, which were suspended in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"I made a decision to restore flights of Russian strategic bombers on a permanent basis, and at 00:00 today, August 17, 14 strategic bombers, support aircraft and aerial tankers were deployed. Combat duty has begun, involving 20 aircraft."
The president, speaking on the final day of large-scale military exercises involving Russia, China, and four Central Asian countries in the south Urals, said that on the first day of patrol flights, bomber planes would spend about 20 hours in the air, with midair refueling, and would interact with naval forces.
"Air patrol areas will include zones of commercial shipping and economic activity. As of today, combat patrolling will be on a permanent basis. It has a strategic character," Putin said.
The president said that although the country stopped strategic flights to remote regions in 1992, "Unfortunately, not everyone followed our example." Other states' long-distance strategic patrol flights have created certain problems for national security, he said.
"We act on the assumption that our partners will treat with understanding the resumption of strategic air flights. Our pilots have been grounded for too long. There is strategic aviation, but there are no flights," Putin said.
Leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) were in Russia's Chelyabinsk Region for the final day of Peace Mission 2007 counter-terrorism exercises, which began August 9. The drills involved about 6,000 servicemen from Russia and China, along with around 1,500 from the other four member states, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
A former Russian Air Force chief said the resumption of patrols would strengthen Russia's defense capability. "It's a good thing that the old geopolitical setup has been revised. It used to be based on the principle, 'No one is going to attack us.' Practice testifies to the contrary," Army Gen. Pyotr Deinekin said.
He highlighted the new potential security threats Russia faces, saying NATO fighters were based in the Baltic States - formerly part of the Soviet Union and now EU members - while radar stations are being built around Russia's borders.
The general said that the early 1980s, in response to the U.S.'s deployment of cruise missiles in Europe, Soviet strategic aviation started patrolling areas as far afield as the U.S. coast. Patrols were discontinued following the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, and due to severe economic difficulties, including an acute fuel shortage.
"Flights will be conducted on the same basis as they were in the past," Deinekin said.
Following Putin's announcement at Peace Mission 2007, exercises that were viewed by Western media as a display of Beijing and Moscow's renewed military might, Washington played down the significance of Russian strategic bomber flights.
"That's a decision for them to take," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "It's interesting. We certainly are not in the kind of posture we were with what used to be the Soviet Union. It's a different era. If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision."