(SKY NEWS) - The Russian military has told Sky News it will increase the number of flights by its strategic nuclear bombers along the edge of Nato airspace. A Tu-160 over Engels airbaseIt comes at a time when the relationship between the Kremlin and the West is at its lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia's Ministry of Defence says the flights are simply training missions. A large number of them take off from one of the country's largest airbases - Engels near the Southern city of Saratov. Sky News was given rare access to the base where Tu-95s and Tu-160s are stationed. They are in many ways Soviet relics but each one is nuclear capable. The Tu-95 was designed in the years after the Second World War as the Cold War forged the globe into two distinct political blocs. The Tu-160 is newer but hardly modern. It made its maiden flight in 1981. This has not stopped President Vladimir Putin from pressing both of them back into service. He ordered the resumption of the strategic flights in August; although there is evidence they started months before.
Mr Putin has been keen to portray himself as a muscular commander-in-chief. With massive revenues from oil and gas the country is slowly re-militarising and its defence budget has quadrupled since he took office in 2001. For the pilots at the base it means they can get back to a job they have struggled to do properly for more than a decade.
In the 1990s most of the planes were mothballed - grounded because there was not enough money for fuel. Tu-95s were grounded in the 1990sThe commander of the Engels base, Alexander Blazhenko, says he is surprised by the international concern and has accused the West of hypocrisy. "We are now only nearing the number of hours a British pilot spends in the air but that's already causing alarm," he said. "It's not fair - the RAF should be pleased they have more to do now."
The flights have tested the response of the Royal Air Force in a way that has not been seen since the end of the Cold War. Over the past few months the RAF has had to scramble fighter jets as Russian bombers approached British airspace. Russian pilot, Gennady Stekachev, flew one of those missions. ' Mission control' at the Engels airbase"The RAF planes came up pretty close to us," he said. "We waved hands, greeting each other and there was no animosity on either side." No hostility perhaps but the resumption of the flights is making Western governments uneasy. They question why the Kremlin needs to project itself in a way that has not been seen since the Cold War. From a Russian perspective the answer is this: The end of the Soviet Union saw the end of empire and prestige.
Russia's elites feel they were humiliated and the West took advantage in the dark days after the collapse of the USSR. Sky's Alex RossiWith huge amounts of money coming into the country as a result of the energy windfall, the rebuilding of the military is part of a wider process started by Putin - the restoration of pride and the rebuilding of a national identity.
This can be coupled with a more practical explanation as well: Russia needs to diversify. Its military industrial complex was massive during the Soviet Union. By reviving parts of it and by rehabilitating its arms-building expertise, Mr Putin can also help expand the economy's breadth. At present it is dangerously unbalanced and dependent on commodities like oil, gas and metals. All of this means the West will have to get used to a resurgent and assertive new Russia. The Kremlin wants to take its place again at the top table of the world order. There are certainly plenty of politicians here who believe a strong Russia is necessary as a counterweight to American power.
Ask them why and they point to Iraq as an example of the dangers of a unipolar world.