Pilots resuming foreign missions in a show of might
ENGELS AIR BASE, Russia - The Russian long-range bombers that have resumed missions into the Western Hemisphere nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War are delivering a clear message: Russia wants to be seen as a global superpower once again.
At the base from which the missions have been taking off during the past year, the pilots were delighted, feeling they are back in action after a long layoff.
Foreign reporters were afforded a rare look at the Engels base on the windswept shores of the Volga River in early August. They were able to speak to the pilots, who described a friendly rapport with the NATO aircraft that are scrambled to escort them when they skirt foreign shores.
The day after the visit, conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia, a US ally. There's no telling whether the rapport has changed, but the pilots have ridden out many storms in US-Russia relations since the flights resumed.
The renewal of the long-range bomber flights in August 2007 has escalated tensions between the West and a Russia eager to reassert itself globally. This was highlighted by the arrival of two of Russia's top-of-the-line bombers in Venezuela on Wednesday, the first flights to come so close to American shores.
They landed there ahead of joint war games scheduled for November. Russia has said it will send a naval squadron and long-range patrol planes for the exercises, which appear to be a response to the relaunch of the US Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet had been dissolved after World War II.
The Venezuela landing was the first in the Western Hemisphere by Russian military aircraft since the Cold War ended, and gave the West a close-up look at the world's largest supersonic bomber, known here as the White Swan.
When the reporters visited Engels, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Khaberov had just landed his White Swan after a 12-hour sortie over the North Atlantic, and was exhilarated to be back on patrol.
"The feeling when the order came in was unbelievable," he said, shouting over the plane's engine noise. "This place has more energy now. Before, there was a stagnation about the base."
Fresh-faced, immaculately uniformed with not a blond hair out of place, Khaberov looked the model pilot, showing no sign of fatigue after his long flight.
Lieutenant Colonel Gennady Stekachyov was similarly energized. "Pilots are made to fly. When someone needs you, it elevates you. People are configured that way. When no one needs you, all you want to do is sleep," said Stekachyov, who flies an older bomber known as the Bear.
The base is home to both of Russia's strategic bombers: the Tu-95, the Soviet answer to the American B-52 and known universally as the Bear; and the modern Tu-160, the White Swan, with its Concorde-style pointed nose, called the Blackjack in the West. Both bombers have conducted patrols over the Atlantic and Arctic.
Around the runway, six Tu-160s and eight Tu-95s were in view. A low-level camouflaged radar was rotating near by. The base, dormant for so many years, was now a hive of activity. But despite record defense spending in recent years, none of the buildings open to reporters looked new or refurbished. Flight crews chowed down on a Soviet-era diet of canned beef with powder-based mashed potatoes.
"Of course, everyone was happy when the missions restarted. But the only real changes around here are that a few more flights are now planned," said Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Dyagov, a military spokesman.