Russia's long-range bombers will conduct regular patrol missions from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, the military said Wednesday, a show of muscle reflecting tensions with the West over Ukraine.
A statement from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu came as NATO's chief commander accused Moscow of sending new troops and tanks into Ukraine — a claim quickly rejected by Russia.
Shoigu said the tensions with the West over Ukraine would require Russia to also beef up its forces in the Crimea, the Black Sea Peninsula that Russia annexed in March.
He said Russian long-range bombers will conduct flights along Russian borders and over the Arctic Ocean. He added that "in the current situation we have to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific, as well as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico."
He said that the increasing pace and duration of flights would require stronger maintenance efforts and relevant directives have been issued to industries.
Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers were making regular patrols across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans during Cold War times, but the post-Soviet money crunch forced the military to cut back. The bomber patrol flights have resumed under President Vladimir Putin's tenure.
The patrols have become even more frequent in recent weeks with NATO reporting a spike in Russian military flights over the Black, Baltic and North seas as well as the Atlantic Ocean.
Earlier this year, Shoigu said that Russia plans to expand its worldwide military presence by seeking permission for navy ships to use ports in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for replenishing supplies and doing maintenance. He said the military was conducting talks with Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Seychelles, Vietnam and Singapore.
Shoigu said Russia was also talking to some of those countries about allowing long-range bombers to use their air bases for refueling.
A senior U.S. military official said that Russia has not previously flown actual bomber patrols over the Gulf of Mexico, including during the Cold War.
Long-range bombers have been in the area before, but only to participate in various visits to the region when the aircraft stopped over night at locations in South or Central America. During the Cold War, other types of Russian aircraft flew patrols there, including surveillance flights and anti-submarine aircraft.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the flights publicly, also said that the pace of Russian flights around North America, including the Arctic, have largely remained steady, with about five incidents per year.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to call this a Russian provocation. He said the Russians have a right, like any other nation, to operate in international airspace and in international waters. The important thing, Warren said, is for such exercises to be carried out safely and in accordance with international standards.
Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, a London-based think tank, said the bomber patrols were part of Kremlin's efforts to make the Russian military "more visible and more assertive in its actions."
The new bomber flights "aren't necessarily presaging a threat," Kearns said. "They are just part of a general ramping-up of activities."
But he said "the more instances you have of NATO and Russian forces coming close together, the more chance there is of having something bad happening, even if it's not intentional."