Russian bombers which this month resumed their Soviet-era practice of flying long-range patrols near NATO airspace are not carrying nuclear weapons, a senior air force commander said on Monday.
President Vladimir Putin's announcement that patrols would resume was seen by observers as part of a military build-up which the Kremlin says is needed to ensure national security.
"These flights are being carried out without nuclear weapons on board," the commander of Russia's long-range aviation, Pavel Androsov, told reporters at the Defense Ministry.
The resumption of the long-range patrols, recent tests of a new generation of intercontinental missiles and the resumption of large-scale exercises have taken place against the backdrop of new strains in ties between Russia and the West.
The Kremlin, which accuses Washington of "unilateralism", opposes US plans to set up new bases and deploy elements of its missile defense shield in central and eastern Europe.
Russia suspects this move and NATO's overtures towards former Soviet Georgia and Ukraine - viewed by Moscow as part of its traditional sphere of influence - will lead to Russia's military encirclement.
Androsov said Western alarm over the resumption of the long-range patrols had been fanned artificially.
"We have been flying, are flying and will continue to fly," he said. "Our colleagues are not sitting on their laurels - if you look at the pilots of the strategic aviation of America and Great Britain - they have also not been sitting in their airbases, they are flying very intensively."
Androsov declined to say how many bombers Russia has but said Moscow had parity with the United States.
"We constantly observe our friends and we hold a force at about the same level as them," he said.
Russia has 79 strategic bombers in service including 64 Tupolev-95MC, known as Bears by NATO pilots, and 15 Tupolev-160, known as blackjacks by NATO, according to Russian media.
"There is deep modernization (of the bomber fleet) going on," Androsov said.
Nuclear site in Belarus
Russia may consider deploying new nuclear facilities in Belarus in response to a US plan to operate a missile shield in eastern Europe, Russia's ambassador to Minsk was quoted as saying on Monday.
Ex-Soviet Belarus, has planned some form of integration with Russia since the mid-1990s, although proposals to create a "union state" have stalled as relations have cooled in recent years, particularly over price rises for Russian energy.
President Alexander Lukashenko, a virulent opponent of US foreign policy, has periodically suggested he could take retaliatory measures in conjunction with the Kremlin against the planned shield.
"This depends on the level of our political integration," Ambassador Alexander Surikov told Interfax Zapad news agency.
"It also depends on the views of experts, diplomats and the military. Is it necessary and possible, when and how? I am talking about sites linked to nuclear weapons."
(China Daily via agencies August 28, 2007)