Russian President Vladimir Putin said he ordered strategic bombers to resume regular long-range patrols as Russian and Chinese forces held their first joint military exercise on Russian soil -- a show of armed muscle aimed at sending a pointed message to the US.
The resumption of bombing patrols, which some analysts say signaled a significant change for Russian military policy, comes amid a growing chill in US-Russian relations, strained over Washington's criticism of Russia's democracy record, Moscow's objections to US missile defense plans and differences over global crises.
Both Moscow and Beijing share a heightening distrust of what they see as the US' oversized role and influence in global politics, and the two former Cold War rivals have forged a "strategic partnership" aimed at counterbalancing Washington's policies.
Friday's Russian-Chinese war games, which took place near the Urals Mountain city of Chelyabinsk, coincided with Russian air force maneuvers involving 20 strategic bombers which ranged far over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.
One of those drills, involving 11 Russian aircraft, prompted NATO member Norway to scramble F-16 fighter jets to observe and photograph the Russian planes as they flew over the Norwegian Sea.
The group of strategic bombers, early warning aircraft, fighter jets and refueling planes represented the biggest show of Russian air power in that region since the early 1990s, said Brigadier General Ole Asak, chief of the Norwegian Joint Air Operations Center.
"We haven't seen that kind of activity in a very long time," Asak said. "Not since the early 1990s. It was quite impressive to see."
In announcing the policy change, Putin said halting long-range bombers' flights after the Soviet collapse had affected Russia's security as other nations had continued such missions -- an oblique reference to the US.
"I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation," Putin said in televised remarks. "We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding."
"Starting today, such tours of duty would be conducted regularly and on the strategic scale," Putin said. "Our pilots have been grounded for too long, they are happy to start a new life."
Soviet bombers routinely flew such missions to areas from which nuclear-tipped cruise missiles could be launched at the US, but stopped in the post-Soviet economic meltdown. Booming oil prices have allowed Russia to sharply increase its military spending.
The war games involved some 6,000 troops from Russia and China along with soldiers from four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations that are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional group dominated by Moscow and Beijing.
The summit concluded with a communique that sounded like a thinly veiled warning to the US to stay away from the strategically placed, resource-rich region: "Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations."
The US, Russia and China are locked in tense rivalry for influence in Central Asia, where vast hydrocarbon riches are buried. Washington supports plans for pipelines that would carry oil and gas to the West and bypass Russia, while Moscow has maneuvered to control exports. China also has shown a growing appetite for energy to power its booming economy.