ENGELS, Russia (AFP) — The Soviet glory days are back at this nuclear bomber base in southern Russia: the US is none too popular and the crews say they are ready to fly anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.
"It's like the good old days," Oleg Mikhailishchin, a pilot in camouflage uniform, told reporters during a rare visit by foreign media to the Engels base last month, before the war with Georgia further raised tensions with the West. More than 20 Tu-160 and Tu-95 bombers could be seen on the runway near the Volga River at this once top-secret base, where the two Tu-160 "White Swan" planes that landed in Venezuela on Wednesday flew from.
Russia is also dispatching a nuclear cruiser and other warships and planes to the Caribbean for the joint exercises with Venezuela, seen as a direct rebuff to the United States in the first such deployment since the Cold War.
Mikhailishchin spoke in a cafeteria dominated by a red Soviet emblem and a portrait of World War II commander Georgy Zhukov. The base was filled with a mixture of hi-tech equipment and crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure.
Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now the prime minister, gave the order in August 2007 for the Russian air force to resume long-range bomber patrols -- just like in the Cold War -- after a lull of 15 years.
The flights are a sign of Russia's new-found confidence on the world stage and have spread fear in Western capitals. For the Engels base, they have restored a sense of pride that was all but lost after the Soviet collapse.
"It's getting better and better," said Alexander Khaberov, a 36-year-old wing commander, after returning from a 12-hour mission across the North Atlantic during which he was intercepted by British and Norwegian fighter jets.
Khaberov flew a "White Swan," named after its Concorde-like sleek shape.
"It's nice to feel needed," said Gennady Stekachyov, 39, a flight commander, before roaring off the five-kilometre runway on exercises within Russia on a Tu-95 bomber, a Cold War icon better known by its NATO codename "Bear".
It was a Tu-95, a plane first developed in the 1950s, that dropped the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in northern Russia in 1961. The Tu-160 began to be built in the 1980s.
Asked about a newspaper report that the nuclear bombers could be based in Cuba in response to US plans to base a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, Stekachyov said: "We wouldn't have any problems flying to Cuba.
"If we're told to fly there and base ourselves there, then we'll do it.... Everything that's in the interests of our state is right," said Stekachyov, who graduated from an air force academy in Soviet times.
"I was here during the good times, then there was a period of stagnation," he said, remembering with bitterness the 1990s, when the base destroyed part of its fleet under a disarmament deal with the United States.
"All glory to the Americans," sneered Vladimir Dyakov, an officer at the base. Sergei Voronov, a former bomber pilot who now manages the local flight museum, said: "We gave in. It was hurtful for all our compatriots."
Yeltsin's deals with the United States are a painful memory, making Putin's role in reviving long-range bomber patrols all the more heroic. Putin's flight on a Tu-160 bomber in 2005 is remembered fondly at the Engels base.
His note in a guest book is repeated like a mantra: "Precise, efficient, beautiful." While things are looking up, however, pilots still complain their salaries of around 1,000 dollars (719 euros) a month are disappointing.
Putin "revalued the role of long-range aviation," Dmitry Kostyunin, deputy commander of the long-range bomber division based in Engels told reporters.
But Kostyunin also emphasised that the resumption of bomber patrols was not about Russian muscle-flexing but about global "friendship."
When Russian bomber pilots are intercepted by fighter jets in the air, the feeling is one of camaraderie, he said. "I think the fighter jets are also happy. The young pilots can see our planes, see how beautiful they are."
His comments contrasted with the numerous complaints from Western countries since the resumption of Russian bomber patrols, including in February this year when Japan accused the Russian bombers of violating its airspace.
Kostyunin, who once piloted long-range bombers in the Baltic states during the Cold War, said: "It is a symbol of power but also a symbol of goodwill... The more you know about us, the more you'll love and respect us."
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