Russia says its bombers are not carrying nuclear weapons

Russian bombers, which recently resumed their Soviet-era practice of flying long-range patrols near NATO airspace, are not carrying nuclear weapons, a senior air force commander said.

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 accuses Washington of "unilateralism", opposes US plans to set up new bases, and has asked the sole superpower not to deploy its missile defence shield in central and eastern Europe. Russia believes these moves, as well as NATO's overtures towards the former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine, will lead to Russia's military encirclement.

The resumption of the patrols is also likely to play well with the Russian public as the country prepares for a presidential election next March, in which Putin's successor will contest. Putin is Russia's most popular politician, and he has made the revival of the Russian armed forces part of his mission to boost Russia after years of post-Soviet chaos.

During his nearly eight-year rule, the armed forces have shrunk in numbers from 1.7 to 1.2 million, but their budget has grown at up to 30 per cent a year. Notwithstanding this, Russia spends a fraction of what the United States spends on defence.

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.