WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is trying to assess whether a low-level flight by a Russian bomber over American warships in the Pacific Ocean last weekend was a sign that Moscow is returning to a worrisome "Cold War mind-set," a top Defense official told Congress Tuesday.
Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials want to know why a Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" bomber flew over the aircraft carrier Nimitz and other U.S. vessels in international waters near Japan.
The flight came at a time when the Russian air force has begun reinstating the kind of long-range bomber patrols it conducted routinely during the Cold War.
"We're just trying to go back now and look at what message was intended by this overflight," Cartwright told the Senate Budget Committee. "What are the implications of that activity and how do we best address that?"
His comments were the latest sign of Bush administration concern about friction with Moscow over issues such as U.S. plans for an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, looming Kosovo independence and Washington's strengthened relations with Ukraine, Georgia and other Russian neighbors.
The Putin government also has clashed with the administration over American efforts to halt Iran's uranium enrichment efforts.
Senior U.S. officials, who need Moscow's cooperation for U.S.-sponsored Middle East initiatives, have publicly played down the frictions and dismissed the idea that a Russian threat has re-emerged on their watch. Last month, for example, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that talk of a new Cold War was "hyperbolic nonsense."
Yet privately, U.S. officials have acknowledged that they are concerned about Moscow's increasingly adversarial stance.
The Russian bomber and three others that accompanied it were intercepted by U.S. F-18 fighter jets and escorted as they flew over the U.S. aircraft carrier group, in keeping with normal procedures. Cartwright said the bombers did nothing "unprofessional," and noted that they were in "free and international airspace" at all times.
Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of U.S. naval operations, told reporters in a briefing Tuesday that the bombers had given no warning of their intent to fly over the U.S. warships, and said that in his view it was "not prudent" to fly over an aircraft carrier.
But he said he did not regard the patrol as provocative. "I know I'm not playing this up very much, but that's the way I see it," he said.
The Russian RIA Novosti news agency Tuesday quoted a Russian official as not understanding the reason for American expressions of concern.
"We are surprised by all the clamor this has raised," the agency quoted Russian Air Force spokesman Col. Alexander Drobyshevsky as saying.
As the Russians have resumed air patrols in recent months, their aircraft have been intercepted and escorted at various points by British, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Canadian and Japanese fighters. Last Saturday, Japanese officials issued a protest to Moscow over what they said was a Russian bomber's violation of Japanese airspace over an island south of Tokyo.
In light of Russia's renewed military buildup, some U.S. military officials in Europe have cautioned the Pentagon against its planned withdrawal of two divisions from Europe. But other Defense officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a longtime expert on Soviet issues, have played down the threat, interpreting it only as a sign of energy-rich Russia's desire to reassert its importance on the world stage.
At the Senate Budget Committee hearing, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said he was worried about the threat and concerned that U.S. spending to contain militant Islam would siphon funds needed to deal with a possible return of problems with Russia. "Confrontations between us and Russia that didn't exist before are real today," Domenici said.
Asked about American preparations for a potential Russian threat, Cartwright called it "one of the things that would keep me up at night."