Russia's defence ministry published a statement on Thursday which said 14 Russian strategic bombers had started routine patrol operations on Wednesday evening over the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic.

"The planes flew only over neutral water and did not approach the air space of a foreign state," the statement said.
 
"Practically all the planes were accompanied by fighters from Nato countries."

Nuclear weapons

Russia's TU-95s are long-range strategic bombers that date back to the Soviet era. They can be equipped with nuclear weapons.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, announced the resumption of long-range flights in international air space at military exercises on August 17.

Such flights were common during the Cold War standoff with the United States and its western European allies, but were abandoned in 1992 amid the financial difficulties that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Essentially the Russians want to be a player again, I think they have suffered a marginalisation of their role in the world over the last decade or so"

Dr Michael Williams, security expert
Last week, General Pavel Androsov, Russia's head of strategic aviation, said that the aircraft were not carrying nuclear weapons and that the main aim of the flight was to improve training for pilots.

But the flights come against a background of increasing tension between Russia and the US over plans for a missile defence system in eastern Europe.

Ties with the European Union have also deteriorated recently over issues such as energy policy, Kosovo and Moscow's treatment of European firms operating in the Russian capital.

Dr Michael Williams, a security expert at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, told Al Jazeera that the Russians were trying to reassert their international position.

"Essentially the Russians want to be a player again, I think they have suffered a marginalisation of their role in the world over the last decade or so," he said.

"They are poking and prodding the European allies and the United States. They did a similar flight over Guam on August 8, two TU-95s flew past Guam and the Americans scrambled to monitor them."