The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, Col.-General Aleksandr Zelin, added a new twist today to the story about regular strategic bomber patrols, which Russia said it resumed last week. Zelin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that “Long-range aviation aircraft [will] carry standard weapons.” Some people interpreted this as an indication that the bombers will fly with nuclear weapons on board. Well, this is probably not the case.
First, Zelin said nothing of the kind and when pressed avoided confirming that the bombers carry nuclear weapons. But more importantly, this kind of patrols would go against the long-established practices of the Soviet strategic aviation.
Soviet strategic bombers have never maintained the round-the-clock presence in the sky of the kind practiced by the United States. True, when the United States discontinued these patrols in 1991, as part of the presidential unilateral initiative, the Soviet Union reciprocated, pledging that "our heavy bombers, like the American heavy bombers, will not be on combat alert, and their nuclear weapons will be stored in military warehouses." In the spirit of the time, that was a symmetrical response, but it was hardly a difficult step to take - it just confirmed the normal operating practice of the Soviet strategic aviation, which calls for nuclear weapons to be loaded on bombers (and the bombers dispersed) only during a crisis period.
There is nothing, of course, that would prevent Russia from sending its bombers to patrol with nuclear weapons on board, but I consider it extremely unlikely. It looks like the military have always understood the limited utility and high risks associated with this kind of missions and there are no signs that this understanding has changed.
UPDATE 08/21/07: Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force, Major-General Anatoly Zhikharev confirmed that the bombers do not carry nuclear weapons.