It turns out that these are not exercises, after all - Russia apparently decided to return to the practice of regular patrols by its strategic bombers. Speaking at the end of the "Peace Mission-2007" military maneuvers conducted by the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, President Putin announced that "Russia’s strategic aviation will resume patrols on a permanent basis":
At midnight, today, August 17, 14 strategic missile-carriers, support and refuelling aircraft took off from seven air force bases in different parts of the Russian Federation and began a patrol involving a total of 20 aircraft. As from today, such patrols will be carried out on a regular basis. These patrols are strategic in nature.In an earlier report the Air Forces representative identified those bases as Olen'ya, Vorkuta, Monchegorsk, Tiksi, Anadyr, Elgels, and Shaikovka (for those who are really interested in finding these, there is a great site on Russian airfields). It appears that the patrols involve both types of strategic bombers - Tu-160 and Tu-95MS - as well as Il-78 refueling aircraft and, possibly, some Tu-22M3 bombers as well.
Some reports indicated that the August 8, 2007 exercise should be considered part of this new patrol practice, rather than just a training flight. In a sense, I think they were - I believe all these flights, regular or otherwise, are fundamentally a training mission. To be on a genuine "combat patrol" the bombers would have to carry nuclear weapons on board. Which, as far as I can tell, they do not. At least not yet.
Overall, I'm certain we will see more stories about "return to cold-war practices", but I would not be overly alarmed - what we see here is that Russia can now afford more training time for its pilots and does not mind using this for propaganda purposes. The Russian public (and not only Russian) loves this kind of stories.
At the same time, there is no reason for complacency either - propaganda or not, these are bombers that are built to carry nuclear weapons and this story should remind us that unless we find a way of getting rid of nuclear weapons, they will find a way to come back.