Russia is flexing its post-Cold War muscles - sending strategic bombers to probe allied air defenses and pushing for a bigger and more independent role in NATO-led peacekeeping in Kosovo.
Two TU-95 Bear bombers flew so close to the coastline of Iceland on Friday that a pair of U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters were scrambled from a NATO air base to escort the Russian planes around the island. And NATO member Norway sent up fighter jets when two other Russian bombers flew down its coastline.
The White House dismissed the incidents as militarily insignificant, but acknowledged that it was the first time in years that the Russian air force had flown so near to a NATO member's airspace.
"They want to be seen as remaining a force that has to be dealt with" by the rest of the world, Defense Secretary William Cohen told a Pentagon news conference. He said the bomber missions close to NATO airspace were "not a major surprise" and should not be seen as a dangerous trend.
Cohen said he would travel to Moscow this month. "It's all part of maintaining good, stable relations with them." He said he also would visit some NATO capitals in Europe, including Athens.
Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the top NATO commander, was reluctant to analyze the Russian action, but said he saw "an unusual level of risk" in Russia's decision last month to push 200 combat troops into Kosovo ahead of NATO forces, a move that surprised and upset NATO officials. "It's unusual behavior" for the Russians, Clark said, speaking at the news conference with Cohen.