Washington: Russia's recent military flights into European airspace are meant to demonstrate to the West that the country is a "great power," NATO's supreme allied commander said on Monday.
Although there has been an increase in Russian air activity over Europe during the past year, last week marked the first time Moscow had sent in larger formations of warplanes, General Philip Breedlove told reporters.
"My opinion is they're messaging us. They're messaging us that they are a great power," Breedlove said.
Moscow wanted to show it can exert influence on the alliance's calculations, he said.
NATO last week reported a series of flights by Russian fighter jets, long-range bombers and tanker aircraft over the Baltics, North Sea and Atlantic Ocean, days before a controversial election held by pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine yesterday.
NATO fighter jets intercepted the Russian planes and escorted them out of European airspace.
In the past, Russian flights were carried out by small groups of one or two aircraft, he said.
"And what you saw this past week was a larger, more complex formation of aircraft, carrying out a little deeper -- I would say a little bit more provocative flight path," the US general said.
The flights were cause for "concern" and "do not add to or contribute to a secure and stable situation."
The top US general in Europe and head of NATO forces spoke a day after controversial elections held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and the European Union have denounced the polls as illegitimate.
Breedlove said it was too early to say how the polls would affect the security situation in Ukraine, but he said the elections were opposed all along by the United States and that it was "not helpful" to efforts to end the conflict.
Citing a "revanchist Russia," Breedlove said he favored increasing the presence of US troops in Eastern Europe on temporary deployments, in addition to measures already taken to reassure anxious partners on NATO's eastern border.
"Because of the increased pressure that we feel in Eastern Europe right now and because of the assurance measures that we're taking in the Baltics, in Poland, in Romania, we require additional rotational presence," he said.
About 750 US troops are now deployed in Poland and the Baltics from the 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, equipped with M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry armored vehicles. The soldiers from the "Iron Horse brigade" out of Fort Hood, Texas, are on a three-month mission focused on training exercises with alliance members.