Vladimir Putin orders Russia's entire Northern Fleet to mobilise in huge military exercises

Around 45,000 troops are involved in drills in the Arctic and around the country

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The Independent Online

Russia's entire Northern Fleet is on the move today as part of a show of force involving 40,000 troops, more than 41 warships, 15 submarines and 110 aircraft.

A range of military exercises were personally ordered by Vladimir Putin and coincided with his first public appearance in 10 days.

The Russian President met Kyrgyzstan leader Almazbek Atambayev in St Petersburg this morning after more than a week of intense speculation over his sudden disappearance from the public eye.

Appearing to be in good health, he did not shed any more light on the period and said: “It would be boring without gossip.”

Today is the start of five days drills in one of the Kremlin's biggest displays of military power since the Ukraine crisis plunged relations with the West to depths not seen since the Cold War.

The Navy’s Northern Fleet stands in full combat readiness in Russia's Arctic north, apparently aimed at dwarfing military drills in neighbouring Norway, a Nato member.

“New challenges and threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

“Special attention must be paid to newly created strategic formations in the north.”

The flagship of Russia's Nothern Fleet, heavy nuclear missile cruiser 'Pyotr Veliky'

Mr Shoigu said the order came from the President, who has promised to spend more than 21 trillion roubles (£230 billion) by the end of the decade to overhaul Russia's armed forces.

Norway is currently holding its "Joint Viking" drills involving 5,000 troops in Finnmark, a county bordering Russia in the resource-rich Arctic circle where both countries are vying for influence.

The Olso government said its military drills had been planned before the Ukraine crisis.

"However, the current security situation in Europe shows that the exercise is more relevant than ever," Lieutenant General Haga Lunde said in a statement.

A Russian su-27 fighter jet photographed next to a Swedish intelligence plane.

Other Russian drills involved 5,000 troops in the far east of the country, while another exercise included another 500 personnel from Russia's troubled North Caucasus region of Chechnya, the site of two separatist wars.

Those exercises were aimed at extremist insurgents, whose bloody efforts to create an Islamic state has spread across the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, fuelled by religion and anger at local abuse of power.

The Russian exercises coincide with the country’s celebrations over its internationally condemned annexation of the Crimean peninsula, carried out with the help of special forces in March last year.

Speaking in a television documentary aired on Sunday, Mr Putin said he was prepared to use nuclear weapons to gain the territory “if necessary”.

He described the Ukrainian revolution to oust Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as an armed coup “masterminded by our American friends”.

The US is planning to conduct joint exercises with forces from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania later this month.

Additional reporting by Reuters