* Exercises dwarf NATO-member Norway's drills
* Tensions have spiked between Russia and northern Europe
(Adds details, background)
By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW, March 16 More than 45,000 Russian troops
as well as war planes and submarines started military exercises
across much of the country on Monday in one of the Kremlin's
biggest shows of force since its ties with the West plunged to
President Vladimir Putin called the Navy's Northern Fleet to
full combat readiness in exercises 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.
Special attention must be paid to newly created strategic
formations in the north," Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said,
quoted by RIA news agency.
Shoigu said the order came from Putin, who has promised to
spend more than 21 trillion roubles ($340 billion) by the end of
the decade to overhaul Russia's fighting forces.
Putin made his first public appearance since March 5 on
Monday, an absence from view that had fuelled feverish
speculation over his health as well as his grip on power. He was
meeting Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev at the Constantine
Palace outside Russia's second city of St. Petersburg.
Norway is currently holding its "Joint Viking" drills
involving 5,000 troops in Finnmark county, which borders Russia
in the resource-rich Arctic circle where both countries are
vying for influence.
Russia's drills would include nearly 40,000 servicemen, 41
warships and 15 submarines, RIA repprted.
Tensions between Russia and Europe worsened last year,
leading eight northern European nations to promise to boost
cooperation to counter an increase in Moscow's military
NATO made new allegations last week that Russia was arming
separatists in east Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have
been killed in nearly a year of fighting.
The West and Kiev accuse Russia of supplying arms and
soldiers to support the pro-Russian separatists. Moscow denies
NATO says it counted more than 100 intercepts of Russian
planes into members' airspace last year, three times more than
in 2013. The intercepts have forced civilian planes to change
their courses and Britain scrambled Typhoon interceptor planes
after two long-range bombers flew over the English Channel.
Norway said its military drills had been planned before the
"However, the current security situation in Europe shows
that the exercise is more relevant than ever," Lieutenant
General Haga Lunde said in a statement.
The Russian exercises are due to last for much of the week
during which Russia will celebrate its annexation of the
Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, carried out with the help of
Other drills involved 5,000 troops in Russia's eastern
military district, while another exercise included another 500
troops from Russia's troubled North Caucasus region of Chechnya,
the site of two separatist wars, wires reported.
The exercises were meant to focus on fighting Islamist
insurgents, whose movement to create a Muslim state has spread
across the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus, fuelled by
religion and anger at local abuse of power.
($1 = 62.2530 roubles)
(Reporting by Thomas Grove, Editing by Elizabeth Piper and