* U.S. general says Russian patrols up "drastically"
* Says flights aim to show capability, conduct surveillance
* Russian official dismisses Ukraine link
(Updates with Russian Defence Ministry comment)
By David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON, May 5 Russia has increased its air
activity over the Pacific Ocean since the start of the Ukraine
crisis, including flights near the California coast and the U.S.
Pacific island of Guam, the head of U.S. air forces in the
Pacific said on Monday.
General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle said the number of
long-range Russian patrols around the Japanese islands and Korea
had also increased "drastically" and there had been "a lot more
ship activity as well".
"We relate a lot of that to what's going on in the Ukraine,"
Carlisle said at Washington's Center for Strategic and
International Studies think tank.
Carlisle showed a slide of a U.S. F-15 fighter jet
intercepting a Russian "Bear" aircraft, the Cold War NATO name
for Russia's Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber, over Guam.
"Certainly what's going on in Ukraine and Crimea is a
challenge for us and it's a challenge for us in Asia Pacific as
well as Europe," Carlisle said.
Russia's state-run news agency Itar-Tass quoted an
unidentified senior ministry official as saying the flights were
not sabre-rattling and had nothing to do with Ukraine.
"To consider Russian air force flights over neutral Pacific
Ocean waters a challenge to the United States is strange to say
the least," Itar-Tass quoted the official as saying.
Carlisle said Russian flights in the area were aimed "to
demonstrate their capability to do it" and to gather
intelligence, adding that the surveillance had included
observation of military exercises involving U.S. forces in South
Korea and Japan.
"There are things that are concerning with respect to how
they operate and how transparent they are with other nations in
the vicinity," he said of Russia.
Carlisle gave no details of the incidents and the Defense
Department and the U.S. Air Force and Navy in the Pacific did
not immediately respond to a request for more information.
Mike Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think
tank, said the frequency of incidents was up and described them
as being "evocative of the Cold War".
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in 2007 that
Russia was resuming sorties by its strategic bomber aircraft
near NATO airspace that were suspended in 1992 after the
collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin, who made the announcement during a joint military
exercise with China, said the move was necessary to guarantee
Russia's safety and that other nations had not followed Moscow's
example in suspending such flights.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by
Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Editing by Peter Graff)