By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin ordered large-scale military exercises in the Black Sea on Thursday, projecting Russian power towards Europe and the Middle East in a move that may vex neighbors.
Officials suggested the surprise drill would test reaction speed and combat readiness, but Putin's order also seemed a signal to the West of Russia's presence in the region.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Putin triggered the maneuvers as he flew back overnight from South Africa after a summit of the BRICS emerging economies.
Peskov said 36 warships and an unspecified number of planes would take part, but not how long exercises would last.
Putin has stressed the importance of a strong and agile military since returning to the presidency last May. In 13 years in power, he has often cited external threats when talking of the need for reliable armed forces and Russian political unity.
Late last month, Putin ordered military leaders to make urgent improvements to the armed forces in the next few years, saying Russia must thwart Western attempts to tip the balance of power. He said maneuvers must be held with less advance warning, to keep soldiers on their toes.
Putin, 60, has used his role as commander-in-chief to cast himself as a strong leader for whom national security is foremost. State media emphasized he ordered the exercises from a plane in the dead of night.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet, whose main base is in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, was instrumental in a war with ex-Soviet neighbor Georgia in 2008 over the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In addition to Georgia and Ukraine, Russia shares the Black Sea with Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania.
But Russian foreign affairs analyst Fyodor Lukyanov said the exercises were "more likely part of a wider attempt to reconfirm that Russia's navy and military forces in the south are still able to play a political and geopolitical role."
"It is flexing muscles and may have more to do with what is happening in the Mediterranean, around Syria, than in the Black Sea," said Lukyanov, editor of journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Russia's modest naval maintenance and supply facility in Syria is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, and the Defense Ministry recently announced plans to deploy a naval unit in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis.
Russia has clashed diplomatically with the West throughout a two-year conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people in Syria, using its U.N. Security Council veto to block Western efforts to push President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Moscow-based military analyst Alexander Golts said unannounced exercises are good for Russia's military, but the location could raise questions among Russia's neighbors.
"We will be watching these exercises very closely as Georgia has its own experience with Russia," Tedo Japaridze, head of the Georgian parliament's foreign relations committee, told Reuters. He said all Black Sea nations have the right to hold exercises.
The Kremlin portrays Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a bellicose leader, and Russia said last week annual U.S.-Georgian training exercises that began this month in Georgia, far from the Black Sea coast, put peace at risk.
Meanwhile, disputes with Ukraine over Moscow's continued lease of the Black Sea navy base have been a thorn in relations with its former Soviet neighbor.
Peskov said the number of servicemen participating was short of the threshold requiring Russia to notify other nations of its plans, but Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted a spokesman for Ukraine's foreign minister, who was in Moscow on Thursday, as saying Ukraine had been informed in advance.
A NATO official said the Western alliance was not given notice and that "exercises are part of what the military do. NATO also conducts regular military exercises, which are not directed at anyone". But he said NATO would like to see greater openness from Russia, including on military exercises.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jason Webb)