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By Alexei Anishchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin ordered the launch of 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 its neighbours.
Officials suggested the surprise drills were designed to test the reaction speed and combat readiness of Russian forces, but Putin's order also seemed aimed at sending a signal to the West that Russia is an important presence in the region.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Putin triggered the manoeuvres 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 warplanes would take part, but did not say how long the 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 manoeuvres must be held with less advance warning, to keep soldiers on their toes.
Putin, 60, has also used his role as commander-in-chief and calls for military might to cast himself as a strong leader for whom the country's security is foremost. State media emphasised that he had given the order for the exercises from an airplane 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 neighbour 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 the 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 Defence 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 a good thing for Russia's military, but that the location could raise questions among Russia's neighbours about its intentions.
"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, referring to the 2008 war. However, he said all countries on the Black Sea have the right to hold exercises.
The Kremlin portrays Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a bellicose leader, and Russia said last week that annual U.S.-Georgian training exercises that began this month in Georgia put peace at risk. Those exercises are being held far from Georgia's Black Sea coast.
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 neighbour.
Ukraine's foreign minister was in Moscow on Thursday. He could not immediately be reached for comment, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's office declined to comment on the Russian exercises, as did the Defence Ministry.
(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Toby Chopra)