The Tu-22M was first unveiled in 1980 during the aircraft’s participation in a major Warsaw Pact exercise. During the exercise, naval Tu-22M2s conducted anti-ship operations by mining parts of the Baltic Sea to simulate an amphibious landing. The exercise was extensively covered by the press and TV media. In June 1981, four Tu-22Ms were intercepted and photographed by Norwegian aircraft flying over the Norwegian Sea.
The first simulated attack by the Tu-22M against a NATO carrier group occurred between 30 September and 1 October 1982. Eight aircraft locked onto the U.S. task forces of USS Enterprise and USS Midway which were operating in the North Pacific. They came within 120 mi (200 km) of the task forces. The reaction of the U.S. Navy was thought to have been restrained during this event so as to allow the observation of the Tu-22M's tactics. The bomber also made attempts to test Japan's air defense boundary on several occasions.
The Tu-22M was first used in combat in Afghanistan. It was deployed December 1987 to January 1988, during which the aircraft flew strike missions in support of the Soviet Army's attempt to relieve the Mujahideens' siege against the city of Khost. Two squadrons of aircraft from the 185th GvBAP based at Poltava were deployed to Maryy-2 air base in Turkmenistan. Capable of dropping large tonnages of conventional ordnance, the aircraft bombed enemy forts, bases and material supplies. In October 1988, the aircraft was again deployed against the Mujahideen. Sixteen Tu-22M3s were used to provide cover to Soviet forces that were pulling out of the country. The Tu-22Ms were tasked with destroying paths of access to Soviet forces, attacking enemy forces at night to prevent regrouping, and to attack incoming supplies from Iran and Pakistan. Working alongside 30 newly arrived MiG-27s, the aircraft also flew missions aimed at relieving the besieged city of Kandahar. The aircraft had its last Afghan operation in January 1989 at Salang pass.
The Tu-22M suffered from widespread maintenance issues during its service with the Soviet forces. These stemmed from poor manufacturing quality. The engines and airframes in particular had low service lives. The Air Force at one point sought to have Tupolev prosecuted for allegedly rushing the inadequate designs of the Tu-22M and the Tu-160 into service. This was compounded by the government bureaucracy, which hampered the provision of spare parts to allow the servicing of the Tu-22M. With some aircraft grounded for up to six months, the mission-capable rate of the aircraft in August 1991 hovered around 30–40%.