NATO and EU ships were put on full alert along the British coast as a Russian naval fleet passed through the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean.
The British warship HMS Richmond escorted the group from the Norwegian Sea as it went south, and the HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, sailed from Portsmouth on Tuesday to “man-mark” it.
“It’s being marked every step of the way by the Royal Navy and ships and planes of other Nato members as well,” Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said in a statement.
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said the Russian navy “is free to operate” in international waters.
“Russia, of course, has the right to operate in international waters and this is not the first time we’ve seen this carrier group being deployed in the Mediterranean,” he said.
The Admiral Kuznetsov was commissioned in 1990 and is presently Russia’s only aircraft carrier. Manned by a crew of 1,960, it has Granit anti-ship cruise missiles as well as Blade and Chestnut gun systems in its arsenal and can transport more than 50 aircraft.
A Downing Street spokesman dismissed the idea that Moscow regarded Britain as weak.
“I would reject suggestions that the Russians feel we are too weak. Clearly, we are not weak at all,” he said.
Russia’s TASS news agency quotes the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, as saying the warships are making their tour to bolster the “combat capabilities” of the country’s Mediterranean fleet.
“Special focus will be made on safeguarding the security of maritime traffic and other types of maritime economic activity of Russia and also on responding to the new kinds of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism.”
The Russian Navy has not said if it intends to use the ships for any specific battle missions in the Middle East. The group will “ensure a naval presence in operationally significant areas of the world’s oceans,” the Russian Navy said in an official press release.