Russian warships sail down British coast, likely en route to Syria

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Story highlights

  • The Russian fleet Includes aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
  • Royal Navy ships are shadowing the Russian vessels

London (CNN)A fleet of Russian warships and fighter jets, including the flagship aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, has reached the North Sea and is headed for the English Channel, the UK's Ministry of Defense told CNN in a statement.

The flotilla is believed to be on its way to the Mediterranean and eventually, most Western defense analysts believe, to Syria.
    CNN has learned that the vessels are on their way through the Channel but have yet to pass Dover, although they are expected to do so sometime this morning local time.
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    "It's a show of force and a show of capabilities," Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, told CNN.
    "In terms of strike missions, they (the Russians) could just as easily have conducted them with the land-based aircraft they already have in Syria."
    The UK Ministry of Defense says it is closely monitoring the Russian vessels, which left Russia October 15.
    In a statement issued at that time, the Russian navy said the voyage was "to ensure naval presence in the important areas of the World Ocean. Special focus will be made on safeguarding security of maritime traffic and other types of Russian maritime economic activity and also responding to new kinds of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism."
    Russian warship BSF Nikolay Filchenkov 152 passes the Bosphorus Strait off Istanbul on October 18 on its way to Tartus.

    "Concern"

    On Thursday during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed concerns regarding the route being taken by the Russian fleet.
    "When it comes to the Russian carrier group which is on its way to the Mediterranean, it is important to underline that Russia of course has the right to operate in international waters," Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday.
    Royal Navy lookout, observing the Russian task group during transit.
    "This is not the first time we have seen this carrier group being deployed to the Mediterranean, that has happened several times before. But what creates concern now is that this carrier group may be used to contribute to military operations over Syria and be used to increase attacks on Aleppo, and that's something very different than to deploy a carrier group to the Mediterranean as part of a normal deployment, which we have seen before," he said.
    Stoltenberg added that NATO navies would monitor the Russian fleets as they approached the Mediterranean -- as is customary -- though he stressed that there was some anxiety over the movement of the vessels.

    "Heavy metal"

    The movement of the Russian warship to Syria could also provide Russia with a chance to test Russia's only aircraft carrier to make sure it's working properly, and it will also give Western powers the opportunity to examine it at close range, said Felstead.
    Launching aircraft from a carrier like the Admiral Kuznetsov, which uses a fixed, ramp assisted take-off, was actually quite a difficult and risky operation that requires a lot of practice.
    "It's like a 24/7 ballet to heavy metal music," Felstead added.
    The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, in a photo provided by the Norwegian Armed Forces.
    The Russian fleet also includes a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy, and two Udaloy Class Destroyers. The Admiral Kuznetsov itself is capable of carrying 50 war planes.
    "When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way," Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Wednesday. "We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe."
    Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov with HMS Richmond.
    The destroyer HMS Duncan has been dispatched to monitor the Kuznetsov task group. Another British vessel, HMS Richmond, also escorted the group as it sailed down the Norwegian Sea between Iceland and Norway.
    A third Royal Navy vessel, the air defense destroyer HMS Dragon, is due to sail from the British port of Portsmouth Friday to meet two Russian corvettes traveling north toward the UK from the direction of Portugal.
    Shadowing ships is a regular task for the Royal Navy, which has been supported by Royal Air Force surveillance aircraft in this mission.
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    The Russian fleet is believed to be sailing to the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia's defense ministry said on October 10 that the country was poised to transform its naval facility there into a permanent base.