British admirals are drawing up plans to escort an approaching Russian aircraft carrier together with seven more vessels, which will pass by the UK’s shores en-route to the Mediterranean, according to reports in the British press.
Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, left the port of Severomorsk at 3:00pm Moscow time (12pm GMT) on Saturday for the eastern Mediterranean. The carrier will be escorted by the battle cruiser Peter the Great, the anti-submarine vessel Severomorsk, and five other vessels of Russia’s Northern fleet.
They will “ensure a naval presence in operationally significant areas of the world’s oceans,” according to an official press release.
On the way, the ships may pass through the English Channel, which has put the Royal Navy on alert.
“It’s not catching us by surprise, we are working up what to do and we are all over it. The most likely thing is that they will go through the North Sea, down the Dover Strait, and through the Channel,” a NATO naval source told the Telegraph.
The Kuznetsov may stop to carry out practice drills while in the North Sea, the source added, and the seven ships could split up to make themselves harder to follow. The British Navy has readied the HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, and HMS Richmond, a Type 23 frigate, to intercept the Russian vessels should they approach British waters, a defense source told The Times. An RAF Rivet Joint spy plane, C130 Hercules and Typhoon jets will also reportedly be on standby.
“UK and NATO assets routinely monitor warships from other nations when they enter our area of interest and this will be no different,” a Ministry of Defense spokesperson said in an official statement.
Despite the routine nature of the potential encounter, coverage in the British press has been somewhat sensationalist. According to analyst Ammar Waqqaf, this has a lot to do with the political climate in the UK.
“We need to understand the environment here in Britain, which is about confronting Russia,” Waqqaf told RT. “This is not the official statement by the government, but actually by some hot-headed MPs who have gathered a few days ago and said that we should do something about Syria and Russia’s dominance over there, and if military confrontation is needed, so be it.”
“The media would probably jump at any passing military vessel coming from Russia or any drill nearby or whatever,” he continued. “They want to jump at this opportunity to increase the hype about what is going on … there is an expectation from the public here in Britain about an imminent sort of confrontation with Russia in Syria.”
The British media have speculated that the ships could take part in the Russian military operation in Syria. The Russian Navy has not confirmed this. It has noted that “particular attention will be paid to ensuring the safety of maritime navigation and other maritime economic activities of the Russian Federation, as well as respond to new types of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism,” in a statement.
The decision to send the Admiral Kuznetsov on its latest mission was made late in September, and the tour of duty is expected to last four to five months. The Kuznetsov has previously carried out military operations in the eastern Mediterranean over the last few years. Russian forces are involved in the Syrian conflict, helping government forces against militants including the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and the Al-Qaeda off-shoot Al-Nusra Front.
Russian-British relations have been under strain in recent years as a result of the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, during which time the Royal Air Force has periodically intercepted Russian planes which have flown close to British airspace.
The Admiral Kuznetsov was commissioned in 1990 and is so far Russia’s only aircraft carrier. Manned by a crew of 1,960, it has ‘Granit’ anti-ship cruise missiles and as well as ‘Blade’ and ‘Chestnut’ gun systems in its arsenal and can transport more than 50 aircraft.