Royal Navy vessels are monitoring Russian warships as they pass through the Channel potentially bringing supplies to the bombing campaign against the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, promised this week that the Russian fleet would be marked “every inch of the way”. No 10 confirmed that the Russian vessels, including the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, were being shadowed by the navy as they headed towards the eastern Mediterranean via the Dover Strait. The ships are expected to leave British territorial waters later on Friday.
Theresa May’s deputy official spokesman rejected suggestions that it was a sign of weakness that Russia felt able to send its ships via this route.
The type-45 destroyer HMS Duncan sailed from Portsmouth on Tuesday to “man-mark” the Kuznetsov group, and the type-23 frigate HMS Richmond escorted the group from the Norwegian Sea as it steamed south.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the British vessels were keeping a distance of about five miles from the Russians.
“It really depends. If they’re really flying you’ll keep well away; if they’re not flying you’ll get a bit closer,” the spokesman said. “It’s just about manners, really. They know you’re there if you’re at 10 miles, same as they do if you’re at one mile. They’ll put themselves at a distance that makes it obvious that they’re there but without making it either dangerous or annoying.”
According to a senior Nato diplomat quoted by Reuters, the Russian ships were likely to pass from the Channel towards Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, heading for the Syrian coast. The source said the warships were carrying fighter bombers expected to join the attack on Aleppo.
The diplomat said: “They are deploying all of the northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the cold war. This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.”
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said in September that the Admiral Kuznetsov and other ships would be joining a taskforce in the Mediterranean.