The Russian military has launched sweeping manoeuvres in the Mediterranean Sea featuring warplanes capable of carrying hypersonic missiles, a show of force amid a surge in tensions following an incident with a British destroyer in the Black Sea.
Moscow said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of HMS Defender, a British ship, on Wednesday to force it out of an area near Crimea that Russia claims as its territorial waters. Britain denied that account, insisting its ship was not fired upon and said it was sailing in Ukrainian waters.
The Russian drills that began on Friday in the Eastern Mediterranean come as a British carrier strike group is in the area.
Earlier this week, British and US F-35 fighters from HMS Queen Elizabeth flew combat sorties against the ISIL (ISIS) group.
Russia has waged a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, allowing President Bashar al-Assad’s government to reclaim control over most of the country after a devastating civil war.
The Russian Defence Ministry said a pair of MiG-31 fighter jets capable of carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles arrived at the Russian airbase in Syria for the exercise. The Hemeimeem airbase, in the coastal province of Latakia, serves as the main hub for Moscow’s operations in the country.
It is the first time the warplanes capable of carrying Kinzhal have been deployed beyond the Russian borders.
The military says the Kinzhal flies at 10 times the speed of sound and has a range of up to 2,000km (about 1,250 miles).
The Defence Ministry said the manoeuvres in the Eastern Mediterranean involve several warships, two submarines and long-range Tu-22M3 bombers along with other combat aircraft.
The supersonic, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3s were first deployed to Syria last month in a demonstration of an increased Russian military foothold in the Mediterranean.
The Russian military has modernised the runway at Hemeimeem to accommodate heavy bombers and built a second one to expand the operations there.
Russia has also expanded and modified a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such facility that it currently has outside the former Soviet Union.
The Russian military has increased the number and scope of its drills amid a bitter strain in relations with the West, which have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
As part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to beef up the Russian military, the navy in recent years has revived the Soviet-era practice of constantly rotating its warships in the Mediterranean.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, Commodore Steve Moorhouse said the Eastern Mediterranean has become more “congested and contested” with the heavier Russian military presence in Syria, resulting in regular encounters with Russian ships and warplanes.
He noted that a Russian warship has come within 16km (10 miles) of the carrier.
Meanwhile, Russia warned Britain and the United States on Friday against “tempting fate” by sending warships to the Black Sea, and said it would defend its borders using all possible means including military force.
In a statement broadcast on state television, the Defence Ministry said it was ill-advised for British and US vessels to approach the coast of Crimea.
“We call on the Pentagon and the British navy, which are sending their warships into the Black Sea, not to tempt fate in vain,” said Major General Igor Konashenkov, the ministry’s spokesperson.
HMS Defender was “not more than a target” for the Black Sea fleet’s defences, he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said separately that Washington and London were sowing strife by failing to accept Crimea was part of Russia, and that Russia was ready to defend its borders using all means, including military force.
Moscow warned Britain on Thursday that it would bomb British naval vessels in the Black Sea if what it called provocative actions by the British navy were repeated off the Crimean coast.
The British embassy in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgian the South Caucasus, wrote on Twitter on Friday that HMS Defender was set to arrive in the port city of Batumi on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.