According to the Russian Defense Ministry, drills are scheduled to take place late September through early October.
As Western governments continue to worry over Russian military buildup in Syria, Moscow has announced that naval assets will also be moved to the East Mediterranean as part of planned military drills, according to Deutsche Welle.
Tuesday’s announcement revealed that three ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet will sail to the Mediterranean to take part in the exercises. The Saratov landing ship, the Moskva guided missile cruiser and the Smetlivy destroyer will be joined by a number of other vessels.
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“In total, there should be over 40 combat exercises, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets,” said the official statement. According to the Interfax news agency, the Moskva cruiser has left the port of Sevastopol in Crimea and is en route to Bosporus.
Naval forces are expected to train against submarine, aircraft and naval attacks, in addition to practicing search and rescue operations. Some worry that the exercises may further increase tension between Moscow and NATO.
Russia-U.S. tensions rise over involvement in Syria
A recent Russian military buildup in Syria has caused concern that Moscow may be planning to join the fighting. Conflict has been raging for four years now as various rebel groups try to overthrow the government of long-term Russian ally Bashar al-Assad.
While the U.S. and its allies have provided logistical support to anti-government groups, Russia has been supporting Assad. U.S. intelligence claims that Moscow recently boosted its military support, providing high-tech weapons systems and training
The arrival of Russian ships in the area could cause further tension, but the Defense Ministry claims that the exercises “in the eastern section of the Mediterranean sea” have been scheduled since late 2014. Officials made no link between the exercises and the possible involvement of the ships in Syria.
Russia has informed regional naval and air-traffic authorities of the exercises in order to comply with international law, said the Defense Ministry. For a number of years Russia was inactive in the Mediterranean, but navy exercises started again in 2013.
Strategic decision to support Assad regime
The United States says Russia has been sending shipments of military equipment, including troops, tanks and fighter jets, to Syria, reinforcing an airbase which could become a forward operations base for Russian forces in the country. In addition to a military buildup of its own, Russia has also been providing new equipment to government forces.
Syrian officials have confirmed that the Russians have handed over new warplanes and missiles for use in the fight against rebel groups. So far Moscow has denied that its ground troops would get involved in the conflict, but the Syrian ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, told Interfax that Russian ground support “will happen if it is needed.”
“Russia’s help will help Syria finally win over terrorist groups,” he said. He later claimed there is a “high level of cooperation” between Syria, Russia and Iran related to the conflict. Russia is currently upgrading its naval base at Tartus, Syria, which has long served as an entry point for Russian arms to Syria.
Russia has supported the Assad regime for decades, and the sale of arms to Syria represents an important export for Moscow. It is unlikely that Russia wants to lose such a high-spending customer given the current economic woes.
Tartus, and the airbase at Latakia, represent Russia’s only toehold in the Mediterranean, and Moscow may want to preserver the Assad regime in order to maintain this presence.