Russia to hold Mediterranean drills as Syria tensions rise
Russia has announced major military drills in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions over a rebel-held enclave in Syria.
The DefenCe Ministry told Russian news agencies on Thursday that Russia will deploy 25 ships, including a missile cruiser, and 30 jets for the maneuvers in the first week of September. The military says the drills will focus on anti-air and anti-submarine defense.
It says Moscow has notified international organisations of the drills, which may make it dangerous for aircraft and ships to operate in the area.
The drills were announced after NATO reported a Russian naval buildup in the Mediterranean.
“We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria,” NATO’s chief spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, said on Wednesday.
At least eight ships, including a missile cruiser and two missile-carrying submarines, have joined the Russian flotilla over the past three weeks. Russian media reports indicate there are around 15 Russian navy vessels in the Mediterranean overall.
Moscow has repeatedly alleged that Syrian rebels are preparing a chemical weapons attack in Idlib as a provocation to bring a Western attack on Syrian forces.
The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said the naval buildup was connected to that prospect. “The United States and its allies have forced Russia to send a powerful sailing group to the Mediterranean,” it wrote on Tuesday.
State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the Russian reports “false-flag-type reporting.”
“We’ve seen that before where they try to put the blame — they try to put the onus on other groups and we don’t buy into that,” she said Wednesday during a regular briefing with reporters in Washington.
Western countries and independent analysts say Syrian government forces have carried out a number of chemical attacks over the course of the seven-year civil war. The U.S. has vowed to respond if Syrian forces use chemical weapons in Idlib. Western countries carried out strikes on Syrian government forces after an alleged chemical attack earlier this year.
Both Syria and Russia deny that government forces have ever used chemical arms.