Russia’s only aircraft carrier will visit Moscow’s small naval base in Syria later this year, BBC Monitoring reported citing a newspaper published by the Russian government.
“At the end of the year, most likely in early December, the Project 11435 heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser the Admiral Kuznetsov will set off on a long-distance sea voyage during which it will call at the Russian Federation Navy's logistical support centre located in the Syrian city of Tartus,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement, BBC Monitoring reported on Saturday, citing a Russian-language report in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a newspaper run by the Russian government.
The article goes on to quote a Defense Ministry staffer as saying that the route of the vessel’s “long-distance sea voyage” was already set and it was therefore unlikely to be affected by the civil war in Syria. The Admiral Kuznetsov’s stopover in Tartus is “in no way connected” to the Syrian civil war Rossiyskaya Gazeta paraphrased the staffer as saying, according to BBC Monitoring.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is Russia’s only operational aircraft carrier. The article clarifies that Russia refers to the ship as an aircraft-carrying cruiser because “under international treaties aircraft carriers are banned from passing through the Bosporus and Dardanelles…. But this ban does not extend to aircraft-carrying cruisers.”
According to the article, the carrier can hold 50 airplanes and helicopters and comes equipped with “Granit antiship missiles, Kortik and Klinok surface-to-air missiles, and Udav antisubmarine warfare systems.” The article also reports that the Admiral Kuznetsov is 14,000 square meters and carries a crew of nearly 2,200 people including flight and technical personnel.
Earlier this year a Russian naval officer told Interfax that the Navy had decided to end the Admiral Kuznetsov’s scheduled maintenance early and deploy it on a mission that would include a stopover in the Mediterranean Sea, where Russia has established a permanent naval task force in response to the hostilities in the Middle East. That report did not specify whether it deployed to the Tartus military base in Syria, although speculation abounded.
As late as Friday Interfax reported that Russia’s Defense Ministry had told the newspaper that no decision had been made yet on whether the carrier would deploy to the Tartus base after it completes maintenance later this year.
The Admiral Kuznetsov previously made a port call at Tartus in January 2012 as part of a “naval carrier group” that was on a 43-day voyage in late 2011 and early 2012. After the naval carrier group returned, Russia’s defense minister at the time said the carrier group’s presence in the Mediterranean confirmed Russia’s status as a “great naval power.”
Russia has been beefing up its Mediterranean task force over the past week as the U.S. and France contemplate air strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria for its suspected chemical weapon attacks against civilians. Last week Russian military officials told Interfax that a missile cruiser from the Black Sea Fleet and a large anti-submarine ship usually attached to the North Fleet would deploy to the Mediterranean Sea in the coming days. It clarified that both deployments were routine and had nothing to do with the Syrian conflict.
On Sunday Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian military official as saying that the SSV-201 Priazovye, a reconnaissance ship, had left Sevastopol port in the Black Sea en route to the eastern Mediterranean where it would operate separately from the naval task force already there. Specifically, the military source said the reconnaissance ship’s mission would be “"to gather current information in the area of the escalating conflict" in Syria, Reuters reported on Monday, citing the Interfax report.
The U.S. has also beefed up its naval presence off Syria’s Coast in the Mediterranean in anticipation of President Barack Obama ordering missile strikes against Syrian regime targets. Last week it was reported that the U.S. had five destroyers armed with cruise missiles stationed in the Mediterranean compared to the 3 it usually deploys to the region.
Additionally, the USS San Antonio (LPD-17), an amphibious transport dock with about a thousand Marines aboard (counting both troops and crew, according to the ship’s official website), was given orders to remain in the Mediterranean last week while it was traveling through the Red Sea on a regularly scheduled deployment. The ship can deliver 700-800 Marines on shore. U.S. officials described the decision to have the USS San Antonio remain in the region as a “precaution” and emphasized that there aren’t any plans to send U.S. Marines into Syria.
On Monday the U.S. Navy said that it had decided to station a carrier strike group centered around the USS Nimitz in the Red Sea as well, but added that there are no plans to use it in any Syrian contingency at this time. Along with the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, the carrier strike group includes four additional destroyers and one cruiser. The strike group was expected to return to the U.S. after being deployed in the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. It was re-routed to the Red Sea for “prudent positioning” purposes, U.S. officials told media outlets.
Although less acknowledged, the U.S. is almost certainly also operating submarines capable of launching cruise missiles in the region as well.
President Obama announced Saturday that he would ask Congress to support U.S. military action against Syria.