LONDON • Two British warships "man-marked" a flotilla of Russian warships as they sailed through the English Channel yesterday on their way to the eastern Mediterranean, in the latest cat-and-mouse encounter in two years of Cold-War style tensions between Moscow and the West.
Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and other naval vessels were in international waters, but British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said Britain would "be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe", the BBC reported yesterday.
The Admiral Kuznetsov, capable of carrying more than 50 aircraft, is the only carrier in the Russian navy. Its weapons systems include Granit anti-ship cruise missiles.
Britain's HMS Richmond, a frigate, and HMS Duncan, an air defence destroyer, steamed from Portsmouth on Tuesday to track the Kuznetsov group as it headed south from the Norwegian Sea.
"We are concerned Russia's carrier group will support military operations in Syria in ways which increase human and civilian suffering," Mr Jens Stoltenberg, chief of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), said on Thursday at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
"This group may be used to... increase attacks on Aleppo," the former Norwegian premier told a press conference after talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
Mr Stoltenberg said Nato was also concerned about Russia's "continuing destabilisation" of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow-backed rebels are battling Ukrainian government forces two years after what he reiterated as Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.
European Union leaders also meeting in the Belgian capital meanwhile warned Russia that they will consider sanctions over its role in the Syrian conflict if Moscow does not stop "crimes" in the devastated city of Aleppo.
Nato-Russia ties have sunk to lows not seen since the Cold War as President Vladimir Putin reasserts Russian power through intervention in both Ukraine and Syria, according to news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).
A Royal Navy spokesman told AFP that the battle group was the biggest deployment of Russian naval assets seen off British shores in recent years.
"It's clearly designed... to test our response, and any weaknesses in the alliance, and we must make sure we respond in due measure," Mr Fallon said.
The deployment comes after Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the Admiral Kuznetsov, part of its Northern Fleet, would be sent to the eastern Mediterranean to boost its naval forces in the area.
Russia has been staging a bombing campaign in Syria for the past year in support of long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad and deployed a naval contingent to back up its operation, AFP reported.
A Royal Navy spokesman said the Russian ships were "behaving very well", including booking areas for flying and calling up coastguard stations.
A Nato official said separately the deployment "does not inspire confidence" that Moscow is seeking a political solution to the Syria crisis even as it implemented a temporary "humanitarian pause" to operations on Thursday.
Since tensions erupted over Ukraine two years ago, Russian air and naval forces have had a number of close shaves with their Nato counterparts, according to AFP.
In November, Nato member Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Turkish-Syrian border, sending relations into a tailspin before both sides recently mended fences.