MOSCOW -- Russian warships are returning to the waters near Syria in a new demonstration of the Kremlin's interest in the outcome of the crisis there.
The Russian Defense Ministry told the RIA-Novosti news agency on Tuesday that four large landing vessels were on their way to the Mediterranean near Syria, three weeks after the Russian navy conducted its biggest maneuvers in the region since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"Based on the results of the Navy exercises in the Black and Mediterranean seas from Jan. 19 through Jan. 29 ... the Ministry leadership has taken a decision to continue combat duty by Russian warships in the Mediterranean," the ministry said in its statement. “In the future the number of warships in the group and types of vessels acting in the said region will be defined in accordance with the given situation."
Russia has been a close ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad and has strategic and economic interests in the country.
The Defense Ministry said the landing ships Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin are en route to the region from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Two other big landing ships, the Saratov and the Azov, are scheduled to join them by the end of February.
"The continued presence of Russian warships close to Syria demonstrates the Kremlin's desire to keep up the Russian navy colors in the area to indicate that Russia stands by its attitude that the Syrian crisis should be resolved within the country by the country's existing political forces," Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the National Defense monthly journal said in an interview.
He added that he did not foresee the vessels taking part in any evacuation of the many Russian citizens in Syria.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has been talking about the possibility of such an evacuation. At the end of January, a contingent of 77 people, mostly women and children, were evacuated from Syria via Beirut by two Russian emergency flights.
"Should such a need arise," Korotchenko said, "Russian citizens will be evacuated to the Emergency Ministry's planes."