Russia has deployed two powerful warships to the Mediterranean Sea to augment its normal naval presence amid rising expectations of Western airstrikes on its ally, Syria.
A senior Russian naval officer denied Thursday that the dispatch of an anti-submarine ship and a guided-missile cruiser were in response to U.S. and European naval buildups in preparation for possible punitive strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But Russia's Interfax news agency this week quoted an unidentified Russian General Staff source as saying that "the well-known situation now in the eastern Mediterranean required us to make some adjustments to the naval force."
The United States on Thursday dispatched a fifth guided-missile destroyer, the Stout, to the region as Western threats loomed of punishing Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed in the attacks.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed naval official as saying the latest warship movements were part of a "planned rotation," and not in response to the mounting indications that a U.S.-led strike on Syria may occur soon.
It was unclear how many naval vessels Russia would have in the region once the missile cruiser Moskva of the Black Sea Fleet arrives from its current deployment in the Northern Atlantic. The anti-submarine vessel, which was not identified by name in the Russian media reports, is part of Russia's Northern Fleet, RIA Novosti said.
The commander of the Russian navy, Adm. Viktor Chirkov, told Zvezda television this week that Russia "should have five or six vessels permanently deployed in the Mediterranean," but did not say how many were already in the area.
In June, Russia's armed forces chief of staff said the navy had permanently based 16 warships in the Mediterranean, as well as ship-based helicopter units.
Russia may have deployed the extra naval power this week in a muscle-flexing exercise, to put Western forces on notice that Moscow is keeping watch over the tense standoff with its most important ally in the Middle East. Russia maintains a strategic naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus but has reportedly evacuated civilian and nonessential personnel in recent days.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Wednesday the Kremlin's strong opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria's 2½-year-old civil war. Lavrov warned that any strike without U.N. Security Council authorization would constitute a violation of international law, though the Russians have also indicated that they would oppose such a U.N. resolution.
The Russian ships now steaming toward the eastern Mediterranean would be capable of detecting cruise missile firings from Western vessels and of warning Damascus of the incoming munitions. They are also equipped with jamming equipment that could interfere with radar and communications aboard other ships in the region.