NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the media following a NATO-Russia Council meeting in April 2016.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the media following a NATO-Russia Council meeting in April 2016. (NATO)

STUTTGART, Germany — A Russian aircraft carrier is steaming toward the Mediterranean Sea, sparking concerns that Moscow intends to intensify its bombing campaign in Syria by dispatching a 30 year-old vessel on its first ever combat deployment.

However, the move could be as much about optics as tactics as Moscow seeks to showcase to Western adversaries its ability to deploy a range of forces far and wide.

Unlike the United States, which uses an airbase in neighboring Turkey to conduct airstrikes in Syria, the Russian military already is well-positioned inside Syria itself, where its aircraft operate from bases under the control of the government of Bashar Assad, a longtime ally.

NATO is monitoring the Russian carrier group’s moves.

“We are concerned this Russian carrier group will support military operations in Syria in ways that will increase humanitarian suffering,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a news conference at his Brussels headquarters.

On Thursday, Russia’s only flattop, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and a group of accompanying warships — including the nuclear-powered battlecruiser Peter the Great — were sailing through the North Sea and English Channel.

The deployment of Russian sea-going firepower comes at a tense time between the West and Russia, whose relations are at an all-time post-Cold War low. Disputes run the gamut — from allegations over Russian cyber meddling in the U.S. presidential election to Ukraine and the conflict in Syria, where Russian and Syrian planes have been bombing rebel-held parts of the city of Aleppo.

Stoltenberg said Russia’s air campaign has targeted civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, in the city.

“I welcome that we now have a temporary cease-fire, but that is in no way enough,” Stoltenberg said, calling the situation a “desperate humanitarian crisis.”

Moscow counters that it is targeting Islamic extremist groups in Aleppo such as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida aligned band of militants.

Earlier this month, Russia announced plans to expand its naval supply base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which in the past has been a logistical hub for Russian ships patrolling in the Mediterranean. The plan is to install new air and anti-submarine defense systems, enhanced docking capacity and command and control infrastructure, Russian officials have said.

“We are going to have a permanent navy base in Tartus,” Russian Gen. Nikolay Pankov said earlier this month.

At U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, officials said they are monitoring the Russian fleet as they do any other large ship movements through its area of interest. “It is what we do to ensure safety of navigation for U.S. and coalition forces,” EUCOM spokeswoman Meghan Henderson said.

Russia sending warships through the Mediterranean is not uncommon, and in and of itself is not of concern, Stoltenberg said.

“It is important to underline Russia has the right to operate in international waters, and this is not the first time we have seen this carrier group deployed to the Mediterranean,” Stoltenberg said. “What creates concern now is this carrier group may be used to contribute to the military operation over Syria and be used to increase attacks in Aleppo.”

Russia’s 30-year-old Admiral Kuznetsov has been in and out of service over the years due to technical problems. The 55,000-ton vessel carries an air wing of up to 40 jets and helicopters.

author picture
John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now