Russian naval task group shadowed through the North Sea by British warships

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A Russian naval task group including the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier was being shadowed through the North Sea by British warships on Thursday as it headed for the Syrian coast.

The eight-strong group was the biggest deployment of Russian naval assets seen off British shores in recent years, a Royal Navy spokesman told reporters, reports BSS.

Britain’s HMS Richmond frigate and the HMS Duncan air defence destroyer were monitoring the task group, which included the nuclear-powered Pyotr Veliky battle cruiser and the Vice-Admiral Kulakov destroyer.

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The deployment comes weeks after 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 President Bashar al-Assad and has deployed a naval contingent to back up its operation.

A Royal Navy spokesman said the size of the Russian naval force was “unusual” but that the Russian ships were “behaving very well”, including booking areas for flying and calling up coastguard stations.

“The special part of this is definitely the aircraft carrier.

“If you just wanted to keep it safe, you put a destroyer and a frigate with it. If you wanted to show a bit of muscle, you do what they’re doing now,” he said.

But he added: “I wouldn’t say this is the full might of their fleet”.

A NATO official said the deployment “does not inspire confidence” that Moscow is seeking a political solution to the Syria crisis.

“There are plans in place for NATO navies to monitor the Russian ships as they head for the Mediterranean,” the official told AFP.

The Russian fleet was monitored by Norwegian ships and planes as it sailed through international waters off Norway earlier this week before nearing Britain.

Another British defence ministry spokesman said the Russian ships were expected in the North Sea later on Thursday.

Meanwhile, European Union leaders meeting in Brussels were weighing sanctions against supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime if they fail to stop atrocities, according to a draft summit statement that appeared to target Russia.

Though Moscow is not mentioned explicitly regarding sanctions, the draft statement sharpens the tone against Russia and its role in the five-year Syrian civil war.

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