MOSCOW — The Russian military conducted broad drills in the Mediterranean Sea on Friday, including jets capable of carrying hypersonic missiles, in a show of force in the wake of an incident with a British destroyer in the Black Sea.
On Wednesday, Moscow said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the route of the British destroyer Defender to drive her out of Russian territorial seas near Crimea. Britain rejected the claim, claiming that its ship was not attacked and that it was traveling in Ukrainian seas.
The Russian maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean, which began on Friday, coinciding with the presence of a British carrier strike group in the area. British and American F-35 warplanes from HMS Queen Elizabeth performed combat missions against the Islamic State organization earlier this week.
Since September 2015, Russia has been conducting a military operation in Syria, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime to recover control of the majority of the nation following a catastrophic civil war.
A pair of MiG-31 fighter planes capable of carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles landed at a Russian airbase in Syria and performed flights simulating strikes on targets in the Mediterranean, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. In the coastal region of Latakia, the Hemeimeem airfield serves as the major center for Moscow’s activities in the nation.
The Kinzhal travels at ten times the speed of sound and has a range of up to 2000 kilometers, according to the military (about 1,250 miles).
Several warships, two submarines, and long-range Tu-22M3 bombers, as well as other combat aircraft, are taking part in the exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, according to the Defense Ministry. Last month, the supersonic, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3s were first deployed to Syria as part of a show of Russian military might in the Mediterranean.
The Russian military has upgraded Hemeimeem’s runway to handle large bombers and built a second one to increase operations.
Russia has also enlarged and upgraded a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, which is presently Russia’s sole such station outside of the former Soviet Union.
After Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula, ties with the West have deteriorated to post-Cold War lows, prompting the Russian military to boost the frequency and scope of its drills. The Russian navy has resurrected the Soviet-era practice of continuously rotating its vessels in the Mediterranean in recent years as part of President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to strengthen up Russia’s military.
Commodore Steve Moorhouse, speaking to reporters onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth on Sunday, said the eastern Mediterranean has grown more “congested and disputed” as a result of the increased Russian military presence in Syria, which has resulted in regular contacts with Russian ships and airplanes. A Russian vessel has approached the carrier within 10 kilometers (16 miles), he said.
Britain claimed the Defender was on a normal voyage in an internationally recognized transit lane and remained in Ukrainian seas near Crimea during the Black Sea incident on Wednesday. Despite Russia’s takeover of Crimea, the United Kingdom, like the rest of the world, acknowledges the peninsula as part of Ukraine.
Russia condemned the Defender’s action as a provocation and warned that if invading vessels tried to test the Russian military’s resolve again, it might be fired at.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry, mocked British allegations that the Russian military fired warning rounds at the Defender on Friday, urging Britain and its allies not to “tempt fate.” The Defender is “simply a tasty target for the Black Sea Fleet’s missile weapons,” he continued.