Royal Navy vessels are monitoring Russian warships as they pass through the Channel, potentially bringing supplies to the bombing campaign against the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, promised this week that the Russian fleet would be marked “every inch of the way”. No 10 confirmed that the vessels, including Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, were being shadowed by the navy as they headed towards the eastern Mediterranean via the Dover Strait.
The ships were expected to leave the Channel later on Friday.
The flotilla of Russian warships made for an incongruous sight as they made their stately progress along the Kent coast. At about 10am the vessels were clearly visible from St Margaret’s Bay, near Dover, as they steamed past the white cliffs.
The so-called Russian armada attracted a small crowd of sightseers with binoculars, and photographers armed with telephoto lenses, as it passed along the coastline in calm sea conditions with clear visibility and under beautiful blue skies.
The Admiral Kuznetsov attracted the most attention, looking like a second world war battleship, with clouds of black smoke billowing from its funnels. A fighter jet was clearly visible on the deck, glistening in the sunshine.
The Russian ships, shadowed by Royal Navy vessels, were interspersed with P&O and DFDS ferries sailing in and out of the port of Dover and by cargo and container ships in one of the busiest and most congested shipping lanes in the world.
Theresa May’s deputy official spokesman rejected suggestions that it was a sign of weakness that Russia felt able to send its ships via this route.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “I would reject suggestions that the Russians feel we are too weak. Clearly, we are not weak at all.”
The type-45 destroyer HMS Duncan sailed from Portsmouth on Tuesday to “man-mark” the Kuznetsov group, and the type-23 frigate HMS Richmond escorted the group from the Norwegian Sea as it steamed south.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the British vessels were keeping a distance of about five miles from the Russians.
“It really depends. If they are really flying you will keep well away; if they’re not flying you will get a bit closer,” the spokesman said. “It’s just about manners, really.
They know you are there if you are at 10 miles, same as they do if you’re at one mile. They will put themselves at a distance that makes it obvious that they are there but without making it either dangerous or annoying.”
According to a senior Nato diplomat quoted by Reuters, the Russian ships were likely to pass from the Channel towards Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean, heading for the Syrian coast. The source said the warships were carrying fighter bombers expected to join the attack on Aleppo.
The diplomat said: “They are deploying all of the northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the cold war.
This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.”
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said in September that the Admiral Kuznetsov and other ships would be joining a taskforce in the Mediterranean.