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Russian ‘sabre-rattling’ sees rising Royal Navy warship response

Figures obtained by the Press Association reveal a sharp increase in Russian naval movements near the UK.

British fighter jets and warships have responded to Russian military activity near the UK more than 160 times since 2010.

The figures reveal a dramatic increase in naval movements, with the Royal Navy activated in response to Russian ships on 33 occasions in 2017, compared to just once in 2010.

The naval activity is partly linked to Moscow’s involvement in the conflict in Syria, which has seen Russian warships travel through the Strait of Dover en route to the eastern Mediterranean.

Figures obtained by the Press Association show that Royal Navy ships were activated in response to Russian navy vessels approaching UK territorial waters on 103 occasions between 2010 and 2017.

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An RAF Typhoon, with the Russian Warships Petr Velikiy (centre) and the Admiral Kuznetsov (background) as they transit near to UK sovereign waters on their way back to Russia (MoD Crown Copyright/PA)

There were 33 occasions in 2017, 20 times in 2016, 14 in 2015, 11 in 2014, 12 in 2013, eight in 2012, four in 2011 and just one in 2010.

Russian naval activity linked to the Syria campaign, where Vladimir Putin’s forces are supporting Bashar Assad’s regime, was illustrated by the movement of aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Kuznetsov and her escorts were “man-marked” by Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan and Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond as the battlegroup passed through the English Channel en route to Syria in 2016.

They were then picked up by Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans as the Russian ships made the return journey in 2017.

There is certainly an element of sabre-rattling to it - they want to be taken seriously as a significant military power Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute

Justin Bronk, a research fellow at defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said as well as naval movements relating to Syria, there had also been “a significant increase in Russian submarine activity”.

The lack of UK maritime patrol aircraft meant there had to be “a lot more surface activity to try and cover that off”.

The peak of aerial activity was in 2011, when jets on quick reaction alert (QRA) duties were scrambled on 10 separate days.

The figures show QRA fighters were launched on three days in 2017, five in 2016, eight times in each of 2015, 2014 and 2013, nine days in 2012, 10 in 2011 and seven in 2010.

The RAF routinely intercepts, identifies and escorts Russian aircraft that transit international airspace within the UK’s area of interest.

The aircraft are often long-range bombers such as the Tupolev TU-160 Blackjack or TU-95 Bear.

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Russian Tupolev TU-160 Blackjack aircraft have been intercepted by RAF jets (MoD/PA)

Mr Bronk said although the amount of QRA scrambles may have declined, there had been a trend of “larger groups of aircraft” being sent by Russia.

Part of the reason for the operations was “reminding Nato they are there”, he said, adding: “There is certainly an element of sabre-rattling to it.

“They want to be taken seriously as a significant military power.

“One way to do that is to force QRA scrambles.

“It’s part of an ongoing pattern of the Russians trying to keep up consistent military activity across Nato – it fits in with a lot of airspace probing around the Baltic states and Sweden as well as submarine activity, surface activity and of course what they are doing in Syria.”

The Ministry of Defence refused to give details of the naval vessels involved in monitoring operations or further information on the QRA launches.

In its response, the MoD said: “While it is recognised that there is a high level of interest in activities of this nature, it is considered that release of the full details of such incidents has the potential to compromise the current and future operational effectiveness of our armed forces’ deterrent capability.”

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