The UK Ministry of Defence has warned that a military conflict with Russia is firmly on the cards after President Putin deployed military aircraft towards England.
The Russian aircraft carrier fleet has moved into the North Sea as it looks set to join Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bombing campaign against ISIS militants in Aleppo, Syria.
Much to the dismay of the West, Putin has warned that any interference by Western leaders in his bombing campaign against ISIS will result in World War 3.
The Russians are trying to divide the Royal Navy’s efforts to track their fleet by recalling two corvettes from the Mediterranean, forcing the HMS Dragon to head south from Portsmouth to intercept.
It is understood there is also a Dutch submarine operating south of the English Channel.
Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the Russian decision to deploy the aircraft carrier.
Speaking upon her arrival in Brussels at her first EU summit since becoming Prime Minister, she said: ‘We must show that robust and united European stance in the face of Russian aggression.
‘The UK has put Russian actions in Syria on the agenda for this summit – we must continue to work together and it’s vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities in Syria.’
Russian media crowed abut the strength of their fleet. Military expert Alexander Khrolenko said: ‘While the North Atlantic bloc is stalling in the sands of the Middle East, the Russian Navy seizes control over the Atlantic, not to mention the Mediterranean and Black Seas.’
He added: ‘They [NATO] have no equal in the Mediterranean.’
Peter Roberts, senior research fellow for sea power and maritime studies at the Royal United Services Institute said the Russians were planning to use international waters when passing the English Channel so cannot be challenged.
He said: ‘It’s a clear and military signal that Russia is back on the international stage. They are off to conduct a mission. They are off to conduct it off Syria. They are very focused on their mission.’
There have been warnings issued to civilian aircrew, such as helicopter pilots supplying North Sea oil rigs of ‘intense naval military flying’ off Scotland’s east coast.
A Norwegian navy frigate has also been following the Russian flotilla, which is being kept under close watch by a P-3 Orion.
Two further British warships are also currently steaming up the east coast to intercept the Russian fleet after the Kremlin boasted they are ‘seizing control’ of the Mediterranean.
Type-45 destroyer HMS Duncan – the world’s most advanced air-defence destroyer – sailed from Portsmouth last night to join frigate HMS Richmond, which has intercepted the Kuznetsov task group of eight ships.
The HMS Richmond has taken up station a few hundreds yards from the task force. It will remain as an escort while the Russians remain in an area of UK national interest.
It is understood that the Belgian naval frigate Leopold I has also started trailing the flotilla.
In a sign of the escalating tensions with Russia, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon today warned Moscow: ‘When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way. We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe.’
According to the Ministry of Defence: ‘Shadowing ships is regular business for the UK Royal Navy, supported on this occasion by Royal Air Force surveillance aircraft.
‘They will continue to escort the Russian Task Group and provide a visible presence south through the North Sea and English Channel as the ships conduct their passage and carries out flying operations.’
It marks a further breakdown of relations between the two countries after after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson became embroiled in a row with the Russian embassy last week.
According to a Nato spokesman the fleet’s destination does not ‘inspire confidence’ that the nation is seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
The official said: ‘Russia has the right to operate in international waters. There are plans in place for Nato navies to monitor the Russian ships as they head for the Mediterranean.
‘At the same time, the deployment of the carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean does not inspire confidence that Russia is working towards a political solution to the conflict in Syria.’
Mr Johnson called on people to demonstrate outside Russia’s London embassy last week in protest against Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo.
But Moscow responded by branding his call for protests ‘shameful’ and accused him of ‘Russophobic hysteria’.
Britain’s mobilisation of the aircraft carrier fleet off the coast of Scotland is the latest in an increasing presence of international naval assets in the area.
After completing training it is understood the aircraft carrier fleet will head to an anchorage on the Moray Firth where it will be refuelled before continuing to the Mediterranean.
Naval assets from Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are all believed to be on standby.
As well as the Royal Navy, the Royal Norwegian Navy, Finnish Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy have vessels surrounding the North Sea.
Nato aircraft are also patrolling the area, with tanker aircraft on station ready to refuel any fighter jets tasked with observing the Russian fleet.
The United States has sent another of its Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyers into the Mediterranean in advance of the Russian fleet’s arrival.
The USS Carney was refueled in Spain according to the US Sixth Fleet and will join the Nato forces in the eastern Mediterranean.
The USS Ross is already in the region providing support for the French aircraft carrier the Charles De Gaulle.
In addition the RAF Quick Reaction Alert squadrons in RAF Lossiemouth in north east Scotland and RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire have been ordered to remain on standby in case they need to intercept any Russian jets straying into UK air space.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is protected by a battle cruiser and a pair of large anti-submarine ships.
It is also protected from below the surface by an attack submarine.
The Kuznetsov has undergone an extensive refit since its last deployment to the Mediterranean in 2014 when it had to be followed by several tugs in case its steam turbine engines packed up.
Earlier this week the Norwegian navy followed the heavily-armed fleet as it sailed south from Severomorsk, near Murmansk in the Barents Sea.
According to the Ministry of Defence, the Russian fleet is being kept under close observation by the Royal Navy and the RAF.
A source told MailOnline: ‘The Admiral Kuznetsov is currently conducting flight operations. The pilots need to be certified for carrier take-offs and landings at day and night before it takes up station in the Mediterranean.’
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.’
But he added: ‘I wouldn’t say this is the full might of their fleet’.
‘They are free to do this in international waters, but once they are in the English Channel, the aircraft will be grounded.’
The MOD confirmed the Royal Navy would shadow the carrier and its fleet while it remains in the UK’s area of interest.
Also, RAF Typhoons and Tornadoes are on red alert at airbases in Lossiemouth in North East Scotland and Coningsby in Lincolnshire in case any Russian jets stray into UK airspace
The fleet could possibly route around Ireland’s west coast to avoid the English Channel, although there is far greater shelter avoiding the Atlantic Ocean.
However, after going through the Bay of Biscay and down the Portuguese coast, the fleet will pass through the nine mile wide Gibraltar straits before reaching its area of operation.
It is understood the fleet will resupply before continuing to the Mediterranean.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is the Russian flagship and the country’s only aircraft carrier.
The French already have the Charles De Gaulle operating in the eastern Mediterranean.
Major Elisabeth Eikeland, spokeswoman for the Norwegian Army’s National Joint Headquarters said: ‘We have been informed that they are en route to the Mediterranean. It’s not every day that so many ships sail together off Norway.’
According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, the aircraft carrier taskforce departed on Saturday to the Mediterranean.
A spokesman said: ‘The group consists of the aircraft-carrying heavy cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, the Pyotr Velikiy battlecruiser, large anti-submarine ships Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov and support vessels.’
The Russian MOD claimed: ‘Special focus will be made on safeguarding security of maritime traffic and other types of maritime economic activity of Russia and also on responding to the new kinds of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism.’
The Admiral Kuznetsov had previously operated in the Mediterranean early in 2014.
The Kuznetsov is main attacking threat is the Sukhoi SU-33 Flanker D aircraft. The supersonic jets can carry up to 6.5 tonnes of bombs and missiles on 12 external hardpoints.
However, the lack of a catapult system on the Kuznetsov means the aircraft cannot take off with a full weapons or fuel load and safely make it into the air.
The SU-33 is a specially adapted version of the SU-27 – which is the Russian version of the F-15.
It has been fitted with a specially adapted undercarriage, and aerodynamic package to help it cope with operating off of a flight deck.
Also the aircraft’s wings are able to fold, meaning they can store more jets on the aircraft carrier.