Russia could launch airstrikes from its carrier operating in the Eastern Mediterranean to targets in Syria sometime this week, a U.S. official told USNI News on Tuesday.
Russian news site Gazeta.ru quoted an unnamed source in the ministry of defense that air and cruise missile strikes against rebels opposed to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad could start within the next day.
The source said the main objective of the carrier strike group from Russia’s northern fleet – along with additional ships from the Black Sea fleet – was to launch strikes against rebels near Aleppo.
A U.S. defense official confirmed to USNI News that the Russian action group — made up of the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, cruiser Peter the Great and two Udaloy-class guided missile destroyers plus auxiliaries — is operating south of Cyprus and could launch strikes as early this week.
The action group entered the Mediterranean Sea last week after being resupplied by Russian logistics forces.
In addition to the Mikoyan MiG-29Ks and Sukhoi Su-33 fighters operating from the Kuznetsov, the Russians are expanding their strike options in the region.
The new frigate Admiral Grigorovich sortied from Sevastopol and departed to most likely join the action group. The frigate passed through the Bosporus Strait on Friday along with an auxiliary tug.
Grigorovich is armed with Russian Kalibir NK long-range land attack cruise missiles – first used operationally last year in strikes in Syria from Russian patrol ships in the Caspian Sea.
The inclusion of the frigate “means to me is the Russians are not going away,” Eric Wertheim, naval analyst and author of U.S. Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World, told USNI News.
“It seems like they are really taking it seriously.
The addition of the Kalibir would add an additional strike option – similar to the U.S. Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) – to the Russian capabilities off of Syria.
While Grigorovich only has the capability to field eight Kalibir the Russians could also easily use Kalibir equipped submarines that are likely operating in the region.
Given Russia has operated from airfields in Syria since last year and introduced major anti-air weapon systems into the country over the last several months the capability the ships bring to the fight inside Syrian borders is negligible.
However, the presence of the Russian action group could complicate the military equation for operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the last year, the U.S. has launched strikes into Syria from the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the Persian Gulf.
Last year, the Russian Navy sent a Black Sea Fleet surface action group to provide an air defense bubble for its land-based fighters operating out of an airbase in Latakia.