Russia beefs up Baltic Fleet amid NATO tensions

(L-R) Russian navy corvette Steregushchy, destroyer Nastoichivy and frigate Admiral Gorshkov are anchored in a bay of the Russian fleet base in Baltiysk in Kaliningrad region, Russia

By Andrew Osborn and Simon Johnson

MOSCOW/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Russia is sharply upgrading the firepower of its Baltic Fleet in Kaliningrad by adding warships armed with long-range cruise missiles to counter NATO’s build-up in the region, Russian media reported on Wednesday.

There was no official confirmation from Moscow, but the reports will raise tensions in the Baltic, already heightened since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and are likely to cause alarm in Poland and Lithuania which border Kaliningrad.

The reported deployment comes as NATO is planning its biggest military build-up on Russia’s borders since the Cold War to deter possible Russian aggression and will be seen as a riposte to that.

Russia’s daily Izvestia newspaper cited a military source as saying that the first two of five ships, the Serpukhov and the Zeleny Dol, had already entered the Baltic Sea and would soon become part of a newly formed division in Kaliningrad, Russia’s European exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Another source familiar with the situation told the Interfax news agency that the two warships would be joining the Baltic Fleet in the coming days.

“With the appearance of two small missile ships armed with the Kalibr cruise missiles the Fleet’s potential targeting range will be significantly expanded in the northern European military theater,” the source told Interfax.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, which said earlier this month the two ships were en route to the Mediterranean, did not respond to a request for comment, but NATO and the Swedish military confirmed the two warships had entered the Baltic.

“NATO navies are monitoring this activity near our borders,” said Dylan White, the alliance’s acting spokesman.

The Buyan-M class corvettes are armed with nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles, known by the NATO code name Sizzler, which the Russian military says have a range of at least 1,500 km (930 miles).

Though variants of the missile are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the ships are believed to be carrying conventional warheads.

“The addition of Kalibr missiles would increase the strike range not just of the Baltic Fleet, but of Russian forces in the Baltic region, fivefold,” said Ben Nimmo, a defense analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, who has been tracking the ships’ progress.

“The two small corvettes, with their modern, nuclear-capable missiles, may yet have an impact out of proportion to their size in the Baltic.”


Izvestia said Russia’s Baltic Fleet would probably receive a further three such small warships armed with the same missiles by the end of 2020.

It said the Baltic Fleet’s coastal defenses would also be beefed up with the Bastion and Bal land-based missile systems. The Bastion is a mobile defense system armed with two anti-ship missiles with a range of up to 300 km (188 miles). The Bal anti-ship missile has a similar range.

Sweden’s Defence Minister said his country was worried by the presence of the warships in the Baltic Sea, complaining the move was likely to keep tension in the region high.

“This is … worrying and is not something that helps to reduce tensions in our region,” Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told Sweden’s national TT news agency. “This affects all the countries round the Baltic.”

Swedish media said the Kalibr missiles had the range to hit targets across the Nordic region. The Russian Defence Ministry said in August that the two corvettes had been used to fire cruise missiles at militants in Syria.

When asked about the deployment, a Polish government spokesman said Warsaw was not commenting on the situation in the Baltic sea “for the moment.”

Earlier this month, Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into Kaliningrad leading to protests from Lithuania and Poland.

(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Andrew Heavens)

Major Russian naval deployment to intensify Aleppo assault

A general view taken with a drone shows Aleppo's historic citadel, controlled by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, as seen from a rebel-held area of Aleppo, Syria

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Russian warships off the coast of Norway are carrying fighter bombers that are likely to reinforce a final assault on the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo in two weeks, a senior NATO diplomat said on Wednesday, citing Western intelligence.

The fleet passed by the Norwegian city of Bergen on Wednesday, the diplomat said, while Russian media has said it will move through the English Channel, past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea to the Syrian coast.

“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,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

“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,” the diplomat said.

Photos of the vessels have been released by the Norwegian military, taken on Monday. A Norwegian newspaper quoted the head of the Norwegian military intelligence service saying the ships involved “will probably play a role in the deciding battle for Aleppo”.

Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with an air campaign against the Western rebels in the devastated eastern part of Aleppo, has said the deployment will target Islamic State militants in Syria.

But the NATO diplomat said the additional military firepower was designed to drive out or destroy the 8,000 rebels in Aleppo, the only large city still in opposition hands, and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to start a withdrawal.

An intensified air campaign in eastern Aleppo, where 275,000 people are trapped, would further worsen ties between Moscow and the West, which says the Kremlin may be responsible for war crimes.

NATO officials also say that strategically, Russia’s air strikes are securing its interests by protecting Assad and Russia’s Syrian port in Tartous, which boosts its access to the Black Sea that it controls after taking the Crimean peninsula.

“With this assault, it should be enough to allow a Russian exit strategy if Moscow believes Assad is now stable enough to survive,” the diplomat said.

The fleet off Norway includes Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which is carrying jet fighters, and the Soviet-era nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy, or Peter the Great. Other Russian vessels in the group include the anti-submarine warships of the Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov and support ships, Russian media has reported.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Vietnam gives thumbs-up to U.S. regional role

US and Vietnam leaders

HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnam supports U.S. “intervention” in the Asia-Pacific if it helps keep peace and stability, the defense ministry said, in a timely endorsement of a continued U.S. presence amid uncertainty over Washington’s faltering “pivot”.

Vice defense minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, met on Monday with Cara Abercrombie, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, and told her Vietnam backed a positive U.S. role.

The general’s words of support, conveyed by a normally reclusive defense ministry, come when the United States most needs them, with its “rebalance” – aimed at boosting its Asian foothold and tempering China’s rise – now under strain in the run-up to a U.S. presidential election.

Vinh “affirmed that Vietnam will support the U.S and other partners to intervene in the region as long as it brings peace, stability and prosperity”, it said in a statement.

At the dialogue, Abercrombie said the United States would not change its rebalance strategy, the statement added.

Uncertainty lingers in Asia over changes ahead at the White House and whether a new leadership would give less priority to keeping China in check as it grows increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, a waterway vital to global trade.

Washington’s traditional defense alliances in Southeast Asia are currently being tested, with ties with Thailand frosty since a 2014 coup and questions about the future of a tight military relationship with the Philippines under volatile new President Rodrigo Duterte, a staunch U.S. critic.

Relations between the United States and Vietnam, in contrast, have warmed substantially in the past two years, much to do with jitters over the South China Sea to which Hanoi has disputes with Beijing.

The latest affirmation of those ties came after the full lifting of a U.S. lethal arms embargo on Vietnam in May, allowing closer defense links and some joint military exercises between the former enemies.

Two U.S. warships earlier this month made a call at a new international port built at Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh Bay in a brief but symbolic return for U.S. combat vessels.

The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam last week admitted the U.S. dynamism once seen in the region had “a little bit diminished”, but said there was still appetite for U.S. involvement.

Ted Osius also said a dramatic change in U.S.-Vietnam ties was “not about to happen” because of Philippine leader Duterte’s outreach toward China.

(Reporting by My Pham; Editing by Martin Petty)

France Sells Egypt Two Warships Originally Meant for Russia

According to the French government, Egypt agreed to buy two Mistral-class helicopter carriers that was originally going to be sold to Russia.

The contract between Russia and France was signed in 2011, but was suspended when violent unrest broke out in eastern Ukraine last year. After the suspension of the contract, France refunded $1 billion to Russia. The original contract was to be the biggest arms sale in history between a NATO country and Russia.

These new vessels will add powerful capabilities in Egypt’s fight against Islamist threats across Egypt’s western border in Libya and along the Sinai Peninsula. The deal was closed Tuesday after talks between French President Francois Hollande and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Egypt is expected to take possession of the ships in March of next year, officials said. In the meantime, Egypt will be sending 400 soldiers to France to learn how to man the new warships.

“France will assure delivery of these boats while losing nothing, and by doing so protecting Egypt,” Hollande said.

This isn’t the first arms deal between the two countries. Egypt has also bought 24 advanced Rafale fighter jets from France earlier this year.

China Showing Off Military Might

China is making a demonstration of its military might both through ocean maneuvers and a parade of new technology.

The first major flexing of China’s military muscle came during the incident of ships off the coast of Alaska during a visit by President Obama.  The ships entered US territorial waters for the first time, passing within 12 nautical miles of the Alaskan coast.

US military officials say the ships complied with international law despite their proximity to Alaska.

“They already had one of their icebreakers up in that area, and they weren’t that far away with an exercise, and they’ve already started their return transit,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told Reuters.

Meanwhile, the military used the anniversary of the ending of World War II to display in a parade a missile that’s designed to take out an aircraft carrier.

The missile, called the Dongfeng DF-21D, is designed to enter space like an intercontinental ballistic missile but the warhead will detach and use radar to target a ship.

“The significance of that weapon is that its warhead, once it detaches from the launching vehicle, is able to slow its descent, turn on a radar seeker, and maneuver to engage a moving ship if it is in the radar “footprint” of the seeker,” Michael McDevitt, a retired United States rear admiral and analyst at CNA Strategic Studies, told the New York Times.

“This is unusual because normally ballistic, by definition, means that once fired, a weapon goes straight to where it was aimed. Heretofore, a ballistic missile with a conventional warhead would not be effective against a moving target because during the time of flight of the missile the target would have moved. The maneuvering warhead is Cold War technology, first introduced as I understand it with the Pershing II land-based missiles Reagan stationed in Europe.”

The missiles have a range of about 900 miles, meaning China could use them to keep American naval vessels out of the South China Sea in the event China attacks Taiwan.

Chinese Warships Operate Near Alaskan Coast for First Time

Five Chinese naval vessels have been spotted operating in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast for the first time.

The Wall Street Journal confirmed Pentagon officials saying they haven’t seen the Chinese navy act in this manner until now.

“The officials said they have been aware in recent days that three Chinese combat ships, a replenishment vessel and an amphibious ship were in the vicinity after observing them moving toward the Aleutian Islands, which are split between U.S. and Russian control,” the Journal stated the officials confirmed.

“They said the Chinese ships were still in the area, but declined to specify when the vessels were first spotted or how far they were from the coast of Alaska, where President Barack Obama is winding up a three-day visit.”

“This would be a first in the vicinity of the Aleutian Islands. I don’t think we’d characterize anything they’re doing as threatening,” an unnamed defense official told the Washington Free Beacon.

Analysts speculate this is another attempt by China to assert their influence beyond their region.  China’s leader will be in Washington this month to meet with President Obama and the action could be an attempt to show strength before the meetings.