Last week’s incident, coming as it did at a time when the world is facing the collective onslaught of COVID-19, was seen by many as a deliberately timed act of provocation by Russia’s President. Furthermore, Iain Ballantyne, Editor WARSHIPS International Fleet Review, pointed to military exercises in the east Mediterranean carried out against “mock enemy” – commenting: “That can only mean NATO.” With the total number of confirmed cases hitting 900,000 according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Centre, much of the world is under lockdown.
The Russian military has made a point during the pandemic of carrying on with business as usual
In contrast, with the official total in Russia standing at just 2,337, with 17 deaths, Mr Putin has attempted to project an air of business-as-usual.
Mr Ballantyne told Express.co.uk: “Like other nations Russia has triggered a widespread military response to the coronavirus within its own borders while also sending medical specialists from its armed forces to Italy, in order to help battle the virus there.
“However, while NATO – quite sensibly – curtailed or called off some major combat training exercises, the Russian military has made a point during the pandemic of carrying on with business as usual.
“This may merely reflect the fact that they have unity of purpose as a single state, rather than trying to work as part of a multi-national defensive coalition like NATO.
Vladimir Putin is testing the UK’s resolve, said Mr Ballantyne
HMS Tyne shadows the Russian vessel Steregushchiy
“The Alliance has many different players to co-ordinate, all of whom will have different national priorities, especially in this time of global crisis.
However, he added: “Above and beyond long-planned exercises, there have also been major deployments by Russian Navy units into waters close to the shores of NATO nations.
“These have included sending seven warships – two frigates, three corvettes and two amphibious assault vessels – into the North Sea and through the English Channel.
Russian military exercises similar to this one in January are ongoing despite the pandemic
“This was unprecedented for its size, at least in recent years.”
Usually Russian task groups – including the nuclear-powered battle-cruiser RFS Peter the Great, aircraft carrier RFS Kuznetsov and guided-missile submarine RFS Orel – had only one or two escorts and a few support vessels.
By contrast, five of the combatants deployed into the North Sea and English Channel were among the latest type in Russian service, with the ability to launch precisions strikes deep inland with cruise missiles.
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HMS Argyll pictured in the English Channel
HMS Echo was also in the flotilla
Mr Ballantyne said: “The sailing of so many modern, cutting-edge Russian surface combatants through NATO waters, along with a gaggle of fleet support ships, was a deliberate show of force to demonstrate Moscow is not wilting under the coronavirus onslaught.
And it was not just restricted to waters off northern Europe.
“At around the same time, in the eastern Mediterranean, three equally modern Russian frigates staged a fire power demonstration, firing missiles and guns at targets in the sea and in the air.
The seven Russian warships were tracked in the English Channel
“According to the Russian Navy it was ‘a training exercise to destroy a detachment of ships of the mock enemy.’ That ‘mock enemy’ could only be NATO.”
In total nine British ships shadowed the Russian vessels in waters around the UK, the Royal Navy confirmed on Thursday.
Type 23 frigates HMS Kent, HMS Sutherland, HMS Argyll and HMS Richmond joined Offshore Patrol Vessels HMS Tyne and HMS Mersey together with RFA Tideforce, RFA Tidespring and HMS Echo for the operation, with support from NATO allies.
Vladmir Putin on board a Russian warship
Lieutenant Nick Ward, HMS Tyne’s Executive Officer, said: “As the Armed Forces are helping the NHS save lives in the UK, it’s essential the Navy continues to deliver the tasks we have always performed to help keep Britain safe.
“This is very much part of routine business for HMS Tyne and represents one of the many roles our patrol vessels perform in support of the Royal Navy’s commitments.
“This is our core business and represents an enduring commitment to uphold the security of the UK.”