Russia Deploys Fighter Jets to Syria for Drills Days After Encounter With U.K. Warship

Russia's military launched warplanes into Syria just days after they claimed to have fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of a British destroyer, the Associated Press reported.

Moscow said one of its warships fired warning shots and a warplane dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer Defender on Wednesday to force her out of an area near Crimea that Russia claims as its territorial waters. Britain denied that account, insisted its ship wasn't fired upon and said she was sailing in Ukrainian waters.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the pair of MiG-31 fighter jets are capable of carrying Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and arrived at the Hemeimeem airbase in Syria for an exercise.

Russia has had a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, helping Syrian President Bashar Assad and his government reclaim control after a devastating civil war.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Russian Fighter Jets Over Kremlin
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MAY 09: Russian jet fighters fly over the Kremlin during the military parade at Red Square on May 9, 2021 in Moscow, Russia. Victory Day is a holiday that commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The Russian drills that began Friday in the eastern Mediterranean come as a British carrier strike group is in the area. Earlier this week, British and U.S. F-35 fighters from HMS Queen Elizabeth flew combat sorties against the Islamic State group.

It's the first time the warplanes capable of carrying Kinzhal have been deployed outside Russia's borders.

The military says the Kinzhal flies at 10 times the speed of sound and has a range of up to 2000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles).

The Russian Defense Ministry said the maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean involve several warships, two submarines and long-range Tu-22M3 bombers along with other combat aircraft. The supersonic, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3s were first deployed to Syria last month in a demonstration of an increased Russian military foothold in the Mediterranean.

The Russian military has modernized the runway at Hemeimeem to accommodate heavy bombers and built a second one to expand the operations there.

Russia also has expanded and modified a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such facility that Russia currently has outside the former Soviet Union.

The Russian military has increased the number and scope of its drills amid a bitter strain in relations with the West, which have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. As part of President Vladimir Putin's efforts to beef up Russia's military, the Russian navy in recent years has revived the Soviet-era practice of constantly rotating its warships in the Mediterranean.

Speaking to reporters Sunday aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, Commodore Steve Moorhouse said the eastern Mediterranean has become more "congested and contested" with the heavier Russian military presence in Syria, resulting in regular encounters with Russian ships and warplanes. He noted that a Russian warship has come within 10 kilometers (16 miles) of the carrier.

Russian Air Force MiG-31K jet
FILE In this file photo taken on Wednesday, May 9, 2018, a Russian Air Force MiG-31K jet carries a high-precision hypersonic aero-ballistic missile Kh-47M2 Kinzhal during the Victory Day military parade to celebrate 73 years since the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany, in Moscow, Russia. The Russian military says it launched maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean that involve MiG-31 armed with the new Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, which arrived at the Russian airbase in Syria for the exercise. Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press