Russian Warships in English Channel Force British Navy to Scramble for Third Time in a Month

A picture taken on August 19, 2013 shows British frigate HMS Westminster arriving in Gibraltar. Marcos Moreno/AFP/Getty Images

The British Royal Navy has been repeatedly called upon to shadow and track Russian navy ships in the English Channel, scrambling its high readiness frigate to intercept a quartet of military vessels.

The British military announced on Monday that the latest intercept, which included two Russian frigates and a further two support vessels, took place over the weekend. In a statement, London said that the HMS Westminster left its Portsmouth dock to shadow the four ships as they sailed near U.K. territorial waters in stormy conditions.

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The channel is one of the world's busiest shipping routes, worth billions to the U.K. whose main trade partners in Europe rely on it. HMS Westminster's scramble follows two similar missions by other Royal Navy ships and another by naval aviation, all in late December.

"While today most people are returning to work for the first time in the New Year, HMS Westminster's ship's company has been at sea and at readiness as part of the Royal Navy's commitment to keep Britain safe at all times," Simon Kelly, the Commanding Officer of HMS Westminster said on Monday.

"The English Channel is an absolute lifeline for the U.K., and it is very important HMS Westminster and the Royal Navy maintains a watchful eye on this key strategic link," he added.

According to the Royal Navy's statement, the Russian vessels appeared to have been sailing towards the Baltic Sea, after returning from combat in Syria.

HMS Westminster's intercept follows a Christmas Day mission by frigate HMS St Albans spent her Christmas at sea escorting another Russian warship, the Admiral Gorshkov and an escort of a Russian intelligence-gathering ship by the HMS Tyne a day earlier. Simultaneously with HMS Tyne, British forces also scrambled a Wildcat helicopter from Yeovilton, to keep an eye on two more Russian vessels transiting waters of interest to the U.K.

London and Moscow's relationship deteriorated in 2014, as Russia's annexation of Crimea triggered outrage in the West. Over the past year top military and defense officials on both sides traded barbs over the prowess of the other's aircraft carrier capabilities. The tense political relationship between the two countries has colored the perception of military maneuvers.

"I will not hesitate in defending our waters or tolerate any form of aggression," U.K. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson vowed, in the wake of the recent uptick in the number of Russian navy vessels appearing near the U.K. "Britain will never be intimidated when it comes to protecting our country, our people, and our national interests."

Following a declaration of accomplishing its mission in Syria, the Russian military has pledged a drawdown of forces in the Middle East. Albeit, the extent of the pullback is unclear and Moscow has said that the Syrian airfield that it acquired after the start of its 2015 intervention and the port that served as a base of operations for its ships will remain under its control.

The Russian port in Syria appears to be a long-term investment for the Kremlin, asking Russian lawmakers to ratify a deal last month that could see their forces upgrade the premises and remain there for almost 50 more years.