Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has visited Syria for talks with President Bashar al-Assad and to inspect a Russian airbase in the war-torn country, his ministry said, amid heightened tensions between the West and Moscow over Ukraine.
The trip comes as the Russian military deployed long-range nuclear-capable bombers and fighter jets carrying state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles to its airbase in Syria for massive naval drills in the region.
During a meeting in Damascus on Tuesday, Shoigu “informed the Syrian president about the exercises of the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean”, Russia’s defence ministry said in a statement.
The two discussed “military-technical cooperation as part of the joint fight” against international “terrorism” and Russian humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria “suffering from the prohibitive sanctions of the United States and Western countries”.
The statement said Shoigu also inspected Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which has served as Russia’s main outpost in the Middle Eastern country. Moscow has also expanded and modified a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only such facility that Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.
It wasn’t clear from the statement precisely when the meeting took place.
The Defence Ministry said the exercise in the eastern Mediterranean that involves 15 warships and about 30 aircraft is part of a series of sweeping naval drills that started last month amid the standoff over Ukraine. It said the manoeuvers were intended to train for action to “protect national interests” and “fend off military threats against the Russian Federation”.
Long-range, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31 fighter jets carrying the latest Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missiles landed at the Russian airbase in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia as part of the drills. The military says the Kinzhal has a range of up to 2,000km (about 1,250 miles) and flies at 10 times the speed of sound, making it hard to intercept.
The deployment of Kinzhal missiles to Syria appears to be intended to showcase the Russian military’s capability to threaten the US carrier strike group in the Mediterranean.
The Defence Ministry said the Russian navy chief reported to Shoigu that the drills envisaged practice in targeting enemy warships.
Moscow has been a key ally of the Assad regime throughout the Syrian conflict that erupted in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
Russia’s military intervention in 2015 helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favour and Moscow maintains military bases in the country.
Russia’s political and military support for Syria has been a particular sticking point in Moscow’s relations with the West, which has imposed sanctions on Moscow for bolstering the Assad regime.
Tensions between Moscow and the West have soared recently, with the West accusing the Kremlin of amassing troops on its border with Ukraine in advance of a possible invasion.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow does not want a war in Europe amid rising tensions over Ukraine but demanded that the issue of Kyiv’s relationship with NATO be resolved in its entirety immediately.
Speaking at a joint news conference on Tuesday after talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Putin said Russia had been informed by Western powers that its neighbour would not join the transatlantic military alliance in the near future. But he warned that was not a satisfactory assurance.