Thursday, December 6, 2007

Russia sends aircraft carrier group to Mediterranean to try to restore naval presence

The Associated Press

Russia dispatched an 11-ship aircraft carrier group to the Mediterranean Sea, the defense minister said Wednesday part of what he said was an effort to resume regular Russian naval patrols on the world's oceans.

The announcement by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is the latest move by Russia to expand its military presence internationally and flex growing economic and military strength.

Speaking at a Kremlin meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Serdyukov said an aircraft carrier, two anti-submarine ships, a guided missile cruiser along with refueling ships from Russia's Northern and Black Sea fleets and 47 aircraft would be part of the group in the Mediterranean.

He said the group would conduct three tactical exercises with real and simulated launches of sea- and air-based missiles and make nearly a dozen port calls.

"The expedition is aimed at ensuring a naval presence and establishing conditions for secure Russian navigation," Serdyukov said in televised comments.

Earlier this year, naval chief Adm. Vladimir Masorin called for restoring a permanent Russian presence in the Mediterranean, saying it was a strategically important zone for the Black Sea Fleet.

Soviet navy ships used to be based at Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus, and Russia still maintains a technical base there.

Analysts have said it made no sense militarily for Russia to have a presence in the Mediterranean. Others have suggested that Russia might seek to relocate part of its Black Sea Fleet there if it fails to get an extension of its agreement with Ukraine on leasing the Sevastopol port when it expires in 2017.

The naval expedition is the latest effort by Putin to breathe new life into Russian armed forces, bolstered by the torrent of oil revenues pouring into government coffers.

Earlier this year, he ordered the military to resume regular long-range flights of strategic bombers. In recent years, Russia's bombers have resumed flights to areas off Norway and Iceland, as well as Russia's northeast corner, across the Bering Strait from Alaska several years ago.

Still, it was unclear how much of a presence the Russian ships would have, either in the Mediterranean or elsewhere. Like other branches of military, the navy, particularly its surface fleet, suffered in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, as a lack of funding resulted in ships and submarines rusting away in docks and berths.

Last month, a group of independent military experts said Putin's government had failed to reverse the post-Soviet decline of Russia's armed forces despite repeated pledges, saying the military continues to suffer from rampant corruption, inefficiency and poor morale. The Kremlin also has failed to deliver on promises to modernize arsenals, they said.

Experts also have said increasing military budgets under Putin have actually bought fewer weapons than under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, blaming graft as the root of the problem.