A Russian armada led by aging Soviet-era aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov has entered the Mediterranean Sea in the past few hours, two U.S. officials with knowledge of their position tell Fox News.
The Russian defense minister says this seven-ship flotilla will be sailing to the eastern Mediterranean to launch strikes in Syria signaling that Russia will be ramping up its operations in Syria shortly, despite calls from the United States and the international community to stop their bombing.
Earlier this month, Russia deployed nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave along the Baltic Sea which borders Poland and Lithuania. The missiles will be in range of Berlin.
Since launching airstrikes in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians and Syrian army have been accused of killing tens of thousands of civilians inside Syria. The Russian military conducts a majority of their strikes using unguided “dumb” bombs. British Defense Minister Michael Fallon said he would be concerned if NATO helped Russia bomb Syria.
Aboard Kuznetzov are dozens of Russian fighter-bomber jets and attack helicopters. U.S. defense officials with knowledge of the Russian aircraft carrier say they do not expect repeated air operations, but instead are likely planning a “Doolittle”-like raid on Syria, meaning a one-way trip. Many will likely land at a Russian air base along Syria’s coastline in Latakia, officials say.
Months after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy launched Army bombers to attack Tokyo led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle. The American pilots were forced to scuttle their planes in neighboring China and in the ocean after carrying out their strike on Japan.
The decades-old Kuznetzov has run into a series of serious mechanical problems over the years. A short circuit sparked a fire that killed one sailor in 2009.
Since Syria's civil war started over five years ago, as many as 500,000 Syrians have been killed.
Russia will likely have to launch their jets without a full complement of bombs and fuel in order to get their planes over the “ski jump” which makes up the bow of the ship. The Russians do have steam catapults to launch fully loaded jets like their American counterparts in the U.S. Navy.
There were reports that the Russian fleet would refuel in Spain, but the Russians have withdrawn their request.
In addition to the aircraft carrier, the Russian convoy is made up of three warships capable of firing modern Kalibr cruise missiles into Syria. There are also support ships in the convoy, with the possibility a submarine may join up soon.
Russia is not only sending warships to the eastern Mediterranean, but has sent them to Cuba as well. A U.S. defense official confirmed a report from Russian state media that said a Russian frigate and tanker arrived in Havana.
Lucas Tomlinson is the Pentagon and State Department producer for Fox News Channel. You can follow him on Twitter: @LucasFoxNews