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Russia's defence minister arrives in Syria ahead of naval drills

Exercises in Eastern Mediterranean part of a sweeping set of naval drills Russia is conducting amid a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine
Russian soldiers standing in formation by a Sukhoi Su-35 fighter plane as Mil Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships fly by, May 9 2021 (AFP)

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on Tuesday to oversee military drills drawing on 15 warships and 30 aircraft in the Eastern Mediterranean, Russian state media reported.

The exercises are part of a sweeping set of naval drills Russia has been conducting amid a tense standoff with the West over Ukraine.

Shoigu’s visit to the country follows an earlier announcement by the Russian defence ministry that it had deployed MiG-31K fighter jets armed with hypersonic missiles and long-range strategic bombers to its air base in Syria for naval exercises.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a key ally of Moscow, and Russia has leveraged its 2015 military intervention in Syria, widely credited with turning the tide of the civil war in favour of the government, to project power throughout the region.

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The Syrian port city of Tartus is home to Russia’s sole naval base outside the former Soviet Union. It provides Moscow with a critical beachhead in the Mediterranean and strategic outpost on Nato’s southern flank.

In 2017, Russia struck a free-of-charge 49-year lease with Damascus, extending its hold over the facility. That move followed others by Moscow to deepen its military footprint in the country.

It recently completed part of an expansion at its Hmeimim air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia. In the past, Russia has deployed nuclear-capable long-range bombers to the base. Russia has also deployed S-400 anti-missile systems to Syria. 

In recent weeks, the country has served as a key staging ground for Russia’s show of military might. Six Russian amphibious assault vessels docked in Tartus earlier this month for refuelling, maintenance and supplies before departing to the Black Sea to take part in military drills. 

Tensions between the West and Russia have reached a fever pitch over Ukraine, with the US and its allies accusing Moscow of preparing to launch an invasion of the country. Russia has repeatedly denied it has plans to invade.