(Bloomberg) — U.K. warships are monitoring a Russian aircraft-carrier group sailing past Britain’s eastern coast to the Mediterranean Sea to supplement President Vladimir Putin’s forces in the region, as international condemnation mounts of Russia’s military campaign in Syria.
The deployment signals Putin’s determination to assert Russian interests as U.S. and European leaders accuse him of war crimes and dangle the threat of sanctions in response to the bombing of Aleppo by Russian warplanes.
Putin floated a possible extension of a cease-fire for the besieged Syrian city during a late-night meeting in Berlin on Wednesday with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she portrayed as testy. Merkel and Hollande will meet again in Brussels on Thursday for a two-day summit of the EU’s 28 leaders that will consider a common response to Russia’s actions in support of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
“We must show a robust and united European stance in the face of Russian aggression,” U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters as she arrived for her first summit. While Britain is leaving the EU, until it does “it’s vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop its appalling atrocities, its sickening atrocities in Syria,” she said.
May’s comments hint at the growing outrage over the bombing by Russian and Syrian forces of Aleppo, where some 275,000 inhabitants remain trapped. Syria’s government opened two crossings for fighters who want to leave the rebel-held eastern part of the contested city, a day after announcing a three-day humanitarian pause to its offensive.
Russia’s Northern Fleet, based at Severomorsk near the Finnish border, said last week that a naval group had set out for the northeast Atlantic en route to the Mediterranean “to ensure naval presence in the important areas” of the seas, according to the TASS news agency. The ships include the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier.
“When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way,” U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday. “We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe.”
Russia said last month that its permanent naval group already stationed in the Mediterranean numbers about 10 warships and support vessels. Igor Konashenkov, a Defense Ministry spokesman in Moscow, declined to comment on the additional deployment.
Speaking after the Berlin talks that stretched into early Thursday, Putin said Russia would halt its bombing of Aleppo as long as “terrorist forces” aren’t active. At a separate news conference alongside Merkel, Hollande said Putin didn’t specify how long such a cease-fire might last. “We hope it’s as long as possible” to allow for humanitarian aid to reach all parts of the city, he said.
European foreign ministers will work on getting aid to the area, which would “at least be a first step that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Merkel said. “It was right to use this blunt language” in the talks with Putin because “Russia bears a clear responsibility in Syria, including exerting influence over” Assad, the German leader said.
Merkel and Hollande kept the threat of sanctions against Russia on the table, while saying the focus had to be on helping civilians in Aleppo.
Hollande said that at best the European Union could target individuals, while Merkel limited herself to saying that “you can’t deny yourself the option.” Either way, any sanctions would require the approval of all 28 member states and the most ardent support for such an approach came from the U.K, which has voted to leave the bloc. Russia already is under EU and U.S. sanctions for its encroachment on Ukraine.
“The conclusion in the European Union is that we don’t believe in new sanctions at this phase because we already have sanctions and these run until the end of January,” Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila said in an interview in Helsinki on Wednesday. “In December or January we will have a discussion about the future of sanctions.’’
The Syria talks followed a discussion on Ukraine that was also attended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Merkel and Poroshenko said the four leaders agreed to work on a “road map” of measures to advance last year’s Minsk accords for ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.
In Brussels, Estonian Prime Minister Taavi Roivas, whose country borders Russia, said EU leaders must deliver “a very clear message to both the Syrian regime and its allies, mainly Russia.” He compared Aleppo with the Chechen capital, Grozny, that was reduced to rubble by Russian aerial bombing in the 1990s. “This is absolutely unacceptable,” Roivas said.
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