As a Russian task force sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar early Wednesday morning, it was being monitored closely not just by Nato warships shadowing its progress, but by UK military personnel from Gibraltar.
Commodore Mike Walliker, the Commander British Forces in Gibraltar, was on the Royal Navy patrol boat HMS Sabre at the three-mile limit of British Gibraltar territorial waters, part of the surveillance operation as the Russian fleet sailed through this sensitive maritime choke-point.
The transit of the Russian ships was mired in controversy after it emerged that some of its components would refuel in Ceuta, prompting an angry response from Nato.
Britain and Nato allies piled pressure on Madrid over concerns that the Russian ships could be used to ramp up air attacks in Syria.
As international concern mounted, the Spanish Ministry for Foreign Affairs sought explanations from Russia about the task group’s mission.
It is not clear whether any explanation was given, but Russia finally withdrew its request to refuel in Ceuta.
Vasily Nioradze, spokesman at the Russian embassy in Madrid, said the request had been cancelled but gave no further details.
Commodore Walliker told the Chronicle that the Russian fleet sailed through into the Mediterranean in two groups, closely monitored by Nato warships and without incident.
The first group, comprised of Russian escort and support ships, sailed past the Rock at around 4am.
The second group, comprised of the battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) and the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov [pictured above in the English Channel last week], sailed past Gibraltar several hours later, just before sunrise.
The fact that they sailed through at night suggests the Russian Navy did not wish to make a display of its passage through the narrow Strait.
Ceuta has become a key staging post for the Russian Navy in recent years, prompting criticism from the US, UK and other Nato allies against the backdrop of conflict in Ukraine and Syria.
They question why Spain, which still block Nato movements to and from Spanish ports and Gibraltar over its sovereignty claim, allows such calls.
At talks between Nato defence ministers in Brussels this week, British Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said Britain “would be extremely concerned if a Nato member should consider assisting a Russian carrier group that might end up bombing Syria”.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said the deployment raised concerns that air assaults could increase in Syria, notably in the besieged city of Aleppo.
Blaming Russia for exacerbating a humanitarian disaster there, Mr Stoltenberg said that “men, women and children are dying every day, killed by disgraceful attacks on their homes and even their hospitals”.
He noted that all 28 allies are aware of Nato’s concern that the Russian ships could be used by Russia as a platform to bomb Aleppo and elsewhere in support of Syrian president Bashar Assad.
But he refused to single out Spain, despite being repeatedly asked what damage the refuelling might do to Nato’s image.
Pics by Ministry of Defence © Crown copyright 2013”