Russia starts naval games, Syria link seen

MOSCOW Sun Jan 20, 2013 11:41am GMT

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said it started its largest naval exercises in years over the weekend, in war games analysts said would let it flex its military muscle and underline its interest in Syria, where Moscow has a Mediterranean base.

At least eight warships from Russia's Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets were taking part in the manoeuvres in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, the defence ministry said.

The announcement did not mention Syria, but Andrei Frolov, a naval expert at Moscow military think-tank CAST, said last week the drill was probably meant to remind the West of Russia's links to Syria, where it has repeatedly argued against outside intervention in an uprising.

Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main foreign protector during a 22-month revolt against his rule and also his biggest arms supplier.

Moscow leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at the Syrian port of Tartous. Two Russian ships heading for the naval exercise picked up munitions on their way to Tartous, news agencies reported on Thursday.

The exercises, which also involved other support craft and long-range aircraft, were the biggest of its kind since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian officials have said.

They would run until January 29, the defence ministry said in a statement late on Saturday.

The exercise also comes as Russia aims to increase its naval presence - earlier this month it inaugurated the first of a new class of submarine it will rely upon for decades as a bulwark of its strategic nuclear force.

President Vladimir Putin vowed to rebuild Russia's sea power after a period of shrinkage following the 1991 Soviet collapse.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman and Maria Kiselyova; Editing by Andrew Heavens)