Russian warships including an aircraft carrier are due to enter UK territorial waters some time on Friday morning.
The Independent has been told that if the Russian task force including the aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov maintains its current speed, it should leave the North Sea and enter the Channel before noon on Friday.
If the Russian warships stick to normal navigation rules for passing through the Dover Strait – which is likely since it is the world’s busiest seaway – they will use the shipping lane for south-west bound vessels, which is in UK territorial waters.
This will entail what one Russian newspaper has described as “the most powerful Russian naval task force to sail in northern Europe since 2014” passing within about 10 nautical miles (11.5 miles) of the British coast, allegedly on its way to support the assault on rebels in Aleppo, Syria.
The warships will pass close to the British shore less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Theresa May demanded a “robust and united European stance in the face of Russian aggression”, and said: “It is vital that we work together to continue to put pressure on Russia to stop these sickening atrocities in Syria.”
The Royal Navy has already sent one of its most advanced warships, the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan, along with the Type 23 frigate HMS Richmond to track the Russian vessels and “man-mark them every step of the way.”
At the same time the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon has been sent south to shadow two Russian corvettes understood to be heading from the Atlantic near Portugal to link up with the Admiral Kuznetsov group.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman has promised: “When these ships near our waters we will man-mark them every step of the way. We will be watching as part of our steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe.”
Before heading south west through the Dover Strait, most vessels are legally obliged to report to the UK’s Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Dover, which works with the French authorities to monitor ships going through the Channel and to report any traffic violations.
The Russian warships, however, will not have to formally notify the UK authorities of their intended movements, because naval vessels, whatever their nationality, are exempted from the reporting requirements. As matter of courtesy, however, most navies report to either Britain or France when their warships pass through the Channel.
The Admiral Kuznetsov, a 55,000-ton Soviet-era aircraft carrier, and seven other vessels are currently in international waters in the North Sea, having been seen off the coast of the Norwegian city of Bergen on Wednesday.
Photos taken by Royal Navy photographers on board HMS Richmond suggest that they are already being closely shadowed.
HMS Duncan is thought to have left Portsmouth on Wednesday night in order to link up with HMS Richmond.
The Russian flotilla also includes the Pyotr Veliky (Peter the Great) nuclear-powered battlecruiser and the anti-submarine vessel Severomorsk. A senior Nato diplomat told Reuters that the Russian warships are expected to sail through the English Channel, past Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean to arrive off the Syrian coast in about two weeks’ time.
The diplomat also suggested that the flotilla about to enter the Channel was part of a much bigger naval effort to reinforce Russia’s campaign to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The diplomat said: “They are deploying all of the northern fleet and much of the Baltic fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War.
“This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks, we will see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia’s strategy to declare victory there.
“With this assault, it should be enough to allow a Russian exit strategy if Moscow believes Assad is now stable enough to survive.”
The Russia Today website, which is strongly supportive of President Vladimir Putin, has criticised what it claimed was “military, media hysteria in Europe,” and said the Russian Navy has not confirmed whether the warships are being sent to bolster the Syria operation.
A spokesperson for the Royal Navy said British forces and Nato “routinely monitor” foreign warships nearing territorial waters.
This time, however, some defence experts are saying that the flotilla’s expected presence in the Channel, on an operational footing, provides a rare intelligence gathering opportunity.
“This allows the Royal Navy and Nato to watch a Russian carrier battle group actually in operation,” said Peter Felstead, the editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly. “It’s a very interesting opportunity to answer all kinds of questions, to see the strengths and weaknesses: for example, does that carrier battle group have submarines deployed with it? I am sure our submarines are out there trying to find that out right now.
“When they finally get to the Med it’s going to be very interesting, because they will be conducting wartime operations and we will be able to have eyes on and see how good they are.”
In 2011 the Admiral Kuznetsov and other Russian warships sheltered from winter storms about 30 miles off the Moray Firth. Reports that the aircraft carrier was dumping waste while sheltering off the Scottish coast led to Angus Robertson, then the SNP’s defence spokesman, accusing the Admiral Kuznetsov’s crew of “marine fly-tipping” and “bad manners”.