Russia poised for largest naval exercise for decades
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian warships have embarked on a long voyage to the Black and Mediterranean seas to take part in what the Defence Ministry said would be the largest naval exercise in decades.
It said on Wednesday that ships from its Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets would stage the exercise at the end of the month to test their ability to act together outside Russian waters.
Its website said the training exercise would also include anti-terrorism and anti-piracy drills.
"A Navy exercise on such a scale is being staged for the first time in recent decades," the ministry said, without giving other details such as how many ships would take part.
Russia regularly stages naval war games involving different fleets, and in August sent ships to the Mediterranean for a combined training exercise.
State-owned RIA Novosti news agency said that that exercise had involved three large amphibious assault ships, two frigates, a destroyer and two support ships.
Moscow has been trying to strengthen its military presence in the Mediterranean region.
President Vladimir Putin, a former operative for the Soviet Union's KGB national security agency, says Russia needs a stronger army to protect it from foreign attempts to stoke conflicts around its borders.
Russia plans to spend 23 trillion roubles ($753 billion) over a decade to modernize the former superpower's armed forces, which underwent a decade of spending cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Defence Ministry did not say if the coming deployment was connected to the conflict in Syria. Moscow has been a staunch supporter of President Bashar al-Assad and his largest arms supplier.
Last month, a naval source told Interfax news agency that Russia was sending warships to the Mediterranean in case it needed to evacuate citizens trapped by the civil war in Syria.
Also in December, Itar-Tass and Interfax cited military sources as saying two landing craft had left a Black Sea port and would call at Russia's naval supply and maintenance facility in the Syrian port of Tartous.
($1 = 30.55 Russian roubles)
(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, edited by Richard Meares)