While the world watches Syria, Russia Escalates Ground Game in Georgia

republic-of-south-ossetia-mapAs Russia consolidates its gains in Syria and stalls on peace talks in Ukraine, the New York Times reports that Russia is slowly inching forward on another front. In South Ossetia, the breakaway republic of Georgia sponsored by Russia since the 2008 war, the border keeps creeping forward: 

Marked in places with barbed wire laid at night, in others by the sudden appearance of green signs declaring the start of a “state border” and elsewhere by the arrival of bulldozers, the reach of Russia keeps inching forward into Georgia with ever more ingenious markings of a frontier that only Russia and three other states recognize as real. 

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-story house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards. […] 

“Russia starts right here,” said Mr. Tatiashvili, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

The Times story is a fascinating look into the day-to-day realities of living in disputed territory produced by one of Moscow’s frozen conflicts. It also demonstrates Russia’s ability to create “facts on the ground” through the application of force and the tacit complicity of leadership—in Georgia and the West—that is too distracted or risk-averse to push back. Russia has been moving the occupation line and setting up barbed-wire barricades since 2013.

That track marks the world’s newest and perhaps oddest international frontier — the elastic boundary between Georgian-controlled land and the Republic of South Ossetia, a self-proclaimed breakaway state financed, defended and controlled by Moscow.

georgia-and-disputed-areas-mapThe destitute mountainous area of South Ossetia first declared itself independent from Georgia in 1990, but nobody outside the region paid much attention until Russia invaded in August 2008 and recognized South Ossetia’s claims to statehood. With that, the territory joined Abkhazia in western Georgia, the Moldovan enclave of Transnistria and eastern Ukraine as a “frozen zone,” an area of Russian control within neighboring states, useful for things like preventing a NATO foothold or ddestabilizing the host country at opportune moments.

Leonid Tibilov
Leonid Tibilov

The leader of South Ossetia, Leonid Tibilov, has said he plans to hold a referendum like the one in Crimea in 2014 on whether to request annexation by Russia.

But even without a referendum, the nominally independent country is already Russian territory in all but name. It has its own small security force, but its self-declared frontiers are mainly guarded by Russia’s border service, an arm of the Federal Security Service, the post-Soviet version of the K.G.B. It houses three Russian military bases with several thousand troops and, with no economy beyond a few farms, depends almost entirely on Russian aid for its survival.

24georgia-web-superjumboThe green border signs that first appeared last year and now keep popping up along the zigzagging boundary warn that “passage is forbidden” across what is declared to be a “state border.” Which state, however, is not specified, though locals are in no doubt about its identity.

“Russia starts right here,” Mr. Tatiashvili said, pointing to the freshly dug track that separates his house from Georgian-held land.

“But who knows where Russia will start tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “If they keep moving the line, we will one day all be living in a Russian-Georgian Federation.”

One of the new signs — written in English and Georgian — is just a few hundred yards from Georgia’s main east-west highway, and it puts a short part of an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Georgian port on the Black Sea within territory controlled by Russia.

So tangled is the dispute over what land belongs to whom that each side has its own definition of the line. Russia and South Ossetia insist it is a border like any other — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru also recognize it — while Georgia calls it “the occupation line.” The European Union, which has around 200 unarmed police officers in Georgia to monitor the agreement that ended the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, also says there is no actual border, only an “administrative boundary line.”

Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia
Kestutis Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia

Jankauskas, the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia, said it was hard to know where this boundary line exactly runs. It was never recognized or agreed upon, and its location depends on which maps are used. Russia, he said, is using a map drawn by the Soviet military’s general staff in the 1980s.

It demarcates what in the Soviet era was an inconsequential administrative boundary within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia but what is now hardening into a hazardous frontier.

The fitful movement of the boundary seems to be driven mostly by Russia’s desire to align what it sees as a state border with this old Soviet map. So far, the movement has always been forward, often by just a few yards but at other times by bigger leaps.

Mikheil Saakashvili
Mikheil Saakashvili

When it defeated supporters of former President Mikheil Saakashvili in elections four years ago, a coalition led by Georgian Dream, a party set up by an enigmatic billionaire, pledged to reduce tensions with Russia, which loathed Mr. Saakashvili.

Instead, Russian border guards have moved deeper into Georgian territory.

Bidzina Ivanishvili
Bidzina Ivanishvili

The shifting border has created credibility problems for the Georgian government, exposing the ruling Georgian Dream party to criticism that it is too soft on Russia. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder and sponsor, has always encouraged a lenient line toward Moscow, musing about joining the Eurasian Union and urging “patience” as Russia installed fences on the border. Nonetheless, Georgian Dream prevailed in the initial parliamentary elections on October 8, with the runoff at the end of

the month set to determine the extent of the party’s majority.

Giorgi Kvirikashvili
Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Even with a stronger mandate, however, Georgian Dream is unlikely to take a harsher stance on Russia. True, the New York Times quotes Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili apparently questioning the wisdom of rapprochement: “Unfortunately, Russia never appreciates when you concede or make a step forward or compromise,” said Kvirikashvili. “They always take it for granted.”

All the same, he insisted that even though his government had no intention of repeating Mr. Saakashvili’s disastrous 2008 attempt to confront Russia militarily, the border will not last.

But the true decider in Georgian Dream remain Ivanishvili, who craves good relations with Moscow and has floated the idea of cooperating with the Alliance of Patriots, the most overtly pro-Moscow party in Parliament.

While the Prime Minister’s words may provide hope to Russia hawks, they have not translated into actual policy proposals to counter Russia’s actions.

A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.
A protest rally in Tblisi criticizing government policies toward Russia.

But while dismissed by most of the world as a make-believe border, the dirt track now running through this tiny Georgian village nonetheless means that Vephivia Tatiashvili can no longer go to his three-storey house because it sits on land now patrolled by Russian border guards.

So, expect business as usual in Georgia: Russia will continue to change facts on the ground, while Tbilisi and the West do little but protest.



UN reports that Food has run out in rebel-held Aleppo


Jan Egeland of Norway, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaks during a press conference before the meeting at the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, January 11, 2005. Fifteen days after an unprecedented disaster struck the nations of South Asia, the international effort to provide relief and assistance to millions of victims is gathering steam in the field and increasing amounts of aid is making its way to those who need it. Attempting to meet the needs of the 12 stricken nations will bring representatives from more than 80 governments together in Geneva today to plan a long-term recovery effort for the region. (KEYSTONE/Laurent Gillieron)
Jan Egeland of Norway, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, speaks during a press conference before the meeting at the United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, January 11, 2005.

The last remaining food rations are being distributed in besieged rebel-held eastern districts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, the UN has said.

Humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland warned that without a resupply there would be no food left to hand out next week to the 275,000 people living there.

Mr Egeland ruled out airdrops of food, explaining that they were not possible in densely-populated urban areas.

Humanitarian agencies have been unable to get into rebel-held Aleppo since the government siege resumed in September, and the last time significant aid supplies were delivered was in July. The area is under siege by government forces with help from Russian air power.

Government forces launched a major assault on eastern Aleppo in September.

Since then, troops have pushed into several outlying areas with the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias and Russian air strikes.



On October 28, an alliance of opposition fighters, including Islamist militants, started a major offensive to break the government siege, which has been in place on eastern Aleppo since July. But their progress slowed after early gains.

Hundreds have died since the government launched an assault on eastern Aleppo in September
Hundreds have died since the government launched an assault on eastern Aleppo in September

The UN says weeks of air strikes and shelling have killed more than 700 civilians in the east, while rocket-fire has left scores dead in the government-controlled west.

“It is a horrendous situation,” said Egeland, the United Nations’ top envoy on humanitarian efforts in Syria.

The Norwegian diplomat said the UN appealed again last week to the conflict parties to let food, medicine and health workers into eastern Aleppo, and to allow the evacuation of some 300 patients along with their families.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday that Russia is continuing its humanitarian pause of air attacks on eastern Aleppo, in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.

However, Egeland noted that continuing heavy fighting on the ground has made aid efforts impossible.

In addition, the warring sides have raised various conditions that have further complicated UN efforts.

“I haven’t seen a place where there has been so much politicization, manipulation of aid as we have seen in Syria,” he said at a press briefing.

 Egeland urged the United States, which backs Syrian anti-government rebels, and Russia to use their influence to unblock the humanitarian operation.

“Parties that are sponsoring the parties on the ground have to help us more,” he said, adding that he was optimistic that a solution would be found.

The Syrian army said it took the strategic 1070 Apartments district on Tuesday.
The Syrian army said it took the strategic 1070 Apartments district on Tuesday.

In the divided city of Aleppo, regime forces made more advances Thursday into areas which were taken by opposition rebels last month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The monitoring group said regime troops and their allies managed to take over the Dahiyat al-Assad region west of the city.

Russia’s Ramping Up for War Where Nobody’s Looking

the-next-russian-interventionRussia is quietly testing the defenses of its Nordic neighbors with subtle provocations, alarming Western powers concerned about Moscow’s intentions in a vital but largely overlooked part of the world.

In recent months, Russian fighter jets violated the airspace of Western nations, Moscow has turned a blind eye as thousands of refugees from countries along its southern border use Russian territory to cross into Europe, and the former superpower has deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to areas that pose that a direct threat to NATO countries.

Taken in isolation, none of these incidents merits particular concern. Even major powers’ air forces occasionally mis-navigate and drift into sovereign airspace – though they usually acknowledge it and apologize. The Russians had previously pledged they would move their missile shield to Kaliningrad, sovereign territory, perhaps to offset Poland’s decision to purchase American Patriot missiles to use in defense. And all of Europe suffers from the ongoing migrant crisis as refugees from North Africa to Central Asia flee conflicts in their respective countries, so it makes sense some would find alternate routes after the Balkans, Macedonia and others sealed their borders.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

However, Moscow’s belligerence toward the West has mounted during Vladimir Putin’s 16 years of leadership, demonstrated through its apparent desire to sow political dissention and destabilize its foes. While the world’s attention is focused on crises in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, U.S. officials are quietly working to secure what they see as the next potential flashpoint of dangerous tensions along Europe’s northern border.

Air Force Secretary Deborah James
Air Force Secretary Deborah James

Air Force Secretary Deborah James last month visited Finland, Sweden and Norway the week after Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work returned from signing a security pact earlier in October, mirroring a similar arrangement the U.S. secured with Sweden in June, and a month after Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Oslo in September. Their work centered on strengthening alliances with countries that are friendly to U.S. interests – particularly Sweden and Finland, which aren’t NATO allies – and that now feel compelled to move away from historically neutral roles in favor of preparing for Russian hostility.

James heard from her counterparts an almost unanimous refrain: None of Russia’s activities in recent weeks was a coincidence but rather examples of Moscow’s coordinated attempts to intimidate the region.

“I think they’re probably right,” James says.

Military buildups represent an increase in a country’s ability to wage war, James says, citing a long list of recent aggressive actions Russia has carried out in areas that were part of or in the strategic interests of the former Soviet empire: It annexed north Georgia in 2008, then Crimea in Ukraine in 2014. It’s steadily increased the quality of its military machinery and quantity of troops it can deploy, and does so, including to Syria last year to offset U.S. influence in the ongoing wars there. And Russia reportedly has a plan to undermine the current pro-West, pro-Europe sentiment in Eastern Europe that informs those countries’ economic and security policies.

Now it’s bolstering its military presence around the Baltic Sea, which James worries could trigger “a larger event.”

An Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile launcher
An Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile launcher

Last month, Russia transferred a shield of nuclear-capable missiles to its outpost province of Kaliningrad, adjacent to the Baltic countries and across the Baltic Sea from Norway, Sweden and Finland, as it had recently promised to do. It followed reports days before that two armed Su-27 fighter jets had crossed into Finnish airspace and lingered there for about a minute, one of them, reportedly, right as Work sat down to dinner with his counterparts in Helsinki after signing a new security cooperation pact.

The incidents follow Russia’s inexplicably opening its well-guarded border crossings with Norway and Finland starting last year, allowing thousands of refugees to spill over into the Western nations.

“Russia is not anyone’s enemy, because all of us to a certain degree have relationships with Russia. Certainly each of the three Scandinavian countries have cooperation with Russia in a variety of ways,” James says, including usually cooperative border security agreements. Norway and Russia, too, maintain close coordination for maritime search-and-rescue efforts along their Arctic borders.

“And yet,” James says, “everybody is worried about Russia.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Russia’s attempts to extend its influence and to emphasize the necessity of its involvement in world affairs have only been seen as provocation by its neighbors and the West. Washington has castigated Moscow for its support of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, which the U.S. has spun in public forums as a callous endorsement of a murderous regime. Russia’s annexation of Crimea challenged early 1990s Western promises to defend Ukraine in return for its surrendering its nuclear weapons. Russian fighter jets have on multiple occasions buzzed U.S. ships, including one that came within yards of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in April. U.S. officials at the time described the incident as deeply concerning, and the potential for a similar situation to escalate has become a common touchstone for military chiefs in the Nordic countries when privately describing their own nightmare scenarios.

Admiral Kuznetsov
Admiral Kuznetsov

Most recently, Moscow sailed a flotilla of warships bound for the Mediterranean through the English Channel, an unusual move that prompted Britain to dispatch its own warships to escort the convoy as it passed.

Yet Russia has demonstrated it isn’t necessarily willing to escalate a situation in which it is confronted. A Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian one after it crossed over into Turkish airspace in December. Both sides traded verbal barbs but it did not amount to military conflict.

Despite spies’ and analysts’ best efforts, it’s impossible to know what Putin hopes to achieve with these moves, or even if he is following the sheet music of one large master plan or simply seizing opportunities as they arise. The actions he’s taken already, however, appear to contribute to the amorphous goal of forcing other world powers to recognize Russia as one of them.

What is clear is that the extent he’s willing to go to win that goal grows even more worrisome.

In Stockholm, James received a closed-door briefing from the Defense Research Agency (DRA), a government-funded think tank that provides independent analysis, which offered a startling appraisal of Russia’s buildup in recent months.

Russia's navy ships and helicopters take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on Sept. 9, 2016.
Russia’s navy ships and helicopters take part in a military exercise called Kavkaz (the Caucasus) 2016 at the coast of the Black Sea in Crimea on Sept. 9, 2016.

“Russia is moving toward conducting large-scale conflicts, not handling insurgencies,” DRA’s Russia specialist Fredrik Westerlund told James. “Though significant, Russia’s increased fighting power is not our top concern. Its willingness to fight is.”

Russia’s ability to fire land-attack missiles from ground-based launchers, aircraft, surface ships and submarines in Western Russia has tripled since 2013, according to DRA, though it’s unclear how accurately it can pinpoint its targets. It has also particularly increased its offensive military capabilities west of the Ural Mountains, the area that borders Europe. Moscow has focused on bolstering its armed forces’ ability to work together and has deployed provocative tools of war, like missile shields capable of employing nuclear weapons.

Their mostly likely targets are former Soviet Union countries, DRA says, like Moldova or Ukraine but also those that have since joined NATO, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A conflict with those latter countries would, by treaty, compel all other NATO countries to come to their aid, as they did for the U.S. when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001 – the only time in the Cold War-era alliance’s history that part of its charter, Article 5, has been invoked.

“A major war can no longer be ruled out,” Robert Dalsjo, DRA’s expert on the Baltics, said of Russia. “What’s at stake is U.S. credibility for its own guarantees. … Their goal is to show that Article 5 is a joke.”

And so the U.S. is increasing attention to this part of the world – NATO and Europe’s “northern flank”– with this series of top officials’ visits and other forms of strengthening U.S. engagement. Marines from the Black Sea Rotational Force have begun intensifying training exercises in Norway alongside British royal marines, strengthening their NATO partners’ capabilities but also acclimatizing themselves to operating in a cold weather environment after focusing so much of the last two decades on desert warfare. A Marine officer who recently returned from a deployment there tells U.S. News it was the first time in his 20-year career he’s had cold weather training.

For James’ part, she sought ways the U.S. military can better cooperate with its partners, both through its alliance with Norway but also partnerships with Sweden and Finland as they reconfigure their militaries from post-Cold War peacetime toward the possibility of having to coordinate in war.

“The neighborhood is changing, and it has become more worrisome to those who live in the neighborhood,” James says. “It certainly has become more worrisome to the U.S. as a member of NATO and as a bilateral partner.”

Each country, she says, wants to have a military able enough to send Russia a strong signal: “If you try to bully me, I’m going to give you a really bad punch in the face. So don’t mess with me. That is the idea of this defense posture.”

CIA Prepping for Possible Cyber Strike Against Russia

Russian interference in U.S. Presidential election
Russian interference in U.S. Presidential election

The Obama administration is contemplating an unprecedented cyber covert action against Russia in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News.

Current and former officials with direct knowledge of the situation say the CIA has been asked to deliver options to the White House for a wide-ranging “clandestine” cyber operation designed to harass and “embarrass” the Kremlin leadership.

CIA Headquarters
CIA Headquarters

The sources did not elaborate on the exact measures the CIA was considering, but said the agency had already begun opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation. Former intelligence officers told NBC News that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vice President Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden told “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd on Friday that “we’re sending a message” to Putin and that “it will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that will have the greatest impact.”

When asked if the American public will know a message was sent, the vice president replied, “Hope not.”

Retired Admiral James Stavridis
Retired Admiral James Stavridis
Retired Admiral James Stavridis told NBC News’ Cynthia McFadden that the U.S. should attack Russia’s ability to censor its internal internet traffic and expose the financial dealings of Putin and his associates.

“It’s well known that there’s great deal of offshore money moved outside of Russia from oligarchs,” he said. “It would be very embarrassing if that was revealed, and that would be a proportional response to what we’ve seen” in Russia’s alleged hacks and leaks targeting U.S. public opinion.

Sean Kanuck
Sean Kanuck

Sean Kanuck, who was until this spring the senior U.S. intelligence official responsible for analyzing Russian cyber capabilities, said not mounting a response would carry a cost.

“If you publicly accuse someone,” he said, “and don’t follow it up with a responsive action, that may weaken the credible threat of your response capability.”

President Obama will ultimately have to decide whether he will authorize a CIA operation. Officials told NBC News that for now there are divisions at the top of the administration about whether to proceed.

Two former CIA officers who worked on Russia told NBC News that there is a long history of the White House asking the CIA to come up with options for covert action against Russia, including cyber options — only to abandon the idea.

“We’ve always hesitated to use a lot of stuff we’ve had, but that’s a political decision,” one former officer said. “If someone has decided, `We’ve had enough of the Russians,’ there is a lot we can do. Step one is to remind them that two can play at this game and we have a lot of stuff. Step two, if you are looking to mess with their networks, we can do that, but then the issue becomes, they can do worse things to us in other places.”

A second former officer, who helped run intelligence operations against Russia, said he was asked several times in recent years to work on covert action plans, but “none of the options were particularly good, nor did we think that any of them would be particularly effective,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Putin is almost beyond embarrassing, he said, and anything the U.S. can do against, for example, Russian bank accounts, the Russian can do in response.

“Do you want to have Barack Obama bouncing checks?” he asked.

Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell expressed skepticism that the U.S. would go so far as to attack Russian networks.

“Physical attacks on networks is not something the U.S. wants to do because we don’t want to set a precedent for other countries to do it as well, including against us,” he said. “My own view is that our response shouldn’t be covert — it should overt, for everybody to see.”

The Obama administration is debating just that question, officials say — whether to respond to Russia via cyber means, or with traditional measures such as sanctions.

The CIA’s cyber operation is being prepared by a team within the CIA’s Center for Cyber Intelligence, documents indicate. According to officials, the team has a staff of hundreds and a budget in the hundreds of millions, they say.

The covert action plan is designed to protect the U.S. election system and insure that Russian hackers can’t interfere with the November vote, officials say. Another goal is to send a message to Russia that it has crossed a line, officials say.

While the National Security Agency is the center for American digital spying, the CIA is the lead agency for covert action and has its own cyber capabilities. It sometimes brings in the NSA and the Pentagon to help, officials say.

Retired Gen. Mike Hayden
Retired Gen. Mike Hayden

, who ran the CIA after leading the NSA, wrote this year: “We even had our own cyber force, the Information Operations Center (IOC), that former CIA director George Tenet launched and which had grown steadily under the next spy chief, Porter Goss, and me. The CIA didn’t try to replicate or try to compete with NSA… the IOC was a lot like Marine Corps aviation while NSA was an awful lot like America’s Air Force.”

“I would quote a Russian proverb,” said Adm. Stavridis, “which is, ‘Probe with bayonets. When you hit mush, proceed. When you hit steel withdraw.’ I think unless we stand up to this kind of cyber attack from Russia, we’ll only see more and more of it in the future.”

Russia sends warships toward Syria via the English Channel — and with them, a message

russian-aircraft-carrier-admiral-kuznetsov-in-the-english-channel-21-october-2016In scenes that haven’t been common since the end of the Cold War, Russian warships sailed through the English Channel early Friday in a theatrical display of Russian military might.

Britain dispatched two of its own warships to carefully monitor the Russian flotilla, which included the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, as it sailed by, reportedly enroute to the eastern Mediterranean to aid in the war in Syria.

The aircraft carrier can hold as many as 40 planes, and it is suspected that they will be used in the bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Given Russia’s fierce bombardment of that city, many Western military officials see the ships’ course as a slow-moving harbinger of bloodshed to come in Syria. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned the Kremlin on Thursday not to take any step that would escalate the violence.

“We are concerned that the Russian carrier group will support military operations in Syria in ways which will increase humanitarian and human suffering,” Stoltenberg said.

In Britain on Friday, there was widespread coverage of the Russian fleet sailing near English waters. British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that it would be marked “every step of the way” as part of the government’s “steadfast commitment to keep Britain safe.”
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon

It is routine for Britain’s Royal Navy to shadow ships, but the route taken by the Russian convoy — through the English Channel — was not routine.

“There’s huge amounts of theater here,” Paul Beaver, an aviation historian, told the BBC. He said that normally the Russians would “go around the top of Scotland, down past Hebrides, past Ireland on a deployment, and actually that’s probably the quickest route. This is very much about power play…. They want to be seen to be doing these things.”

And seen they were. Several British television stations broadcast footage of the carrier billowing black smoke as it sailed through international waters between Britain and France.

Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the passage through the English Channel in particular was a clear message from the Russians that “they are back” and that “anything you can do, we can do as well,” he said.

Analysts said that the move was an intentional snub toward Britain as one of Europe’s most vocal critics of Russia’s role in Syria.

Prime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May

 “It was thanks to the U.K. that Russian action in Syria was on the agenda for this summit,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said, referring to a summit of the European Union’s 28 leaders Thursday and Friday. “It is vital that we keep up the pressure on Russia to stop the assault on Aleppo,” she told reporters.

But so far, Russia’s opponents have proven too divided to respond with any concrete measures. NATO has no plans to get involved, and at the E.U. summit, France, Germany and Britain failed to reach the unanimity required to put sanctions on the table over Russia’s actions in Syria. Diplomats warned that could change if Russia continues to contribute to Aleppo’s bombardment.

French President Francois Hollande
French President Francois Hollande

f“If Russia continues its airstrikes, it would expose itself to a response that the union would decide on, but we’re not there,” French President François Hollande said Friday after a meeting that was focused on Europe’s deteriorating relationship with the Kremlin.

approximate-path-of-russian-naval-groupRussian warships steam through English Channel as U.N. warns of war crimes in Aleppo

Russia has taken steps in recent weeks to reestablish itself as a permanent power in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean, ratifying an open-ended agreement to lease Syria’s Khmeimim air base and declaring that it will upgrade its naval facility in the Syrian port town of Tartus to a permanent naval base. The Kuznetsov will add to the firepower, both offensive and defensive, that Russia has concentrated in the region.

Aircraft flying from the Kuznetsov will increase the payload raining down daily on east Aleppo, especially if the carrier bears a full load of 40 aircraft, likely matching the current complement already on the ground.

Built during the Soviet era and launched as the Leonid Brezhnev, the aircraft carrier has deployed to the Mediterranean a total of five times during its 26 years in service, most recently in 2014. But this would be the carrier’s first combat deployment off Syria, where a Russian and Syrian blitz on the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo has brought that city to its knees.

Putin comments on Washington-Moscow feud: ‘I’m not looking for a confrontation’

vladimir-putin-3Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he is not trying to influence the upcoming US presidential election and not interested in a war against the US. After weeks of increasing tensions between Moscow and Washington, Putin said: “I’m not looking for a confrontation with the US.”

“I’m not trying to influence the [US] election,” stressed Putin. “We will try to work alongside every leader who is chosen and wants to work with us.”

The Russian President also dismissed the allegations about Russia being responsible for the cyber-attacks on the US and called them the White House’s “election campaign rhetoric.” He also expressed hope that after the election, his country’s relationship with the US will improve.

In addition, Putin commented on the US military actions in Syria and Iraq and said that he hopes that Washington and its allies will do everything possible in order to ensure the safety of civilians.

Russia says it could sell missile defense systems to Turkey

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin says Russia could sell missile defense systems to Turkey.

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, in comments carried Friday by Russian news agencies, that Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed potential arms deals at a meeting in Istanbul last week. He said that Russia would considering selling various missile defense systems if Turkey wants them.

russia-turkey-flagsTurkey was negotiating a nuclear defense deal with China, which had been a source of tension with NATO partners, before the talks broke down last year.

The statement comes just a few months after Russia agreed to restore ties with Turkey. Relations between the two nations were nearly severed after Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border last year.