Russia's defence chief Sergey Shoigu heads to Syria as world watches Ukraine

Defence minister will oversee large-scale drill involving 15 warships and 30 aircraft

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With the eyes of the world on Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine, Moscow’s Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu headed to Syria on Tuesday to inspect naval drills in the Mediterranean.

Russia has a large military presence in Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war.

Moscow’s intervention in 2015 was a decisive factor in turning the tide in favour of the embattled regime in Damascus, which has now regained almost all areas of the country.

Mr Shoigu will oversee a naval exercise involving 15 warships and 30 aircraft in the eastern Mediterranean, the RIA news agency cited his ministry as saying.

The drills are part of a surge of Russian military activity amid a stand-off with the West over security in Europe. Russia last month said that all its fleets from the Pacific to the Atlantic would be involved in the drills and that 10,000 servicemen would be posted to more than 140 warships and dozens of planes.

The Russian Interfax news agency reported that Moscow had sent MiG-31K fighter jets with hypersonic Kinzhal missiles and long-range Tupolev Tu-22M strategic bombers to its Hmeimim airbase in Syria for the drill.

Russian media have said the Kinzhal hypersonic missile can hit targets up to 2,000 kilometres away.

It was one of several strategic weapons unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2018.

Russia sent fighter jets with Kinzhal missiles for the first time last year after expanding the runway at the Hmeimim base to handle such aircraft, Rob Lee, a military analyst at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Reuters.

He said the deployments highlighted Russia's growing military presence in the Middle East and its ability to operate in various regions and to project power.

Meanwhile, Russia on Tuesday said it had pulled some forces back from the border with Ukraine although Nato said it was yet to see evidence of such a move.

Russia has an estimated 130,000 soldiers stationed near Ukraine while world powers try to mediate a resolution to the tension and to avert war.

Despite Western concerns over the situation in Ukraine, Mr Shoigu said the rolling drills would continue.

"Some exercises are ending and others will be over in the near future. Countermeasures against various enemy actions are being practised on all tracks," he said.

The leaders of Britain and Nato said there were signs of a diplomatic opening after the troop reductions followed signals from Russia that it wanted to keep talks alive.

However, the foreign minister in Kiev told the world not to “believe what you hear", but to "believe what you see”.

Additional reporting by Reuters

Updated: February 15, 2022, 9:22 PM