MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian defense ministry on Thursday said it was conducting drills involving a guided missile cruiser in the eastern Mediterranean, which could be near the Syrian coast.
Russia recently has ferried weapons, troops and supplies to an airport near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in what the U.S. sees as preparations for setting up an air base there. Moscow has denied that it is building up its presence there in order to protect its long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, but said instead that it wants to help him fight the Islamic State group.
The defense ministry on Thursday announced the drills "in the eastern section of the Mediterranean" later this month and in October involving a guided missile cruiser, a guided missile destroyer, a landing ship and other ships. Pre-empting possible questions about the sensitive timing of such maneuvers, the ministry said Russia always holds an array of military drills at this time of the year and that the government approved the Mediterranean maneuvers a year ago.
The Moskva guided missile cruiser left the Russia-occupied port of Sevastopol in Crimea earlier on Thursday and went to the Bosphorus, the ministry said without specifying the destination.
In Moscow, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov blasted foreign media for the hype over Russia's presence in Syria, saying that a recent report that Moscow could be preparing for a unilateral strike on the Islamic State group in Syria is "speculation that has nothing to do with reality."
Peskov also said he had no knowledge of any plans for President Vladimir Putin to ask the Russian parliament to give the green light for sending Russian troops to Syria.