Russia’s biggest warship anchored just miles from Scotland’s coast in the Moray Firth for the second time in two years, it emerged last night.
The 65,000-tonne Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier has been in the waters off the north-east – and may have stopped off on its way to Syria.
Sources at the Ministry of Defence confirmed the presence of the Russian Navy’s flagship to the Press and Journal last night.
It is believed to have been accompanied by other elements of the Northern Fleet, including an anti-submarine ship, an assault vessel and a tugboat.
The sources denied that Britain’s former Cold War adversary was testing the UK’s reaction times, after the SNP criticised the fact it took 24 hours for the Royal Navy to send a vessel to the area from Portsmouth.
Russian television station Zvezda said the crew on the Kuznetsov celebrated New Year while at anchor in international waters off the Moray Firth.
The anchorage allowed replenishment of ship’s supplies and respite for the crew from stormy weather off the south-west coast of Norway before heading to the Mediterranean Sea
It was previously reported that a smaller Russian ship was within 30 miles of Scotland’s coast when it arrived in the Moray Firth just before Christmas, but the additional presence of the Admiral Kuznetsov was not known.
The vessels are understood to have left the Moray Firth in the last few days.
Reports in Russian media have suggested the aircraft carrier would be going on a long-distance voyage at this time of year, calling at the city of Tartus in Syria, where Russia has a base, but it was denied that the visit was connected to the civil war in the country.
Russia has been a strong supporter of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and the Admiral Kuznetsov last visited Tartus in January 2012.
In June 2012, a Russian ship carrying attack helicopters to Assad’s regime was turned back after the UK Government intervened as it sailed around Shetland and the Western Isles. The Admiral Kuznetsov carrier hit the headlines when it anchored in the Moray Firth in December 2011, apparently sheltering from a storm.
Angus Robertson, Moray MP and SNP defence spokesman, said: “It is intolerable that there are no UK conventional naval vessels or maritime patrol aircraft in Scotland to perform basic escort duties.
“This is not the first time that a vessel has had to be scrambled from the south of England to steam for 24 hours for escort tasks.”
The Royal Navy’s Fleet Ready Escort intercepts or shadows foreign vessels, but the MoD said this was not the only protective measure.
“Is the safety of the UK threatened with the Fleet Ready Escort being on call? No,” a spokesman said.