MOSCOW, March 11 (RIA Novosti) – The Russian Navy has begun setting up a permanent task force to defend Russia’s interests in the Mediterranean, Navy Commander Adm. Viktor Chirkov said Monday.
“The defense minister has ordered us to form a task force that will operate in the Mediterranean Sea on a permanent basis,” Chirkov told reporters after a defense ministry meeting. “We have already started work on this task.”
The move comes at a time of increased international tension in the eastern Mediterranean due to the worsening civil war in Syria.
According to Chirkov, the issue has been discussed at the Navy's Main Headquarters, with the focus on logistics and training of commanding personnel.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said earlier on Monday that a decision to deploy a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean had been made.
“I believe that we have the capability to form and maintain such a task force,” Shoigu said, citing the success of recent large-scale naval drills carried out by the Russian navy in the Mediterranean and Black seas.
The exercises involved warships from the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets, strategic bombers and naval infantry.
Neither Shoigu nor Chirkov mentioned a timeline for the deployment of the new task force, which would likely require significant effort to ensure efficient logistics and the proper maintenance of warships in the Mediterranean group.
Shoigu admitted Monday that the general state of affairs in the navy "could not be called satisfactory," particularly in terms of poor servicing and maintenance of vessels.
“A significant part of the fleet has to be operated with extended periods [of time] between repairs, while many ships and vessels have armaments and military equipment that can be used only with restrictions," Shoigu said.
A high-ranking defense ministry source told RIA Novosti in the beginning of March that a proposed Russian permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean Sea could consist of up to 10 combat and auxiliary ships from three of the existing fleets.
The task force may operate on a rotating basis and use ports in Cyprus, Montenegro, Greece and Syria as resupply points, the official added.
The Soviet Union maintained its 5th Mediterranean Squadron in that sea from 1967 until 1992. It was formed to counter the US Navy 6th Fleet during the Cold War, and consisted of 30-50 warships and auxiliary vessels at different times.
Updated with modified headline and Shoigu's assessment of the state of the navy.