This has never happened before. A Russian aircraft carrier task force is on the way from the Northern Fleet (on the Barents Sea) to the Mediterranean, and has already been involved in some unprecedented events.
The first occurred in late December, when the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov (and apparently other ships in the task force) took refuge in Scotland’s Firth of Moray during a bout of inclement weather. Locals had reported on this unplanned development back on 22 December, as well as on the dispatch of a Royal Navy warship to “escort” the Russian ships while they were in or close to UK waters.
According to RIA Novosti, the UK Ministry of Defense acknowledged on Friday that the weather-related incursion had, indeed, taken place. The Royal Navy ship sent to monitor the Russians was HMS Defender (D-36, a Type 45 destroyer and one of the most modern ships in the UK fleet, with capabilities similar to a U.S. Aegis destroyer).
RIA Novosti also reported that the Kuznetsov transited the English Channel as it headed for the Mediterranean, and that its air wing conducted flight operations in the vicinity of the British Isles. Although the Russian navy has participated in NATO exercises over the past 10 years, some of which have had events in the English Channel, the Kuznetsov transits to the Med have heretofore taken place on the traditional path through the Atlantic, down the west side of the UK and Ireland. The carrier transit through the English Channel is a first.
TV Zvezda (“Star TV”), the Russian armed forces media service, got footage of the carrier in “heavy traffic” in the English Channel, which seems to have sparked some security concerns onboard Kuznetsov:
Note the extremely close passage of the ferry, from the carrier’s starboard to port, starting around 0:52 in the video. (It’s hard to know what to make of it, without further information, but by the rules of the road, the ferry had right of way, and Kuznetsov would have been responsible for maneuvering to avoid such a close encounter.)
The white cliffs of Dover are visible earlier in the clip. Meanwhile, the TV Zvezda footage of flight ops suggests that they were performed in open waters, probably north of the English Channel. The Russian air force has sent land-based bombers to buzz UK air space a couple of times since 2007, but conducting carrier flight ops right next to UK air space – not during an exercise with NATO navies – is also a first.
Kuznetsov left the Northern Fleet on 17 December, and will probably be deployed for at least 6 months. The carrier has been to the Med before, of course. Her captain presumably knows that there will be a whole lot of ferries crossing the Med every day.