Russian warship flotilla spotted off Norway ‘probably’ bound for Irish coast

Group of ships, including a large missile cruiser, were photographed by Norwegian Airforce

A number of large Russian warships have been spotted sailing towards Ireland ahead of a planned naval exercise off the coast of Cork next month.

Military experts believe the flotilla, which includes five ships, will be used in the drills some 130 nautical miles off the south west, an area within Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The ships, which include one of the Russian Navy’s biggest missile cruisers, the Marshal Ustinov, were spotted by a Norwegian Air Force reconnaissance plane moving along its northern coast on Tuesday.

Maritime tracking websites last showed one of the ships in the group, a fuel tanker called the Vyazma, rounding the northern tip of Norway last night and heading south into the North Atlantic.


Experts say it is not yet certain if the ships are destined for the Irish EEZ exercises or if they are part of separate exercises in the Barents Sea or the Arctic Ocean. However they said the make-up and trajectory of the flotilla indicates it is probably destined for the Irish EEZ exercise.

It is also probable the ships are being accompanied by a nuclear powered submarine. The Defence Forces has been alerted to the ships’ activity.

The controversial naval drills are expected to involve the use of naval artillery and missiles as well as Russian aircraft. The Irish Government has asked Russia to reconsider the exercise amid fears of an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

The Irish Aviation Authority has sent a notification to air traffic control in Ireland stating that the live firing exercises will take place between February 3rd and 8th and between 5am and 3pm on those days.

One of the ships, the Marshal Ustinov, is a missile cruiser known as an “aircraft carrier killer”. She is almost 200 metres long and has a complement of some 500 people.

She can carry Vulcan cruise missiles with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Though more than 30 years old she underwent a complete refit five years ago.

On Wednesday, the Russian Defence Ministry released a video of the Ustinov, which is the third largest vessel in its Northern Fleet, leaving dock. It said it was destined for the Arctic to take part in exercises there.

On Tuesday, a Norwegian P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft took photos of the Ustinov and accompanying ships near North Cape where the Barents Sea meets the Norwegian Sea.

The group also included the anti-submarine hunter “Vice-Admiral Kulakov” and the frigate “Admiral Kastanov”. Sailing along was also the navy rescue tug SB-406.

“The Russians sailed legally in international waters, but Norway continuously follows all movements in the High North,” the Royal Norwegian Airforce said.

There are several indications the ships are destined for mission off Ireland said Thomas Nilsen, editor of the Barents Observer which extensively covers Russian naval activity off the Norway’s north coast.

He cited the presence of a tanker and a tug in the flotilla. “When Northern Fleet warships sail on long distance, long-lasting voyages they always bring a tug and a tanker.”

Additionally there currently no other Russian warships known to be sailing south. “We can’t be 100 per cent sure. Within a few days we will see. Then they should enter the North Sea and either sail the channel, trouble the British navy for a while, or sail west coast towards the area in the Irish Sea indicated.”

Norwegians are well used to Russian Navy drills off their coast, Mr Nilson said. “It has happened more than 20 times since 2015. As long as it is in international waters Russia are fully allowed to do so. But, it is not a very nice behaviour by a neighbour.”

An Irish naval source said the vessels could be heading for the Irish EEZ but that they could also change course abruptly. Another senior source said the flotilla appeared too small and suggested it might be rendezvousing with other ships before heading to the exercise area.

“It’s most probable that these are the ships based on their trajectory” said Independent TD and former Army Ranger Wing officer Cathal Berry. He said it would be consistent with the statement of the Russian ambassador to Ireland that the exercise would involve three or four ships.

“No one knows for sure. If they are coming to Ireland, that could change with a simple radio message. That is part of the Russian doctrine. They always play the deception card and they always try to keep you guessing and off balance.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times