russia warships english channel orig_00000000.jpg
Russian warships pass through English Channel
00:54 - Source: CNN

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The Russian fleet Includes aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Russian Embassy withdraws request to refuel in the Spanish port of Ceuta

CNN  — 

Russia has withdrawn a request for a flotilla of warships, including its flagship aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, to refuel in the Spanish port of Ceuta as the ships head toward Syria, Spain’s foreign affairs ministry said Wednesday.

The small fleet of Russian warships and fighter jets reached the North Sea late last week and then moved south through the English Channel, according to the UK’s Ministry of Defense. The flotilla is believed to be on its way to the Mediterranean and eventually, most Western defense analysts believe, to Syria.

In a statement, the Spanish ministry said it asked the Russian Embassy in Madrid to clarify reports that the flotilla might participate in the military operation against the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

“The Spanish government follows with deep concern the airstrikes against Aleppo and the humanitarian tragedy there,” the statement said. “Spain has requested in different occasions a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid (into the city).”

The Russian embassy responded by withdrawing the request to refuel in the north African port city, the statement said. Spain had originally approved the stop – from Friday through November 2 – as it has done on previous occasions.

‘We don’t want a new Cold War’

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday acknowledged Russia’s right to operate on international waters but reiterated concern “about the possibility that the Kuznetsov carrier group can be used as a platform for more attacks against Aleppo and Syria, and thereby exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe.”

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, in a photo provided by the Norwegian Armed Forces.

“It is up to each and every nation, each ally, to decide … whether they provide (fueling) and supplies to Russian ships,” Stoltenberg said. “But this time I have conveyed a very clear message that we are concerned about the potential use of this carrier group to increase attacks against Aleppo.”

At a news conference later Wednesday, Stoltenberg urged dialogue and cooperation between NATO and Russia.

“NATO does not seek a confrontation with Russia,” he told reporters. “We don’t want a new Cold War and we don’t want a a new arms race.”

Spanish authorities would not confirm the exact current location of the flotilla.

The warships left Russia October 15 on what the Russian navy said was a mission “to ensure naval presence in the important areas of the World Ocean.

“Special focus will be made on safeguarding security of maritime traffic and other types of Russian maritime economic activity and also responding to new kinds of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism,” the Russian statement said.

Show of force?

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, has called the Russian operation “a show of force and a show of capabilities.”

Analysis: Why are Russian warships in British waters?

The movement of the Russian warships to Syria could also give Russia a chance to test its only aircraft carrier to make sure it’s working properly, and will also give Western powers the opportunity to examine it at close range, Felstead said Friday.

Launching aircraft from a carrier like the Admiral Kuznetsov, which uses a fixed, ramp-assisted takeoff, is a difficult and risky operation that requires a lot of practice.

The Russian fleet also includes a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy, and two Udaloy Class Destroyers. The Admiral Kuznetsov itself is capable of carrying 50 war planes.

The Russian fleet is believed to be sailing to the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia’s defense ministry said on October 10 it was poised to transform its naval facility there into a permanent base.

As airstrikes in the eastern section of Aleppo have continued, killing hundreds of civilians, Western powers have accused Assad and his supporters of war crimes. Syria’s military, backed by Russia, has been fiercely criticized by Western powers for the deadly toll on the roughly 250,000 civilians who remain trapped there.

Both the United States and United Kingdom have mulled potential economic sanctions against Syria and Russia due to the Aleppo crisis.

NATO has been bolstering its defenses in countries along the Russian border amid growing concerns about Moscow’s military direction. NATO defense ministers are currently meeting in Brussels to discuss the situation, as well as the fight against ISIS.

CNN’s Claudia Rebaza, Hilary Clarke and James Masters contributed to this report.