Last week, Israel conducted an extensive military exercise that saw the participation of the IDF ground forces, the Israeli Navy and the IAF. The precise goals of the exercise were not made public and remained a secret. However, assessments are that it was aimed towards Israel's northern arena - towards the tension with Syria and Hezbollah.
What was not known was that at the same time, the Russian Navy vessel CCB-201 - one of the Russian Navy's largest intelligence vessels - was present in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The CCB-201 is no ordinary intelligence vessel, but rather a naval intelligence gathering unit which is similar in its characteristics to Israel's Unit 8200 - a SIGINT collection and decryption unit capable of intercepting and listening to military transmissions between naval vessels and aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea.
The vessel, which is also equipped with air defense systems, departed from one of the bases in the Black Sea and crossed the straits of Turkey on June 10 on its way to an area off the coasts of Syria and Cyprus.
From past experience, it appears that the purpose of the visit to the area is for gathering intelligence on NATO and US force activities, as well as Israel's readiness with regards to the situation in Syria - where Russia has military interests and assets, and thus is concerned of military intervention.
In 2000, Russia sent one of the same intelligence vessels to the Persian Gulf due to information received by Russian military intelligence, which indicated that NATO forces were planning to deal a blow to Iraq. At the time, the vessel's objective was to track NATO activities in the Persian Gulf and preserve Russia's interests there, especially those related to the fuel routes between Russia and Iran. A blow was dealt only in 2003 after an international coalition headed by the US and the UK dealt a blow that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Now that there are demands for US and NATO intervention in the Syrian crisis, Russia is responding in a similar manner.
The CCB-201 was constructed in 1980 in the framework of what NATO refers to as the Russian Navy's "Project 864" in the Black Sea. The vessel is manned by 150 crew members, including dozens of operators of listening, tracking, radio transmission and electronic signal decryption systems, as well as electronic warfare systems. The gathered information is transmitted in real-time via the vessel's satellite antennas to the coastal headquarters of Russian Navy intelligence units, and perhaps to those found on Russian soil.