A Russian aircraft carrier heading through the English Channel and Royal Air Force warplanes being armed with air-to-air missiles to protect them from attack by Russian aircraft.

Almost daily the signs of growing tension between Moscow and the UK manifests itself on a level not seen since the height of the Cold War.

Last week Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson only added to the enmity after warning that Russia risked becoming an international “pariah” while simultaneously calling for protests outside the Russian embassy in London over Moscow’s continuing involvement in the bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Right now nothing it seems is removed from the toolbox when it comes to the souring of relations between the UK and Russia. Yesterday, Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church began a four-day visit to Britain, the first ever, but not before critics rounded on his proposed audience with the Queen, because of his strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Orthodox Church says it hopes the Patriarch’s visit will help Russia and Britain “strengthen mutual trust”, but right now mutual distrust between the two countries has never been deeper since the worst moments of the Cold War.

But if relations between Britain and Russia are viewed as tense right now then Moscow’s relationship with Washington is even worse, leading many international observers to conclude that we are living in troubling and potentially volatile times.

“I think the world has reached a dangerous point,” warned former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last week in an interview marking the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit between the United States and the Soviet Union, which began the process of nuclear weapons reduction. Gorbachev is far from alone in his concern.

The wars in Syria and Iraq are of course the most dangerous potential flashpoints between Russia and the West leading some analysts to compare the confrontation there with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that took the US and Russia to the brink of nuclear war.

Only last month in the first ever meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and President Putin both leaders on the face of it said they hoped to improve UK-Russia relations through dialogue.

“While I recognise there will be some differences between us, there are some complex and serious areas of concern and issues to discuss, I hope we will be able to have a frank and open relationship and dialogue,” May insisted.

For his part however, President Putin made clear that relations between the two countries are unlikely to improve unless May’s government reviewed the UK’s close relationship with the US and embarked on a “more independent foreign policy”.

Since then things have only gone from bad to worse, and the Syrian conflict in particular has become a serious bone of contention between the two nations.

Tomorrow, British officials along with other European Union foreign ministers who are meeting in Luxembourg are said to be planning to formally and explicitly admonish Russia for supporting the Syrian government’s deadly assault on Aleppo, an attack that “may amount to war crimes”, diplomats said yesterday.

An initial draft of the EU statement did not include a direct reference to Russia, but this has since been added at the insistence of the British, French and German governments.

“Since the beginning of the offensive by the regime and its allies, notably Russia, the intensity and scale of the aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo is clearly disproportionate,” reads a draft joint statement. “The escalating violence in Aleppo is causing untold and unacceptable suffering for thousands of its inhabitants.”

Leaked conversations also suggest that some EU members are mulling over the option of banning travel by Russian officials and freezing their assets for their links to airstrikes in Syria.

According to details obtained by the magazine, Foreign Policy, several EU countries with political or business ties to Russia opposed efforts to explicitly call out Moscow, including Greece, Spain, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Cyprus.

But proponents of the more pointed language prevailed, and Britain among others has advocated consideration of new sanctions on Moscow.

These latest steps to bring pressure to bear on Russia come just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to “clean” the divided city of Aleppo, prompting fears of more bloody atrocities.

Equally worrying is that as the diplomatic war of words ratchets up, so too does the military posturing in the Middle East.

Reports over the last few days indicate that British Tornado warplanes involved in Operation Shader, the codename for the RAF’s bombing of targets held by the Islamic State group, are to be armed with air-to-air missiles to protect them from attack by Russian aircraft.

“Up till now RAF Tornados have been equipped with 500lb satellite-guided bombs, there has been no or little air-to-air threat. But in the last week the situation has changed. We need to respond accordingly,” one senior defence source said.

While RAF pilots have been instructed to avoid contact with Russian aircraft while engaged in missions they have reportedly been given the green light to defend themselves if threatened by Russian warplanes.

“The first thing a British pilot will do is to try to avoid a situation where an air-to-air attack is likely to occur, you avoid an area if there is Russian activity,” a source from the UK’s Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) said.

“But if a pilot is fired on or believes he is about to be fired on, he can defend himself. We now have a situation where a single pilot, irrespective of nationality, can have a strategic impact on future events.”

One source said: “We need to protect our pilots but at the same time we’re taking a step closer to war. It will only take one plane to be shot down in an air-to-air battle and the whole landscape will change.”

Closer to home the military posturing is only marginally less cause for concern with the news that later this month the 55,000 tonne Russian aircraft carrier and naval flagship the Admiral Kuznetsov, will sail through the English Channel en-route to support the country’s air strike campaign in Syria.

Sergei Shoigu, Russian defence minister, has said the carrier will be escorted by six warships and three or four support vessels. The Russian vessels are expected to include the battle cruiser Peter the Great and a Udaloy class destroyer.

Once in the Mediterranean, the Kuznetsov is set to take up position off the coast of Syria for four to five months, where it could use its complement of MiG-29K/KUB jets and helicopters to carry out airstrikes.

One Royal Navy Type 23 frigate and one Type 45 destroyer are being prepared to monitor the Russians, while an RAF Rivet Joint spy plane, C130 Hercules and Typhoon jets will also be on standby.

Military observers say the British response points to the Royal Navy’s shortage of warships and other resources with some vessels being diverted from other missions to track the Russian ships.

Military analysts say that most likely the Kremlin will use the routing of the Russian convoy as an opportunity for a show of strength as it passes Britain, and expect the carrier’s aircraft to launch flying drills off the British and French coasts.

But as ever in the current climate the main concern lies in how such manoeuvres could potentially lead to a more serious confrontation.

“When people start posturing, things become dangerous. It all raises tensions and makes things more difficult and that’s not a clever thing to do,” warned Lord West of Spithead, a former First Sea Lord.

“I find Russia very worrying at the moment. Their economy is on a war footing,” he added.

In the wider European arena too, other Russian moves are giving strategists cause for concern. Over the last few weeks Moscow shipped a sophisticated nuclear-capable missile system toward its territorial exclave bordering Poland, in effect, introducing a powerful military asset into an already tense region and prompting expressions of concern by allied officials.

The Russian naval ship was observed carrying an Iskander missile system toward the country’s Kaliningrad port. Kaliningrad is a coastal exclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania. The move prompted a fearful response from Poland and Estonia.

“It seems to me that this is yet another step in the general context of escalation that we see, at least in rhetoric,’ said outgoing Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves, while Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz said Poland considered the matter of “highest concern”.

Once again the move drew comparisons with that most infamous of Cold War moments, prompting former US National Security Agency analyst John Schindler say that ‘for Warsaw and several other Nato capitals, this move resembles a Baltic version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.’

Against the backdrop of such moves, a growing sense of alarm is almost inevitable, even if some reports are not fully confirmed. Last week the Russian online news portal Znak.com reported the Moscow was ordering

all of its officials to fly home any relatives living abroad amid the heightened tensions. Administration staff, regional administrators, politicians of all levels and employees of public corporations have been ordered to take their children out of foreign schools immediately the website reported.

All this intensification of the political rhetoric and military posturing from both Russia and Britain comes ahead of the key meeting between the UK, US, France and Germany this weekend at which the Western powers hope to form a response to the Russian military operation.

Concern is growing too that Britain like the United States is considering deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war, including looking at more military options.

Speaking to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a few days ago Boris Johnson set out policy routes to try and respond to the situation in Syria. While emphasising humanitarian strategies he also said it was right to be “looking again at the more kinetic options, the military options.”

Both the Foreign Office and Downing Street were quick to play down any notion that this indicated a first step towards military intervention in Syria, a step that would almost certainly lead to greater confrontation with Moscow.

As Britain and the West’s stand-off with Russia deepens so the comparisons with the Cold War era are trundled out. But many analysts now believe that things have gone far beyond that stage. Russia alone is not to blame in all of this with the US and Nato also sharing a portion of the responsibility for the escalation in tensions through military deployments.

As Igor Zevelev a former director of the MacArthur Foundation's Russia office put it recently: “It’s not a Cold War…it’s a much more dangerous and unpredictable situation.”

Perhaps the most worrying thing of all, as Boris Johnson’s remarks of the last few days again highlighted, is that there seems next to no desire by either side to engage in any real meaningful dialogue that would help de-escalate the tensions.

As Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US said recently, all the normal channels of cooperation between the US and Russia are now effectively “frozen”, and it is much the same story with Britain.

In such a febrile political and diplomatic climate the chances of miscalculation or misunderstanding is perhaps the biggest fear of all.

It is time for steady nerves and calm heads. As Mikhail Gorbachev emphatically and rightly pointed out last week: “This needs to stop. We need to renew dialogue.”