New report on Russian interests in Syria, part 2: Russian arms sales

I’ve covered Russian arms exports to Syria on this blog before, but the CAST report has some useful new information on this topic. Barabanov and Aliev note that Russian arms exports to Syria were very limited until the restructuring of Soviet-era Syrian debt to Russia in 2005.  Shortly after that, the two countries signed a series of arms contracts with a total value of 4.5 billion dollars. While these contracts were not publicized, available information indicates that they included the following:

  • 8 MiG-31E interceptors. This contract was annulled in 2009, most likely because of Israeli objections. No aircraft were ever transferred.
  • 12 MiG-29M/M2 fighter jets, with an option for an additional 12. The first set of aircraft, and possibly all 12, are to be transferred towards the end of this year. No information is available on the option for an additional 12 aircraft.
  • 8 battalions of Buk-M2E missile systems (total value $1 billion). Four were shipped in 2010-11, with the rest to be transferred by 2013.
  • 12  battalions of S-125-2M Pechora-2M SAMs ($200 million). Four were shipped in 2011, and another four were shipped on the MV Alaed, which was recently forced to return to Russia after its insurance was cancelled.
  • 36 Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile systems ($700 million). According to the CAST report, only 12 have been delivered so far. SIPRI, on the other hand, believes that all 36 have been delivered.
  • 2 K-300-P Bastion coastal defense systems, armed with 36 Yakhont anti-ship missiles ($250 million). Contract completed in 2011.
  • an unknown number of 9M123 Chrystanthemum self-propelled anti-tank missile systems. Most likely, none have been delivered to date.
  • an unstated number of Igla-S surface to air missiles (200 according to SIPRI). Contract completed in 2010.
  • modernization of 1000 T-72 tanks to T-72M1M level ($1 billion). Little work completed to date.

There was another set of contracts completed in 2007-08 to modernize Syria’s air force. This included the following:

  • 15 Su-24MK bombers. Work began in 2010. These are to be armed with Kh-31A anti-ship missiles, 87 of which were produced through 2010.
  • unknown number of MiG-29 fighters to SM level. (24 according to a previous CAST report). First four completed in 2011.
  • unknown number of MiG-23 fighters to MLD level. Seven completed through 2011.
  • 20 Mi-25 combat helicopters. 17 delivered so far. Last three were supposed to be delivered on the MV Alaed earlier this month.
  • 2 Ka-28 anti-submarine helicopters. Contract completed.

The most recent contract was completed in December 2011, for 36 Yak-130 trainer aircraft ($550 million). However, this contract has not yet been approved by the Russian government.

To summarize, Russia has completed about $5.5 billion worth of military contracts with Syria since 2006, primarily for air force and air defense modernization. The report notes that despite prompt payment by the Syrian side, fulfillment of many of the contracts was dragged out (and in the case of the MiG-31s, cancelled) by the Russian government. So far, Syria has received only $1 billion worth of equipment from these contracts.

The authors argue that Russia has been very cautious in selling arms to Syria, making sure that Western powers and especially Israel did not object to the equipment being provided. In particular, Russia has refused to sell Iskander ballistic missile systems and S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria. In other words, the report argues that Russia has valued its relationship with Western states and Israel more than the financial and political gains from selling more weapons to Syria. Furthermore, even if Assad’s government survives, it will not be able to afford to pay for more Russian weapons for the foreseeable future, limiting its role as a customer for the Russian defense industry.

New report on Russian interests in Syria, part 1: Russian motivations

The Russian defense think tank CAST has produced a new report on Russian interests in Syria, by Mikhail Barabanov and Ruslan Aliev. This report largely supports my recent contention that while Russia has significant material interests in Syria, they are not the main reason for its support of the Assad regime. Let me first address what the report says about Russian motivations. Tomorrow, I’ll address the part of the report that spells out Russian material interests in Syria, since CAST provides some interesting new information on this topic.

One thing that the report notes at the outset is that there is a widespread consensus in Russia on support for the Assad regime. This includes not just political leaders, but also most experts and the public as well. The authors describe the Russian position as a strong consensus to defend Russian interests and limit Western willfulness. Of course, this just begs the question of what are Russian interests in this case.

The authors mention that Putin may have some sympathy for Assad as a fellow authoritarian leader facing internal protests that have Western support. But they judge that Putin is too pragmatic and opportunistic to allow such considerations to affect Russian policy.

They argue instead that the greatest role in determining  Russian policy is played by the elite and expert consensus that Syria must not be lost, as Assad’s defeat would mean the loss of Russia’s last client and ally in the Middle East. Syria is seen in some quarters as one of the last symbolic remnants of Russia’s superpower status. For supporters of this view, Western intervention in Syria would be seen as the destruction of one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power status.

Barabanov and Aliev then argue that this view is support by skepticism about the results of the Arab spring in general and the possible outcome of the Syrian revolution in particular. Russian elites believe that the Arab spring has destabilized the Middle East and opened the door for Islamist forces to take power. As they see it, only secular authoritarian regimes such as that of Assad can counter the rise of Islamist forces. The strong support being given by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the Syrian rebels only deepens Russian suspicions in this regard, given Russian beliefs about past Saudi efforts to export “wahhabism” to the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Finally, Russian dislike for unilateral Western interventionism plays a role as well, augmented by Russian views that Western powers used the potential of a humanitarian crisis in Benghazi to push through a UN Security Council resolution authorizing Western intervention in Libya that was then cynically interpreted in a way that allowed Western powers to overthrow the Gaddhafi regime.

The authors conclude by noting that the Syrian situation thus combines all the phobias and complexes of Russian politics and public opinion. What is actually happening in Syria thus plays second fiddle to Russian perceptions about Russia’s role in the international system and pathologies related to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s subsequent decline.

All of this is broadly in line with my recent memo on this topic, so I’m naturally quite sympathetic to the argument in the report. I put more emphasis in my analysis on Russia’s role in the international community versus concern about Islamism and regional stability, but these are relatively fine distinctions that don’t really change the overall point: Russia is not backing Assad because of its commercial relationship or desire to maintain a military outpost there. It is backing Assad because it perceives that Assad’s downfall would have serious and long-lasting negative repercussions for Russia’s position in the Middle East and in the world, as well as for regional stability in the Middle East. This makes it far less likely that Russia would be willing to change its position in exchange for concessions on other material issues.

A threat-based vision for developing the Russian navy

In the most recent issue of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Mikhail Barabanov has an article entitled “A New Fleet for Russia — An Independent Vision” (gated). Barabanov is the editor of the Moscow Defense Brief, a very useful and highly respected publication in English on the Russian military. The article spells out a vision of a future Russian navy based on a set of three principal military threats facing Russia in the foreseeable future. These threats are:

  • Conflicts with neighboring post-Soviet republics, “the majority of which perceive the Russian Federation as the main threat to their sovereignty and are interested in weakening in any possible way both Russian influence on their territory and the Russian Federation as a state in general.”
  • Conflict with the United States and the Western Bloc that it heads. “Inasmuch as the goal of the United States is unconditional world dominance, the United States inevitably automatically views Russia as the only (together with the People’s Republic of China) potential competition to its domination and as a hostile force; the weakening and possibly complete liquidation of Russia is a natural mission of American policy.” Conflict with the US is most likely to emerge as the result of US interference in a conflict on Russia’s borders.
  • Conflicts with non-Western states, especially China. Barabanov argues that this threat is presently of minimal importance because of overlapping interests between Russia and these states.

Based on this set of threats and his assessment of their relative likelihood, Barabanov argues that the Western theater of military operations will be the most critical for Russia and the Baltic and Black Sea fleets the most important fleets because of their role on the flanks of this theater.

On the other hand, the significance of the Northern and especially the Pacific fleet for Russian security will be much reduced. The northern theater of operations is important only because it is the main base of Russia’s naval strategic forces and because it provides for open access to the Atlantic. The Far East is sparsely populated and therefore strategically unimportant in the event of a US-Russia conflict. Given limited resources, Barabanov argues that Russia should give up on maintaining an ocean fleet there, limiting itself to a minimal force designed for coastal defense and ‘show the flag’ operations. He further argues that the Caspian Flotilla is useless because of the weakness of the other littoral states’ naval forces and the absence of any real combat missions for this force.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I find this analysis completely off the mark. By all accounts (including those of the majority of Russian analysts) Russian leaders now firmly believe that they do not face any threat from NATO or the United States. As I have written before, the likeliest source of threats to Russia in the near term is from the south. In the longer term, Russian military planners would do well to be prepared to face China, even though the likelihood of military conflict is actually quite small. Given this set of threats, the most important fleets for Russia are the Pacific and Black Sea Fleets, as well as the Caspian Flotilla, while the Baltic Fleet is largely irrelevant and the Northern Fleet is good for exactly the purposes mentioned by Barabanov (our one area of agreement here). While we both agree that the Black Sea Fleet is important, we disagree on its likely role, with Barabanov discussing its potential supporting role in a Cold War style NATO-Russia conflict while I believe that it could play a role in dealing with potential future conflicts in the Caucasus.

Given our disagreement on threat assessment, I found myself surprised to be more or less in agreement with the second half of the article, which derived force structure from the threat assessment.

Barabanov argues that each fleet other than the Northern should have six diesel submarines, which would allow for a rotation of two subs staying out at sea to control the straits that provide access to these theaters. While I see no point in having so many submarines in the Baltic Fleet, that’s a number that probably makes sense for the Black Sea and the Pacific. Each fleet should also have 3 Gorshkov-class frigates and 8-10 multi-purpose corvettes. The corvettes should be of a new type, that is high-speed, equipped with a helicopter, and able to employ a wide range of armaments. The Steregushchiy class does not satisfy any of these requirements and will have to be replaced. In addition, each fleet should have 6-8 modern minesweepers, and significant amphibious assault forces (6 large ships and 30-40 small fast assault launches).

This set of requirements produces a total coastal force of 18 diesel subs, 12 frigates, 36 corvettes, around 30 minesweepers, 24 large assault ships, and 160 small assault launches. I would reduce the forces in the Baltic fleet somewhat, perhaps in favor of boosting the Pacific fleet, and I would add a couple of small corvettes, missile boats, and amphibs  for the Caspian flotilla, but overall this seems like a reasonable set of forces.

Barabanov calls for a single Open Sea Fleet, to be based in the Northern fleet area. The missions of this fleet would include nuclear deterrence, presence, and possible intervention abroad. The nuclear deterrent component of the fleet would include 4 Borei SSBNs and 6 Delta IV SSBNs, with the latter being replaced after 2020 by an additional 4 Borei SSBNs. The strategic forces would be supported by six frigates and six minesweepers. The fleet would also operate 24 multi-purpose nuclear submarines, with 16 based in the North and 8 in Kamchatka.

The main surface combatant force would be based on two aircraft carrier strike groups, allowing one to be operational at any given time while the other is engaged in training and maintenance. Two carriers in the style of the planned British CVF could be built by 2025-30. Each carrier would be supported by 6 10,000 ton destroyers of a new type and 2 composite supply ships. The four Mistral ships would provide a blue water amphibious assault capability.

This is an interesting and realistic long-range naval development plan. I would probably either split the carriers (one North, one Pacific) or base them both in the Pacific, but that’s a marginal adjustment that goes back to the disagreement over threat perceptions I discussed earlier. It will also take awhile to build the new destroyers, but having 12 in place by 2030 (when the carriers might be ready) is not unrealistic.

While I disagree with some of the article, it presents the kind of threat-based vision for the future development of the Russian navy that is usually absent from the discussion — which too often focuses on numbers of ships without putting much thought into why the navy might need those ships.