The Russian Navy recently announced that it is sending a number of warships to conduct exercises in the Mediterranean. What’s more, these ships are expected to stop in Tartus, the Russian refueling facility in Syria, and several of the ships are carrying naval infantry. This deployment has obviously raised concern in the West, much as a previous (false) report of Russian marines being sent to Syria did. The New York Times and Forbes.com’s Mark Adomanis both provide a lot of useful information without excessive hype, but I’m not sure either has the whole context. So let me spell out exactly what the deployment involves and provide some of that context.
This is far from the first time in recent years that Russia has sent ships to the Med. What’s more, when Russian ships go to the Med, either for exercises or in transit, they virtually always stop at Tartus. So there’s no cause for alarm there. The Times is right in noting that this current deployment is much larger than previous ones, but (as Ilya Kramnik notes) the West is just going to have to get used to the return of Russian naval presence in the Med and elsewhere.
So what exactly is included in this deployment? From the Northern Fleet, we have the Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko and three Ropucha class large amphibious ships (Kondopoga, Georgii Pobedonosets and Aleksandr Otrakovskii). From the Baltic Fleet, there is the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudry. Once they reach the Med, they will be joined by several ships from the Black Sea Fleet, including the ancient but eminently seaworthy Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi and two more LSTs: the Alligator-class Nikolai Filchenkov and the Ropucha-class Tsezar Kunikov. These ships are being supported by a total of three tugboats and two oilers. Furthermore, they may be joined for part of the journey by the Black Sea Fleet’s Neustrashimyy frigate, on its way to participate in the regular counterpiracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.
(One note — Mark Adomanis argues that the ships will not arrive in Tartus for several months. This is clearly an error, as the Russian reporting on the deployment indicates that the ships will return to their home ports by early October. I would guess that it will take a couple of weeks for the ships from the Northern Fleet to get to the Med, with the exact timing depending on whether they do any exercises along the way or head directly for Tartus. Smetlivy is supposed to be in Tartus by early next week.)
So that’s a total of eight warships, which more or less matches some of the past big exercises Russia has done in the Med in recent years. The main difference is that this set of exercises seems to be aimed at amphibious landings, given the large number of LSTs and the lack of the really big combat ships such as the Moskva or Peter the Great cruisers that often go on these exercises. This is undoubtedly a signal to various parties that Russia continues to view the region as a strategic priority and will continue to seek to play a role in the Med regardless of its specific position on supporting Bashar al-Assad at any particular moment.
But at the same time, we should keep in mind that although there is a political aspect to this, it is primarily a regular large-scale naval exercise, of the type that Russia has conducted just about every year since 2007 or so. So there’s no reason to read more into this than there is there. These troops will not be used to prop up the Assad regime. They could be used to protect Tartus if necessary, but I think that is highly unlikely, in part because Tartus does not have the facilities to house them for any length of time. Furthermore, as Mark Katz recently pointed out, their presence at Tartus would make the base a more inviting target for anti-regime forces in Syria. They definitely could be used to help evacuate Russian citizens from Syria, should that become necessary. And having LSTs around may be helpful in an evacuation even beyond the troops, as the evacuees could be housed temporarily on the ships.