I was on Huffington Post Live this afternoon, speaking on a panel about the rapidly expanding Russian military presence in Syria. Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video directly on the blog, but it can be found at this link.
I was back on bloggingheads.tv Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) again this week, talking about US-Russian relations. We talked about the causes of the cancellation of the Putin-Obama summit, and discussed the two countries’ unproductive paradigm with respect to Syria. We also talked about how the Russian public has responded to Snowden. Inevitably, the topic of a potential Olympic boycott in response to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law came up. And we concluded with a short discussion of recent changes in how the Russian military conducts readiness exercises. The links will take you to the specific segments, or you can click here to watch the whole thing.
The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.
The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these. The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.
Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).
The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.
I was on bloggingheads.tv Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) this week, talking about Russian foreign policy. Unfortunately, much of the show was lost due to some kind of technical problem, but the portion where we discuss Russian interests in Syria survived and can be found here.
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.
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.
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.