The Russian military’s ‘permanent’ commitment in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean

DR ROD THORNTON, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

The Russian military appears to be in Syria very much for the long haul. Indeed, the adjective ‘permanent’ [postoyannyi] has been applied by senior Russian political and military figures to describe both the presence of the Russian forces on land in Syria and the Russian Navy’s Eastern Mediterranean flotilla. President Vladimir Putin has himself stressed that both will be ‘permanent’ deployments.

The Russian ground forces (sent in 2015) are based mostly at the Hmeimim airbase and at the port of Tartus. But why are they there? The explanation most readily provided by Russian sources is that it is all to deal with Islamist terrorists in situ in Syria so that they are less likely to export their violence to the Russian homeland. While this excuse does have some resonance, it should certainly not be taken as anywhere near the most important reason for the Russian presence. There are other, and far more salient, rationales for the Russian military being in both Syria and, perhaps more importantly, in the waters off its coast.

Firstly, there is Putin’s need to display the power of Russia. Such displays are seen by the Kremlin as essential if Putin is to retain the support of the majority of the Russian people. This support was sorely lacking during the street protests against him in 2011-12 and, ever since, the Russian president has been striving for ways to increase his popularity – and a naked appeal to nationalism always seems to work. Putin, having sent his troops on this flag-waving mission to Syria, is now presenting himself to his domestic audience as the leader of a Russia that is now striding the world stage and garnering considerable global influence by so doing. Putin can bask in the reflected ‘glory’.

The second attraction of having troops in Syria is in creating leverage for Moscow (and hence for Putin) in the Middle East. Western diplomats and the leaders of all the regional state players involved in Syria – most notably, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Turkey – all have to come knocking on the Kremlin door if they want to engineer outcomes that suit their geopolitical purposes. The degree of influence that the Syrian intervention has created for Moscow in the Middle East is now quite profound.

The third reason for involvement is because Russian boots on the ground provide support for an important ally – Bashar al-Assad. Russia, if it is to attract future allies (which it sorely lacks), must make a show of supporting those that it has, such as Assad. Moscow cannot afford to abandon him and to thereby appear as an unreliable friend.

A fourth benefit comes in the tremendous opportunity it provides for the Russian armed forces in terms of gaining operational experience and in the testing of new weapons systems (apparently over 200 such systems have been tested in Syria). This opportunity has been described by General Valerii Gerasimov, the head of the Russian military, as ‘priceless’. Among the weapons ‘tested’ have been the much-vaunted Iskander-M road-mobile – and nuclear capable – tactical ballistic missile. The Iskander-M has been used in Syria against mere groupings of ‘terrorists’. This seems a very expensive missile to be firing at low-value targets; ones which could far more easily and far more cheaply have been dealt with simply by aerial bombing.

All these reasons for Russian involvement in Syria, however, while they have validity, cannot fully explain why the Russians are insisting that this involvement will actually be ‘permanent’. A better explanation, however, can be found if it is understood that this involvement is also making a contribution to the defence of Russia itself.

It is a truism that Russia – ever fearful of invasion – has, since the sixteenth century, sought to create defensive ‘buffer zones’: tracts of territory between the Russian homeland and potential adversaries. In the Soviet period, it was the ‘buffer states’ of the Warsaw Pact that served this purpose. But Russia has also sought maritime buffers as well. Historically, the Eastern Mediterranean has conspicuously figured as one of these maritime buffer zones. The Tsarist navy was always keen to have its vessels stationed forward of the Black Sea and out in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to protect the Bosphorus Straits – Russia’s most vital strategic artery. This Eastern Mediterranean naval presence has been described as acting as a ‘southern flank glacis’ for Tsarist Russia.

The Soviet Navy maintained the same glacis. This navy, once it was powerful enough by the 1960s, sent its vessels out of the Black Sea and established a strong Mediterranean flotilla. It made use of port facilities at Alexandria in Egypt and at Tartus in Syria. Come the end of the Soviet Union, however, the militarily weak Russia of Boris Yeltsin was in no position to continue this deployment and the Mediterranean was left devoid of Russian warships. This was a situation that changed in 2012 with Putin’s personal announcement that Russia, with its military modernization process continuing apace, was now in a position to return warships to the Mediterranean and to have them on station, moreover, on a ‘permanent’ basis. But it was only in 2015 that such a standing flotilla actually came to be established. In December 2017, Putin further announced that Russia’s lease on the port facilities at Tartus would be extended for another 49 years and that considerable upgrading work would take place there.

This Eastern Mediterranean flotilla currently consists mostly of small vessels (about 15) – frigates, corvettes and attack submarines – but ones which can carry no little punch. This comes primarily from the Kalibr anti-ship/land-attack cruise missiles they carry (also nuclear-capable). These missiles have a range of 2,500km (compared to the US Tomahawk’s 1,700km); a speed of Mach 2.9 (Tomahawk: Mach 0.9), and they can engage in sophisticated evasive manoeuvres. Kalibrs have been fired from these vessels at ground targets in Syria. But, again, by using them in this way much money is seemingly being wasted on killing just a few terrorists. These missiles, however, and it must certainly be assumed, are not there primarily to be fired into Syria. Rather, they have a more profound purpose. Their ‘real’ targets can be seen to be those of NATO: its warships across much of the Mediterranean, yes, but also, and perhaps much more significantly, both operational and strategic ground targets in southern, central and eastern Europe. These Russian vessels with their Kalibr missiles can defend not only the Bosphorus but they can also act as possible game-changers in any future conflict with NATO. As such, they currently have a significant deterrence potential.

However, when Soviet vessels operated in the Mediterranean in the 1980s it was estimated by the Soviet admiralty that its ships would, upon the outbreak of any hostilities, last only about 35 minutes before NATO aircraft sank them. It is different now. Today, the ships of Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean flotilla will be able to operate under the protective umbrella of the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’ that has been established by the Russian forces ashore in Syria (which was not employed to counter the recent Western airstrikes).

The main elements in this bubble are the anti-aircraft missile systems – the S-300 (range 200km) and the S-400 (range 400km). Their capabilities mean firstly that all of the states with an airpower involvement in the Syrian imbroglio – Turkey, Israel and the US and its NATO allies – have to be very wary of the Russians’ ability to create a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria. In theory, no aircraft can move without Moscow’s say-so. On one level, this adds to the Kremlin’s ability to generate significant geopolitical bargaining power in the region. Perhaps more crucially, though, in a wider strategic sense, these anti-aircraft systems – whose cover reaches 400km out into the Mediterranean – can also provide a very high level of protection from NATO aircraft for the Kalibr-armed warships operating offshore. This cover significantly enhances the operational utility and the strategic deterrence qualities of this flotilla.

Also part of this Syrian A2/AD bubble are Bastion-P shore-based mobile coastal batteries armed with anti-ship missiles. These are based at Tartus. The mission of these can hardly be to strike terrorists inland. They can only be there to protect Russian vessels out at sea. Likewise, the Iskander-Ms can only really be in Syria to add to the bubble by providing further cover for Russian forces in the region. The deterrent capacity of the Iskander-Ms is clear given their ability to strike, for instance, NATO airbases at Akrotiri in Cyprus and Incirlik in Turkey, as well as the NATO ballistic missile defence radar station at Kurecik in Turkey.

All in all, the Russians have a suite of very effective weapons systems in Syria as part of this A2/AD bubble. And while it might ostensibly be present to protect Russian ground operations in the country, it is clearly far more likely to be present to contribute to the deterrent potential of this modern equivalent of Russia’s ‘southern flank glacis’. The role of the Russian military presence both in Syria and offshore can thus fundamentally be seen to contribute to the protection of Russia itself. Of course, and in true ‘strategic dilemma’ thinking, this ‘glacis’ – while it might be advertised as defensive in nature – can also be made to operate to Russia’s military advantage if ever Moscow has offensive thoughts of its own in the region. Under this A2/AD bubble’s cover, Russian forces would be able to manoeuvre in an operational environment that would be distinctly in their favour.

The Syrian intervention provides Moscow with many positives. Putin gains domestic popularity; the country gains geopolitical leverage in a crucial part of the world, and the military gains in both operational and strategic terms. It can thus be readily understood why Moscow would be so keen to stress that the presence of its forces in both Syria and in the Eastern Mediterranean will, indeed, be on a ‘permanent’ basis.

Image: Vladimir_Putin_visited_Khmeimim_Air_Base_in_Syria_(2017-12-11), via Wikimedia.

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