Just as a peevish postscript to my last, reading some of the media one might be forgiven for thinking that Moscow had deployed some massive armada into the Med to shore up Assad (how does a naval force without air or meaningful artillery influence a counter-insurgency war?) or to intimidate the West. “16 Russian warships carrying thousands of marines” “a show of force“, etc
Let’s see just what is there, though:
- A detachment from the Black Sea Fleet: the 1980s-vintage Slava-class missile cruiser Moskva, the 1960s-vintage Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivy, the landing ships Novocherkassk, Azov and Nikolai Filchenkov and a couple of auxiliaries
- A detachment from the Baltic Fleet: the Neustrashimyy-class frigate Yaroslav Mudryy, the landing ships Kaliningrad and Aleksandr Shabalin, and a tender and a tanker
- a Naval Infantry (marine) force of around 300 men, equivalent to about two reinforced companies. Despite some accounts, I am not sure whether they have much in the way of vehicles, artillery, etc either.
So, the actual muscle comprises one missile cruiser, a destroyer and one frigate, only one of which is less than twenty years old. The Moskva and Smetlivy are optimized to fight other ships, the Yaroslav Mudryy, submarines. I think it’s fair to say that the Free Syrian Army has neither. So maybe it’s to overawe their Western allies? Well, the Turkish Navy alone disposes of 18 frigates, 7 corvettes and sundry smaller combatants, while the US 6th Fleet would scarcely notice this scratch force if it came to hostilities, especially considering the parlous state in which much of the Russian Navy still languishes.
As for the Naval Infantry, they are pretty well-trained by Russian military standards and may well include some elite Naval Spetsnaz, but 300 men is not going to turn the tide of war, even were the Kremlin willing to put them in harm’s way.
However, 300 marines would make an excellent force to provide security for en evacuation operation. And it is worth noting that this flotilla’s landing ships have the capacity to carry a total of 1700 people easily, and as many as 2,300 or more in a pinch. Why else field these large troopships, with 1,400-2,000+ empty berths, except to prepare for potential exodus?
Of course, military force is always first and foremost a political instrument, and the simple presence of Russian naval forces in the area may perhaps be intended as some kind of message. But the point about such signaling is that is it essential that the message be appropriate to convey the intended meaning. Had the Russians really wanted to put out a warning, they should have left the empty troopships at home and fielded more combatants. I feel I tend to be the more hawkish side of things often, but here I am bound to say that the Russians seem not to be trying to muddy the waters or bolster Assad, just be ready in case they need to evacuate. Sometimes, things really are what they seem…