Tartus or bust

Russia has but one aircraft carrier. Yesterday she and eight other war ships and a naval submarine steamed by the cliffs of Dover, attracting just about the attention that they would have hoped for. The Admiral Kuznetsov is smaller but more heavily armed than a conventional carrier and it has had the odd engine malfunction in its 25-years of service, in which it has yet to see combat duties..

A symbolic move, perhaps. But It’s a bold move — not without some risk. If it comes off it will add to Russia’s position in the eastern Mediterranean, where she is looking to entrench herself, bolstered Levantine power-projection afforded by an air-base that lies further to the north and a Caspian flotilla to its east.

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Caspian flotilla missile trajectory to the Levant [Image: Islamabad Times]

The move, in these heady days, is again by President Putin, marching eight war ships and a puffing aircraft carrier [†] through the English Channel en-route to the eastern Mediterranean, to support the country’s combat capabilities there.

Russias defense minister, Sergei Shoigu:

Special focus will be made on safeguarding the security of maritime traffic and other types of maritime economic activity of Russia and also on responding to the new kinds of modern threats such as piracy and international terrorism.

Whatever happened to Russia’s withdrawal from Syria?

President Putin has clearly decided both that he can no longer trust the West and to play her at her own game. And the first casualty of war is the truth.

The flotilla is being escorted by one of its own battlecruisers, Peter the Great. It has also received an unsolicited escort from the British warship HMS Richmond from the Norwegian Sea and the Type 45 destroyer HMS Duncan, also underway, to “man-mark” the ships.

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Peter the Great, a Kirov-class “battlecruiser”*, is a heavy missile cruiser flagship of Russia’s Northern Fleet, assigned the task to escort the Kuznetsov to the eastern Mediterranean. [Image: the real Syrian Free Press]

This is what the West had to say:

Britain’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon:

It’s being marked every step of the way by the Royal Navy and ships and planes of other Nato members as well.

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[Image: Daily Mail]

NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg:

Russia, of course, has the right to operate in international waters and this is not the first time we’ve seen this carrier group being deployed in the Mediterranean.

One English tabloid, on the other hand, took the news in its stride (as is its wont), basking in bravado to the point of hubris.

If he pulls it off — if the Kuznetsov makes it all the way to Syria — this will be another feather in the cap for President Putin, in these machinations (jockeying and pre-deployments) that serve as the prelude to a broader conflict. Obviously, Russia felt the imperative to chance their arm with this carrier’s voyage now.

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Syria’s short coastline is the only nominally-Russian friendly territory of the Mediterranean [Image: Mappery]

This may be a show of strength but it is also perhaps designed to provide some aerial support in the Mediterranean, where Russia has little footing. More importantly, an aircraft carrier at Tartus complements the air-base further north at Khmeimim (just southeast of Latakia). What is oft overlooked, with respect to Russia’s Syria campaign, is the ISIS-Chechen factor and its potential to trouble Russia. Putin perhaps felt that if ISIS not more readily confronted, it posed a significant threat up through the Caucasus.

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Having moved forces into Syria last year, and with the fateful Western no-fly zone set up in Libya still raw in its mind, Russia has nullified any U.S. hope for setting up a no-fly zone in Syria. In fact, there is already a no-fly zone in Syria — but it is one imposed by Russia.

President Putin moreover has plainly remonstrated, if it wasn’t already clear, that a U.S. attack on Syria is a declaration of war on Russia. He long-since decided to break out of the status quo and take the bull by the horns. And, rightly or wrongly, for the last 12 months that is exactly what he has done — striking while the iron is still hot and positioning himself toward the centre of the chessboard (Russia can also project power onto the Levant from its Caspian Flotilla, as it did when targeting ISIS earlier in this campaign).

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An S-300 and S-400 fortified air-base near Latakia, an aircraft carrier soon to be in Tartus, and cruise missiles from the Caspian flotilla (not to mention S-300s in Iran) sets up nicely anti-access area denial (A2/AD) [Image: Daily Mail]

Below are various images taken from  Khmeimim (Hmeimim) air base over the last 12 months:

The black smoke belching out of the Kuznetsov’s funnel may reflect engines that run on heavy crude. Still, the great risk for the Russians is that the carrier, who has yet to see combat duty, breaks down mid-journey.

There is one other risk. This risk is perhaps less likely but it is a far greater risk.

Is this all part of an American agenda to bait Russia? Is this all within the calculations of the Asian pivot, to utilise a technique that may best be summed up as “bait ’em and bleed ’em”? Is Russia — and her at-times tempestuous leader — playing  to an over-arching, grandiose, and nefarious Western agenda?

Annotations

†The Admiral Kuznetsov was commissioned in 1990 and is presently Russias only aircraft carrier. Manned by a crew of 1,960, it has Granit anti-ship cruise missiles as well as Blade and Chestnut gun systems in its arsenal.

*Western defense commentators re-invented the term “battlecruiser” to describe these heavy missile cruisers, as they are the largest surface combatant warships in the world.

Further reading/viewing

Sources
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