MOSCOW–As Russia dramatically upped stakes in Syria this week by firing cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea, President Putin’s military escalation has been followed by a largely muted response from post-Soviet states.

Russian ships fired 26 SS-N-27 “Sizzler” cruise missiles into Syria on Oct. 7, apparently aiming to intensify the military’s campaign there. Though they were developed in early 1980s, the Soviet-era SS-N-27 cruise missiles proved to be effective weapons, hitting Syrian targets at some 1,500-kilometers away.

In breaking news Thursday, US officials claimed that four Russian cruise missiles missed their targets in Syria and landed in Iran. The Russian defense ministry denied the claims. The Russian official RIA news agency also quoted Iranian
defense ministry sources as characterizing the claims as “US
psywar against Russia.”

Smoke rises after Russian airstrike on Syrian target
Smoke rises after Russian airstrike on Syrian target

NATO has predictably voiced concerns of “troubling” Russian escalation in the conflict. But more than 70% of Russians support their country’s operations against ISIS terrorists in Syria.

Russia began its first air strikes on Syria in support of the Assad regime on Sept. 30.  President Vladimir Putin suggested that Moscow had to act preemptively and warned that if terrorists succeeded in Syria, they would threaten Russia and other former Soviet states.

Despite this, by Oct. 8, Russia’s closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as well as some other members of the Russia-led security alliance, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), were still slow to comment on the Russian actions against ISIS, including the cruise missile naval bombardment of targets in Syria.

Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev, in early October became the only CSTO head of state to voice clear support for the Russian strikes.

In what can be viewed as an indirect reaction, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko voiced reluctance around this time to implement earlier agreements with Moscow and to establish a Russian air force base in Bobruisk. Belarus and Russia have been discussing the deployment of a regiment of Russian fighters in Bobruisk since 2009.

At an Oct. 6 meeting with Putin, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon voiced concern over what he called an increasing Islamic State (IS) threat from Afghanistan. However, he refrained from supporting the Russian action in Syria. Russian officials also subsequently denied reports of upcoming increases in the Russian military presence in Tajikistan.

Second Russian front against IS in Afghanistan?

Russian military officials hinted at opening a possible second front against ISIS in Afghanistan. Addressing an international conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on Oct. 8 by the Russian Defense Ministry, General Valery Guerasimov, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, warned of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. He said that estimated 2,000-3,000 IS militants in Afghanistan pose a direct threat to neighboring Central Asian states.

Last month, the heads of states of the CSTO voiced concerns about a possible infiltration of ISIS militants from Afghanistan into Central Asian states, and possibly Russia as well.

Perceptions of an escalating threat from IS prompted Afghanistan’s first Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to visit Russia earlier this month in a bid to seek Moscow’s help in the fighting terrorists, notably IS. Dostum also met with Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechnya region, who had advocated deployment of the Russian ground troops in Syria.

Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan silent on intervention

Russian Navy ship fires cruise missile at Syria from Caspian Sea
Russian navy ship fires cruise missile at Syria from Caspian Sea

In the meantime, the littoral Caspian nations, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, remained silent following the spectacular cruise missile launches by the Russian Caspian Flotilla.

Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally in the region, appeared hardly pleased by the missile launches from its backwaters. In recent years, Baku has urged Moscow to “demilitarize” the Caspian Sea, although Azerbaijan owns naval facilities in Baku as well as a quarter of the former Soviet Caspian Flotilla.

The Russian naval bombardment of targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea might also have repercussions for ongoing efforts to amicably divide the landlocked sea among the littoral states.

Not surprisingly, Russia advocates a “modified median line” for the division of the Caspian Sea bed. This would leave the sea’s surface waters for the common use by all the concerned states, including the use by naval forces. In contrast, Iran favors a complete division of the whole sea that would not allow Russian naval forces to travel freely over the entire Caspian Sea.

Therefore, the continued reluctance to support Russia’s action in Syria by several former Soviet states is an apparent sign of uneasiness about Moscow’s ongoing military escalation in the region.

Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.

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