A Russian navy vessel is seen off the Syrian port of Tartus in late July. Photo: AFP / SANA
A Russian navy vessel is seen off the Syrian port of Tartus in late July. Photo: AFP / SANA

‘Operation Sea Shield’, which deploys vessels from a range of Russian bases from all points of the compass to the Eastern Mediterranean, is the largest maneuver launched by the Russian Navy since the start of Russia’s intervention in Syria.

Amid seaborne maneuvers, a gathering assault and widespread information warfare, the Russian task – officially, at least – is to deter an imminent US-led attack on Syrian territory, aimed at preventing Damascus’ forces from retaking the key northern province of Idlib, one of the last rebel-held strongholds in the embattled country.

However, others say it is a power-projection exercise, proving that the Russian Navy can now deploy to the Mediterranean. Historically, Russian fleets have always been hampered by geography: Its ships face the difficulty of breaking through narrow bottlenecks in the Baltic and the Black Sea before they can reach open waters, while its Northern fleet is iced in during the winter.

According to pro-Kremlin outlet Izvestia, Russia’s military buildup in the Mediterranean amounts to 10 warships and two submarines, belonging to the Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets, as well as to the Caspian flotilla. Among them, the frigates Admiral Essen and Admiral Grigorovich carry Kalibr cruise missiles for strikes against land-based targets, while the Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov is equipped with the Vulkan anti-ship missile system.

Chlorine-gas plot: Russia

Russian officials explained this sudden display of military might as a reaction to the alleged threat posed by gathering US forces near Syria’s frontiers. “The deployment of such a large navy contingent is necessary to prevent aggression against Syria,” Russian Baltic Fleet Admiral Vladimir Valuev told RIA Novosti, referring to “possible attacks by sea-based Tomahawk cruise missiles on Syrian infrastructure.”

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the US destroyer The Sullivans, armed with 56 cruise missiles, has recently appeared in the Persian Gulf while the destroyer Ross, equipped with 28 Tomahawks, entered the Mediterranean on 25 August. Moreover, according to MoD information, a strategic B-1B bomber carrying 24 cruise missiles has deployed to the Qatari military base of Al Udeid.

To Moscow, these are clear signs that the US military is preparing to carry out missile strikes against Syrian forces. Russia has claimed the US will use a “false flag” chemical attack to justify a US or NATO offensive, which could be blamed on Syrian President Bashir Assad, in a similar fashion to the one purportedly staged by the White Helmets in Eastern Ghouta last April.

Russian military spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov told Kommersant that the latest US naval maneuvers, “confirm US intentions to use militant-staged attacks as a pretext for a missile strike against Syria”, but provided no evidence for this. More specifically, Konashenkov alleged that a group of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham terrorists, with “active collaboration of the UK secret service” and British private military company Oliva Group, have prepared eight containers of chlorine to be directed as a gas for use against the civilian population of Idlib.

The opinion is shared by the vice president of the Russian parliament defense committee Aleksandr Sherin, who defined the deployment of Russian warships as an “absolutely right and sensible decision.” “I want to remind [all] that Russia is the only state whose armed forces are legally present on the territory of Syria, upon invitation of the local government,” Sherin pointed out.

His words found support in a statement by Syria’s parliamentary spokesperson Hadji Gabid who, in an interview with Izvestia, defined Russian forces as “the guarantor of stability in the region, preventing Western countries from hindering the speedy end of the war”.

Suspicion over Russian motives

Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon rejected all allegations regarding an imminent US attack on Syria, defining them “nothing more than propaganda,” according to reports by CNN.

Kremlin critics are convinced that Russia is using the allegations of an imminent US or NATO attack and claims of a chlorine attack to cover up real use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces and to deflect attention from preparations for the upcoming offensive.

A concern was expressed days ago by US, French and British representatives at the UN Security Council, who warned Assad not to use chemical weapons in his imminent offensive against Idlib. If the Syrian leader does not abide by international laws, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington would respond “in a swift and appropriate manner.”

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya denied that the Syrian army had any chemical weapons. “People in their right minds will not use means that are useless from a military point of view in order to trigger reprisals by three major powers,” he said.

NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu suggested that members of the military alliance refrain from any radical action. “We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria,” she said.

A power projection exercise?

But even if the risk of a spiral of escalation exists, the kinetic potential of the Russian naval contingent off Syria is exaggerated, military expert Andrey Frolov, editor-in-chief of Eksport Voruzhenii (Arms Exports) magazine, told Asia Times.

“There is no way the Russian naval contingent could prevent a US missile strike against Syria from reaching its target,” he said. “Nor could it have a crucial impact on the course of military operations in Idlib.” Instead, Frolov suggested that the Russian maneuvers along Syrian shores represent a PR move by the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin promotes a strong Russia image, and in Syria, has made much of the success of newly developed and deployed weapons and equipment. Seen in this light, the navy is engaged in flexing military muscle and asserting influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, rather than hazarding a real confrontation.

“It is like a card game, where the players are bluffing all the time,” Frolov said. “In fact, Russians know that the US military would never direct strikes against their ships, as that would hold the risk of escalating into a full-fledged war.”

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