A Russian fleet with the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov along with several escort vessels, including the nuclear-powered Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) battle cruiser. It is believed these ships will be taking part in the bombardment of the city of Aleppo in Syria. The slow-moving fleet is expected to arrive off the Syrian coast around November 5th, just before the US elections.
The mission is also designed to be a show of force to the West as the task force conducts maneuvers and exercises along the European coast, constantly shadowed by NATO ships. However, does Russia have a more strategic aim in the timing of this mission or is it pure coincidence the fleet arrives just Americans go to the polls?
The UK Express called the fleet’s movements “a blatant show of strength aimed at unsettling the West and demonstrating Mr Putin’s willingness to spread his influence around the world.”
Putin has been spreading his influence around the world since at least 2008. In August of that year, Putin sent his army into the country of Georgia, securing the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the southern border of Russia. This move also tested the resolve of the West to deter Russian aggression. In the end, President Bush expressed his solidarity with the small country, but Putin kept his prize.
Then, six years later, in February 2014, Putin again put his forces on the move and annexed the Crimea. This move once again secured the Russian naval base at Sevastopol, the home of its Black Sea Fleet. Again, Putin waited for some kind of response from the West. President Obama swore “there would be costs” for Russia’s continued moves in the Crimea, but did nothing. Putin called for a referendum in the Crimea, big surprise, Russia won. Now, nearly three years later, the Russian flag still flies there.
Putin, now convinced of the collective weakness of the West, moved his troops and tanks into Eastern Ukraine eight months later. Ostensibly to protect the ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population there. In reality, the invasion, and the protracted simmering conflict on-going ever since, was a slap at the Ukraine for wooing the West and NATO. Putin’s tanks also sent a message to any other borderland state that may have been thinking of courting the European Union or the Western Alliance.
The only thing standing in the way of Putin stretching Russian influence all the way to the Mediterranean is NATO member nation, Turkey. The only reason Turkey was invited to join NATO in 1952 is because Turkey owns what the then-Soviet Union wanted – the Bosporus straits and the Dardanelles. These two corridors connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Control, or even unfettered access to these straits would give Russia a huge military and geopolitical advantage. Putin is very well aware of this.
Three months into his presidency, Obama dispatched his newly-minted Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton to Geneva to meet with her Russian counterparts. In her now famous first gaffe as the SecState, Hillary presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button with the English word “reset” and the Roman alphabet transliteration of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet word “peregruzka”. It was the wrong word. Instead of “reset,” Hillary’s brilliant staff wrote the word for “overcharge” on the button.
The US has been bumbling our way along since that March 2009 meeting. Putin did reset Russian / Western relations, and has been mocking us ever since.
Next came the civil war in Syria in March 2011. True to its support for the “Arab Spring” movement and any group that would call themselves rebels, the Obama administration immediately pledged their support for the anti-government forces fighting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The United States started funneling weapons into Syria and to the rebels. The problem was, and still is, that there is no one group who represent these rebels. The forces fighting against Assad include the Free Syrian Army, various smaller militias as well as Sunni militant groups sprinkled with members of Al Qaida and the Al Nusra terror group. Add to this the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) securing territory, committing genocide against Christians across the region and fighting anyone who opposes them, and you have a difficult situation to decipher.
This didn’t stop Obama from declaring “red lines” (later ignored) if Assad were to use chemical weapons and repeatedly using the rhetoric that “Assad must go.” Instead, Assad will still be in power after Obama has gone. Why? Russia.
Russia formerly intervened in the Syrian civil war on 15 September 2015 after years of ineffective and indecisive action on the part of the United States. The official story of the Russian intervention was to kill ISIS. However, the first targets hit by Putin’s airstrikes were the moderate rebels fighting Assad, not ISIS.
Four years into America’s involvement in the war and only one year after Russia has stepped in, Putin is clearly in charge in Syria. Russia controls not only the battlefield, but also the negotiating table.
Russian forces have stabilized the situation and now there is really no chance that Assad will be ousted by any of the opposition forces. The “moderate” rebels that America, and the West, has backed in their fight against Assad from the beginning are struggling. Nothing illustrates this reality better than the misery of the city of Aleppo. In January and February 2016 Russia pounded the rebels in northern Syria. The regime made huge territorial advances and the opposition, mostly but not exclusively ISIS, held out in the city of Aleppo.
American bombers were operating in the area as well, so Russia deployed their advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. America blinked and then signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia that divided Syria with the Russians flying in the west and confining America’s coalition aircraft to the ISIS-controlled eastern deserts.
Under this agreement, Russia could act with near impunity in the skies over the Aleppo battlefield. Assad’s forces closed on the beleaguered city from the west as Iranian forces with their Shia militant and Hezbollah allies encircled it from the south. ISIS is now cornered in the eastern half of Aleppo and continues to get pounded causing an intense humanitarian crisis for the remaining civilian population.
Putin is now stepping up its game with the deployment of the fleet now steaming its way to join the fight.
What is Russia’s end game?
Russian interest in Syria go beyond the assistance of just helping its ally Assad. The alliance between Russia and Syria goes back more than forty years. During the Cold War, Syria was Russia’s biggest customer for military hardware. Having Syria in the Russian camp offers Moscow much more than just a lucrative arms trade. As explained in The Economist, “The Syrian government also allowed the Soviet Union to build a resupply station at the port of Tartus, which is now Russia’s sole remaining naval base in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean sea. Syria is also an important Russian military-intelligence base and listening post. Cultural connections elevated the relationship beyond the obvious strategic and commercial interests. Scores of Syrians came to study in the Soviet Union; many married and raised mixed families.”
With the rise of the Arab Spring movement, Russia was not about to allow Syria to become another Libya – a failed state run by terrorists and Islamist groups all at the bequest of America and its Western allies. When the civil war started in Syria and America dropped the ball, Putin saw not only that he had to assist his long-standing ally, but also an opportunity.
Victory by Russian terms in Syria does not equate peace. Victory in Syria means Russia, not NATO has taken the lead both in military and diplomatic terms. The Assad regime stays in power, the military situation is stabilized to the point where Russian interests – namely the naval base of Tartus is secure and with it the Russian fleet’s access to the Mediterranean Sea, and Russia remains the dominant player in the region. When that happens by extension, America loses. NATO’s ability to influence events in the region is diminished and Putin has forced the West to acknowledge that he both outfought the West in Syria but also outsmarted them at the negotiating table and at the strategic geopolitical chess game.
For this Russian victory to happen doesn’t mean the fighting is over. Aleppo will fall, Assad’s positions in western and northern Syria will be secure and any chances of regime change will have disappeared. It is likely that Russia will demand and get some reforms out of Assad to placate opposition and consolidate his power. Russia will allow Syrian army forces along with their Iranian, Hezbollah and militant allies to continue to fight any opposition and continue to battle ISIS, and Russia will be there to lend a hand if necessary, but Putin would have beaten America just by Assad staying in power.
What’s Russia’s strategic plan after securing Syria? Find out in our next part of this series!
By Joe Gilbert.
Gilbert is a retired US Army Military Intelligence officer and has been involved in the fight against Islamic terrorists and insurgencies for more than ten years, including three tours in Iraq where he served as a reconnaissance company commander, intelligence collection officer and the chief intelligence advisor and trainer to the 6th Iraqi Army division.