Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Syria Bound?

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Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Syria Bound?

Putin wants to re-establish Russia as a major player in world politics. Will his resentment of the US get in his way?

Russia will deploy its only heavy aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean Sea by the end of 2013, a Russian military official announced earlier this week.

Discussing the planned deployment, Navy Commander Adm. Viktor Chirkov told Interfax,

“The cruiser will complete its planned maintenance at the end of the year. It is expected to put out and perform a number of missions in an offshore oceanic zone as part of a group. Northern Fleet naval pilots will perform a number of missions on board this cruiser in the long-range mission.”

The report goes on to say that the vessel carries Su-33 sea-based multirole fighters and Ka-27, Ka-28, Ka-29, Ka-32 helicopters. It is also equipped with Granit anti-ship missile systems, Kortik and Klinok anti-aircraft systems, and Udav anti-submarine systems.

The carrier will join the group of warships deployed to the Mediterranean earlier this year as part of a new permanent task force Russia established in the region largely in response to the ongoing hostilities in Syria, where Russia maintains a naval base.

Last month, when the warships arrived in the Mediterranean, Russian state media reported that the task force consisted of the “destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, two amphibious warfare ships Peresvet and Admiral Nevelskoi, as well as a tanker and a tugboat.” Admiral Chirkov was quoted at the time as saying that five to six warships would be sent to the region by the end of the year, and that nuclear-powered and diesel submarines might be deployed as part of the task force in the future. Moscow also intends to establish a headquarters for the fleet sometime this summer, with initial reports suggesting it will be based out of Novorossiysk, Russia or Sevastopol, Ukraine.

Comments by other Russian naval officials indicated that last month was first time since the Soviet Navy’s 5th Mediterranean Squadron was disbanded in 1992 that Russian warships were patrolling waters in the region.

The 5th Mediterranean Squadron was established shortly after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, and usually consisted of 30-50 warships.

Interestingly, the new Mediterranean task force more closely resembles the Soviet Union’s pre-5th Mediterranean Squadron naval presence in the region. Much like the current task force, before the 1967 War the Soviet Navy used warships drawn from their Black Sea and Northern Fleets to patrol the Mediterranean region, rather than having an established fleet and command structure. Even after the establishment of the 5th Squadron, the Soviet Navy’s effectiveness in the region was hampered by numerous logistical and basing challenges.

Still, the current decision to send its sole aircraft carrier to the region indicates the high level of importance Russia is placing on the conflict in Syria, and the region more generally. Indeed, prior to this new deployment, the Admiral Kuznetsov was undergoing upgrades that were supposed to continue until 2017, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Furthermore, as Information Dissemination’s Raymond Pritchett (Galrahn) points out, even the U.S. hasn’t used one of its ten aircraft carriers to respond to any Arab Spring-related developments, including the Libyan operation.

Moscow’s decision to send a fleet to Mediterranean waters could be geared in part towards being able to quickly evacuate Russian nationals from Syria should the need arise. Given the supposed permanency of the task force, the type of vessels deployed, and the continued beefing up of its fleet despite Assad’s gains on the ground, Russia is no doubt also seeking to use the task force to deter the U.S. from intervening militarily on the side of the rebels.

Since the beginning of the conflict, Moscow has been on guard against a Western military intervention in Syria, including by vetoing (along with China) numerous UN Security Council sanctions bills on the grounds that NATO forces could use them to legitimize a military intervention.

And while Russia does have legitimate interests in Syria, as well as in preventing the West from intervening against regimes in civil wars more generally, the amount of attention and resources Moscow is devoting to Syria are disproportionate to these limited interests. After all, even Russian strategic analysts concede that the Tartus naval base is largely symbolic.

Instead, it increasingly seems like leaders in Moscow are simply using the Syrian conflict as a “coming out” party for the more assertive diplomacy they envision for a resurgent Russian state. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy’s (and soon Politico’s) Susan Glasser, for instance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said:

“Russia feels more assertive — not aggressive, but assertive. And we have been getting out of the situation where we found ourselves in the early '90s when the Soviet Union disappeared and the Russian Federation became what it is — you know, with no borders, with no budget, no money, and with huge problems starting with lack of food and so on and so forth. It is a very different country now. And of course we can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time after the demise of the Soviet Union.”

But if the objective of wanting to be a serious power in global diplomacy is understandable, the means of achieving it are somewhat perplexing. To begin with, if Russia views the U.S. as its primary adversary, it would ultimately benefit from the U.S. becoming bogged down in another intractable sectarian conflict in the Middle East. The long-term benefit of this to Moscow would more than outweigh the short-term costs of the U.S. once again publicly disregarding Russia’s interests by intervening.

More to the point, Syria and the Levant are not going to occupy center stage in 21st century geopolitics. Even the Middle East-obsessed United States concedes rhetorically that this distinction will go the Indo-Pacific region, which is of far greater concern to Russian national interests anyways, given its geographical proximity.

Yet much of Russia’s initial Mediterranean deployment reportedly came from vessels normally assigned to its Pacific Fleet. As the maritime rules of the road are rapidly being redefined in the Pacific Ocean, it doesn’t make sense for Russia to divert part of its already limited fleet in that critical theater to one of questionable strategic importance. Then again, it also doesn’t make sense for Russia to make itself China’s "favorite junior partner."

In both cases it appears that Russian leaders like Putin and Lankrov’s resentment of the U.S. and the West—however justifiable it at times might be— is clouding their larger strategic judgment. Put simply, emotions don’t make for good strategy, which is why Stalin was such a formidable foe.