Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Lessons in hyperbole: Russia in the Mediterranean

I wrote in December – with some urgency – that a large force of Russian warships was converging on the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of war-torn Syria. Now Russia says it is turning its naval posturing into an enduring "permanent" presence in the Mediterranean, consisting of up to ten ships, according to Russian sources. Media reports hype up a new challenge to Nato. Despite the bluster, this is likely overblown hyperbole, or wishful thinking for Russophiles.

In December, it looked like Russia was engaged in serious naval preparations for a potential pull-out of its assets from Syria. I still think the Kremlin was genuinely rattled by Assad's situation in Syria at the close of 2012, but wisely kept its options open. Russia has many nationals in Syria; it maintains a small naval facility at Tartus; Russian intelligence has a listening post at Latakia; Putin has sent an unknown number of Russian military advisors to assist Syrian government forces, in many cases tutoring them how to use Russian arms exports.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad – Vladimir Putin’s embattled ally – looked on the back foot in December. But talk of Damascus’ fall and his imminent collapse has again proven premature: he and his loyalists are still fighting a stubborn campaign in Syria’s civil war; like many western commentators, I have been guilty of eating rebel propaganda. In the New Year, Russia conducted another round of naval exercises off Assad’s coast designed to remind Nato to keep its hands off Syria. There was in fact some limited pull-out of Russian nationals by air in January, but it was far from a full-blown evacuation.

The US has no appetite for intervention, while supplying arms to Assad’s Islamist enemies raises questions about where they will be used. Your enemy’s enemy may be a fickle friend. Nevertheless, the UK has pledged body armour and military vehicles to the rebels, while Middle Eastern donors continue to supply the bulk of their arms, training, supplies and financing (with the West's support). They want more to overturn the stalemate, this month asking the EU to send arms.

Putin’s decision to step up Russia’s Mediterranean presence (i.e. forward deploying Black Sea Fleet assets) is just the latest signal to Nato that Moscow is resolved to prevent Assad’s fall, to protect its interests and limit the West’s own options to secure the sort of post-Assad Syria that most would desire. As the West struggles with the usual temptations to intervene, so Russia steps up its gun-boat diplomatic efforts to deter the would-be meddlers. However, this is not 1960. Russia is far from a superpower. It can only ramp up so much pressure. Nato retains the overwhelming superiority of force that could call Putin's bluff and reveal Russia's relative powerlessness.

Soviet era Ropucha-class landing ship / rust bucket
The threat to Nato posed by Putin’s new Med presence is, materially, hyperbole; many of the Russian ships are decrepit rust buckets that would have been scrapped and replaced decades ago, had the Soviet Union not collapsed. Warship classes are nearly always built to counter equivalent classes in rival foreign navies, and the Nato contemporaries of Russia’s ships were retired from Western navies years ago, already replaced by one or two further generations of shiny modern kit that Russia cannot match.

Putin has ambitions, of course, but they remain far from realisation. He wants to rebuild Russia’s navy over the next decade. On top of the grand plan announcements, there have been many separate announcements that old ships will be reactivated or refitted for the 21st century, and that existing classes will be expanded (but precious few have materialised).

Certainly the post-Soviet decade of gross neglect is over; it's hard to imagine the Russians selling off further assets to the Indians or Chinese, as they did with the Gorshkov and Varyag aircraft carriers, among other vessels. But nor can they claw back the power they lost decades ago. Whether Russia can or will consistently apply the necessary funds, as well as whether it has retained the facilities and know-how to build cutting edge warships remain significant unknowns, and I'd be inclined to bet against. As with so much Moscow says, a lot is bluster, designed to rattle old rivals, about repairing bruised prestige from a bygone Soviet empire – and should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.