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.


  1. I'm not sure Russia's words or actions are intended to rattle old enemies so much as boost internal prestige. This is all part of Putin's anti-western campaign in which he presents himself as the stalwart against encroachments from the the socially corrupting influence of the West. To the West Russia is an annoyance and little else I suspect.

    An old War Studies student - now working in a totally unrelated field :)

  2. Adding to that past comment, I would also add that its important to bear in mind the bigger picture - which on the world stage - always amounts to the economic picture. Russia is one member of the BRIC(S) economies. Its relative weight as an economic and energy power is in the ascendant, so whilst you may say that its real power - forgetting about the sabre-rattling rhetoric - remains in hibernation, the Russian Bear will yet prove to be a bigger headache for the West. The West - craving foreign investment and harmonious relations - must tread a careful line between placation and standing up for its own interests.

    A general note on this blog - from somebody who did a BA and MSc in War Studies - whilst the depth of knowledge on military matters is great, without a greater input on the economics side (the strings that pull these military puppets), its message remains stuck in a bit of vacccum.

  3. Thanks for the comments! As an old Wwar studies student as well I write about financial issues for a living, so will write some more economic perspectives shaping defence issues. (Now relevant, I would agree, more than ever.)

  4. Update:
    VLADIVOSTOK, May 13 (RIA Novosti) - A group of warships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet is about to deploy to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in decades, fleet spokesman Roman Martov said on Monday.
    The group has entered the Red Sea and is preparing to transit the Suez Canal, and should reach the Mediterranean by mid-May, he said.
    The group, including the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, the amphibious warfare ships Peresvet and Admiral Nevelsky, the tanker Pechenga and the salvage/rescue tug Fotiy Krylov left the port of Vladivostok on March 19 to join Russia’s Mediterranean task force.
    The task force currently includes the large anti-submarine ship Severomorsk, the frigate Yaroslav Mudry, the salvage/rescue tugs Altai and SB-921 and the tanker Lena from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, as well as the Ropucha-II Class landing ship Azov from the Black Sea Fleet.
    The task force may be enlarged to include nuclear submarines, Navy Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov said on Sunday.

  5. Economically, Cyprus and Greece having been sucked dry by the EU are going to slip into the Rusphere by the end of this decade, if not much sooner for the Cypriots. That's not Russophile wishful thinking but fact.

    To the extent that Atlanticism is associated with the hated EU or appeasement of the Turks (an ongoing issue since the Henry Kissinger-approved Turkish invasion of Cyprus and one that divides Greek elites from their people) it is being discredited in that part of the world.

    So while it's true Russia seemed to have missed an opportunity to play the hero and trade a Cypriot bailout for gas concessions or a naval base to replace Tartus in March, I think it is only a matter of time.

    Russia is well aware it cannot compete with NATO in conventional terms. It's about providing Assad with enough arms to make the cost of a direct NATO intervention unacceptably high -- for example, any Turkish armored incursion beyond a few kilometers of their border would be met with a fussilade of Russian antitank missiles and a lot of dead Turkish troops. That is why Erdogan has stayed his hand, besides massive public opposition to direct Turkish intervention.

    Turkey stopped a Russian airliner and detained its alleged intelligence type inhabitants several months ago. The Western media didn't cover the fact that the Turks had to meekly back off, probably when the Russians told Erdogan that Ashan and Perekrostik would buy their winter produce from Israel instead or cancel Russian tour charters to Antalya.

    There has been so much gloating/triumphalism among Russophobes about how dependent Russia is on the West that they've ignored the points where Western weakness/corruption and collapse are allowing the Russians to get the upper hand. Look at how Cameron and Kerry have both gone begging to Putin to put pressure on Assad to come back to talks. The rebels are getting more psychotic by the day which makes the rebel propaganda claim that Russia is becoming isolated and hated in the Arab world more bogus by the day.

    Long term, Russia may also push hard for a commodity backed currency and if it were to play the colored revolutions game according to Western rules it may back German euroskeptics bid to unmoor Germany from the euro/Atlanticist order. A German Euromark is going to be inevitably drawn to a ruble/yuan order by the 2020s backed by gold bulleon the West doesn't have.

  6. Russia is its own worst enemy. The instance of Ukraine equivocating between Europe which offers trusted institutions, greater transparency and democratic processes and Russia which.....well, doesn't, highlights what these two power blocks stand for.

    Ukraine has made a choice - loud and clear - in the past few days and that is to be a part of Europe. Its leader has chosen to defy this wish and has only sealed his fate in doing so.

    With Russia helping to bungle elections in Ukraine and standing up for autocrats in Syria, Russia is doing nothing to help build its reputation in the world. Big country it may be, but so long as Russia is run by corrupt criminals, it will never prosper.

    Until Ukraine can elect a reliable untarnished leader, Europe is better off without it.