The Kremlin posted footage of a late-evening meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on December 8. Shoigu was filmed producing a flight recorder, or so-called “black box,” allegedly from the Russian Su-24M bomber downed, on November 24, by a Turkish F-16 fighter close to the Turkish-Syrian border. Putin thanked Russian and Syrian [pro–Bashar al-Assad] special forces for retrieving the recorder and demanded it must be opened and explored only in the presence of “international experts.” Putin reportedly invited British specialists to take part in analyzing the black box’s contents. “We need to know what happened,” announced Putin, “But no matter what, our feelings about Turkish treachery will not change—we considered them friends and allies in the fight with terror [sic], while they stabbed us in the back” (Kremlin.ru, December 8).
The cockpit recorder—or second black box—of the Su-24 was not produced and its whereabouts were not addressed by either Putin or Shoigu. The Russian president seemed sure that the flight recorder on his Kremlin desk would produce the needed results to lambast Turkey and its assumed backstabbing. The summoning of foreign experts is apparently needed to legitimize this presumed outcome.
During the course of the Syrian bombing campaign that began on September 30, the Russian military has launched over a hundred different long-range cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian as well as from strategic Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear bombers. This week (December 8), a newly built modernized non-nuclear Kilo-class submarine (Project 636.3), Rostov-on-Don, fired several Kalibr-PL cruise missiles at targets in Syria from the Mediterranean (Kremlin.ru, December 8). The Rostov-on-Don is the second of six modernized Kilo-type submarines built in St. Petersburg for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The first sub—Novorossiysk—has already arrived for service to its main base in Novorossiysk. Two more Black Sea–designated submarines are being tested, and two more are still in construction (Interfax, September 28).
The Rostov-on-Don, like other submarines in its class, is designed to fire Kalibr cruise missiles from torpedo tubes. The Russian navy reported last October that the Rostov-on-Don had successfully fired a Kalibr cruise missile from underwater during testing in the Barents Sea (Interfax, October 9). On December 8, Shoigu told Putin that the Rostov-on-Don had test-fired a Kalibr missile in the “north seas,” while on the surface (Kremlin.ru, December 8). Apparently Shoigu wanted to emphasize the novelty of the first underwater live attack by this submersible vessel.
According to the Ministry of Defense, all six modernized Kilo-class submarines must be deployed in Novorossiysk by 2018. These submarines are specifically designed to serve in hot tropical waters, while most Russian subs, nuclear and non-nuclear, are primarily Arctic-designated ships. Apparently, the newly-formed Black Sea submarine force could also serve in the Mediterranean or possibly in the Red and Arabian Seas and the Persian Gulf (Mil.ru, November 5). The Rostov-on-Don had fired missiles at targets in Syria while en route from the Baltic to the Black Sea, via the Turkish Straits. The more usual route of Russian subs into the Black Sea using the Volga was reportedly unavailable this year because of drought-inflicted low water levels in the river (Ng.ru, September 25).
According to Shoigu, the Rostov-on-Don fired its Kalibr cruise missiles at Islamic State (IS) targets in Raqqa province. The same province and nearby Deir ez-Zor in northwest Syria are constantly carpet-bombed from high altitude by long-range Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers from an airbase in Mozdok, in North Ossetia, in the North Caucasus. The Tu-22M3s have dropped thousands of cheap “dumb” OFAB-250/270 bombs (oskolochno-fugasniye, 250–270 kilograms) on targets in these IS-controlled provinces that are also in range and are being hit by bombers based at the Russian air base near Latakia, on the Syrian Mediterranean coast (Kremlin.ru, December 8). The Islamic State and the Syrian opposition lack any capable air defenses that could threaten the Russian bombing missions. The mass usage of highly expensive cruise missiles to hit targets that are easily reachable by less costly means does not make much military sense; after over two months of active aerial bombing in Syria, Russia has most likely hit all possible important stationary opposition targets. According to the Russian defense ministry, the Kalibr missiles have a range “of over 2,000 kilometers” while the newest Kh-101 air-launched missiles, also used to attack targets in Syria, have a range “of over 4,500 km.” Both Kalibr and Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles are “invisible to modern antiaircraft and antimissile defenses and can hit their targets with high precision” (TASS, December 9).
President Putin praised the Russian military for successfully testing the Kalibr and Kh-101 long-range cruise missiles and added: “We must analyze the battle performance of these modern, highly effective precision weapons that may be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads.” Putin continued: “Clearly, all these [nuclear warheads] are not needed to fight terrorists, and I hope [nuclear weapons] will not be ever needed, but this is an overall significant improvement of the weaponry delivered to the Russian navy and military” (Kremlin.ru, December 8).
The war testing of more than a hundred different long-range cruise missiles is, of course, important, though their use against a foe lacking any radars or other defensive capabilities seems to devalue somewhat the claims of success. The air-launched Kh-101 has a large, practically transatlantic range, but Syria is too close to test its true capabilities. In an apparent attempt to use the Syrian conflict as a model of a global war, the Russian military sent two Tu-160 strategic bombers from the Kola Peninsula, around Europe, over Gibraltar, and into the Mediterranean where they fired cruise missiles at Syria; then, these planes flew on over Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Caspian back to their base in Engels, east of the Volga River, in the Saratov oblast. It took two midair refueling operations, and the bombers covered some 13,000 km. In fact, the Blackjacks could have fired the same missiles from over the Volga and hit the same targets in Syria without the grand flyover (1TV, November 20).
Threatening IS fanatics with nuclear weapons makes little sense. Rather, Putin’s public bragging about the massive use of nuclear-capable long-range cruise missiles was aimed at the West—at the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and, in particular, the United States. In a costly message of defiance, the Kremlin was suggesting that Russia can and will use military force within what it has designated its sphere of interests, and it has the means to keep the West at bay, if need be.