Recent statements by Russia’s top brass concerning precision-strike capabilities against “terrorist” targets in Syria, future basing plans and the high-profile use of cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, on October 7, indicate a level of confidence within the military concerning the overall operation. It also appears to suggest a high degree of planning and strategic awareness on the part of the political-military leadership. But to understand the basis of such confidence, one needs a clear grasp of each of these aspects in their context; in fact, the uniting theme relates to the role of the Russian Navy in supporting the operation and its potential use if and when called upon by President Vladimir Putin (Interfax, October 7, 18, 26).
Much international attention has focused on the Russian air campaign in Syria. Yet, these air strikes were made possible largely by the supporting supply role of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF). In mid-October, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, the chief of the Main Operational Directorate, referred to the future plan to form a “massive” air, land and sea military base in Syria. Given the rapid expansion of Russian military facilities, it is likely that this is already underway—either on newly developed bases or through the expansion of existing arrangements in Syria. Moreover, Kartapolov was not likely referring to any one location, as the model for such arrangements already exists in Tajikistan: there, the Russian 201st base is located at three separate sites (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 18).
In Syria, the obvious naval component for such basing plans is Tartus, currently home to the Russian Material-Technical Support facility, often referred to as a logistical depot and clearly under expansion as the operation continues. The Hymeymim airbase in Latakia could also witness further enlargement, and two additional sites near the base may function as supporting infrastructure. Meanwhile, if bilateral agreements are put into place, there could be formal mechanisms to recognize a longer-term need for small numbers of Russian ground forces personnel (Komsomolskaya Pravda, October 18).
On October 7, the Caspian Flotilla launched a cruise missile attack against eleven targets in Syria; four naval platforms were used to launch 26 Kalibr 3M14 cruise missiles, striking at ranges up to 1,500 kilometers away. While such strikes could have been conducted using deployed Russian airpower, these were chosen to demonstrate capability and send strategic messaging to other actors (see EDM, October 26). According to a well-placed Moscow source speaking off the record, this was also calculated as a warning to the Gulf states not to incite jihad against Russia. Nonetheless, it clearly demonstrated part of the theme that the top brass now boast about, that targets in Syria can be struck from multiple locations (Vesti.ru, October 7).
The non-export variants of the Kalibr cruise missile family also include a version that is mounted within shipping containers, greatly expanding the options for covertly placing the weapon in discrete locations or concealed on different vessels; if Moscow deems it necessary, such strikes could be launched from the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Fb.ru, May 15). In December, the BSF will receive Kalibr-launch capability, both for the B-237 Rostov-na-Donu Kilo-class submarine and for the two new missile ships, Serpukhov, and Zelenyy Dol (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 23).
Prior to commencing the air operation in Syria, the BSF was playing a critical role in supplying the port of Tartus with military supplies; this was stepped up as the dredging work at the port has expanded its capacity. The frequency of BSF supplies reaching Tartus has increased markedly since the air operation began on September 30, though some supplies are still sent using air routes (Rybinsk-once.ru, October 22; Informnapalm.org, September 15). Much of this uses large landing ships from the BSF, but Northern Fleet (NF) and Baltic Fleet (BF) assets have also transited northbound through the Turkish Straits into the Black Sea before exiting fully loaded and heading for Syria. These include the Nikolai Filchenkov, Saratov and Yamal, and the NF vessel Aleksandr Otarkovskiy (Rybinsk-once.ru, October 22).
The former commander of the BSF, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, told the Duma Defense Committee that the fleet can easily be used to blockade the coast of Syria. Komoyedov noted that Russian naval assets in the eastern Mediterranean Sea are sufficient to support the operation, but could be expanded if needed. Senior Russian generals also refer to the formation of a tactical naval group off the Syrian coast, which mainly consists of BSF platforms; but there are also NF and BF units present. In late September, the Moskva guided missile cruiser and flagship of the BSF exited the Turkish Straits bound for the Eastern Mediterranean to participate in naval exercises. Reportedly, the Moskva is the lead ship in the tactical naval group (Vzglyad, October 5).
While BSF Ropucha– and Alligator-class large landing ships carry most of the military and logistical supplies to Syria, the tactical naval group reportedly involves anti-submarine assets, submarines, guided missile destroyers, intelligence and signals vessels and other platforms to extend air defense options for deployed forces in Syria. The tactical naval group seems constructed to support and ensure the safe arrival of Russian military supplies to the port of Tartus, while also serving as a warning to other actors to avoid interfering in Russian military operations. As far as strike capability, the possible deployment in the tactical group of the container-mounted cruise missile cannot be ruled out (Fb.ru, May 15).
Although the BSF forms the bulk of the tactical naval grouping and utilizes the sea route for military supplies to Syria, other elements of Russia’s Navy are involved: the NF, BF and, as the Caspian strike revealed, so too is the Caspian Flotilla. In this sense, remarks by the top brass concerning strike options and basing plans are more understandable. Moscow has created a de facto military naval blockade of Syria. Its stealth deployment of military assets into the country and launch of the air operation on September 30 was accompanied by the formation of a naval task force partly calibrated to send a signal to other powers to keep out of Russia’s way. Russia’s cruise missile strike capability against targets in Syria exists in the Caspian Sea and remains an option in the Eastern Mediterranean and, shortly, in the BSF. Overall the Russian military operation, unlike one involving heavy land-based equipment, could be sustained over time. If this is the case, Moscow can play a long game in seeking diplomatic solutions to the Syrian civil war that suit its interests.