Sources in the Russian Defense Ministry told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that troops are being prepared for combat deployment “outside the borders of Russia, possibly in Syria.” The 76th Pskov airborne division, the 15th army brigade from Samara, as well as GRU special forces from the South Military District (SMD) manned by servicemen from Chechnya and the Black Sea marine brigade are all mentioned among the units preparing for expeditionary engagements outside Russia’s borders. The Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Nikolai Bordyuzha also remarked on the possibility of a CSTO peacekeeping force being deployed in Syria. According to Bordyuzha, a CSTO military operation in Syria could involve “peace enforcement” and the use of heavy weapons to suppress the fighters of the Syrian opposition forces, “who are trying to solve political problems by force of arms, not in the frameworks of the Syrian constitution.” The newspaper further quotes a military expert who stresses that Russia must defend its interests in Syria and support the Syrian authorities “against the West and the Arab world” (http://www.ng.ru/nvo/2012-06-06/1_siria.html).
The CSTO is a military block comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Any possible “CSTO peacekeeping force” deployed in the Middle East or anywhere outside the borders of the former USSR would be, in essence, Russian with a token allied presence, since the other CSTO members have limited capabilities and no obvious appetite for far off military adventures. Russia itself now lacks serious capabilities to project military power overseas. Russia does not have any air bases in the Middle East, nor significant regular naval presence. Last January, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, briefly visited the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia maintains a small naval supply base. The Kuznetsov and its small carrier group were warmly greeted by the Bashar al-Assad regime. Last February, the Kuznetsov returned to Russia and now resides in a shipyard for a major refitting lasting until at least 2017. The Kuznetsov air wing will be replaced with new MiG-29K jet fighters. During the visit to Syria, the Kuznetsov was carrying only eight old Su-33 jet fighters and two Ka-27S helicopters for search and rescue missions, severely limiting its projection of force capabilities (see EDM, January 12).
Without air cover, the Russian military under the CSTO flag cannot possibly act as a truly independent force in Syria. Russia may contribute a small infantry brigade-size force as part of a UN- or Western-led peacekeeping deployment or as an auxiliary attachment to al-Assad troops. But in either case, it would need to rely on NATO or al-Assad for air support and logistics. The Russian diplomats and press are distributing a great deal of fiery propaganda about “defending our interests in Syria.” This week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of sending Syria Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov adamantly denied this claim and attacked Washington in turn, accusing it of destabilizing the region with its arms supplies (Interfax, June 13). But the bottom line is: Russia has the ability to ship weapons to the Middle East and wield its UN Security Council veto, which it more or less has already.
The Defense Ministry sources quoted by Nezavisimaya stated that troops are preparing for deployment outside of Russia’s borders, mentioning Syria as one – but not the only – possible destination. In fact, the mention of Syria may be a deliberate distraction. Since last December, a constant stream of reports by official spokesmen and carried by government news agencies describes the rapid deployment of newly procured weapons, including T-90A and T-72BM tanks, armored vehicles, the newest Su-34 bombers, Su-27SM3 and Su-30 fighters, attack helicopters, as well as the newest command and control equipment in the Southern Military District (SMD). Overall, the Russian military is equipped with 16 percent new weapons, but in the units of the SMD, it is over 70 percent. New Special Forces and sniper units are also being formed in the SMD, and troops are being supplied with improved body armor (see EDM, April 5, May 15).
During her visit this month to the South Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) Clinton presided over the launch of a Georgian coast guard vessel, one of four recently upgraded with US assistance in the port city of Batumi. Clinton called for fair elections, praised Georgian achievements, and promised more economic aid and military assistance. Still, the Barack Obama administration in essence continues a de facto ban on equipping Georgia’s military with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons (see EDM, June 11). Washington under the Obama administration has been deliberately keeping Georgia at arm’s length, apparently in an effort to appease Moscow; but the reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry to Clinton’s visit, nonetheless, was extremely hostile. An official statement accused Washington of “not learning the lessons” of the short Russo-Georgian war in August 2008, of “advancing Georgian membership in NATO,” and “repeating verbatim the malicious lies of [President Mikheil] Saakashvili’s propaganda about the Russian occupation of Georgia.” Washington was accused of promoting “the revanchist desires of Tbilisi” and “not fully understanding the ensuing responsibility” (www.mid.ru, June 6).
Last week, the theme of Georgian “revanchist” intentions was simultaneously promoted by Russia’s Chief of General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, Army General Nikolai Makarov, speaking at an event organized by the Finnish National Defense Course Association at the University of Helsinki on June 5. Makarov stunned the Finnish audience by announcing that a possible Finnish entry into NATO “would constitute a military threat against Russia” and that “closer military cooperation between Finland and NATO” is also a “concern.” Makarov warned Finland to cease military exercises “in the East” (near Russia’s border). He also presented a PowerPoint slide with a map of NATO’s ballistic missile defense plans in Europe that the Finns interpreted as depicting their nation and the Baltic republics inside Russia’s sphere of influence. Makarov accused Helsinki of “supporting Georgian revanchism.” The amazed veteran Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told journalists: “Makarov’s statements are his personal opinion” (http://yle.fi/novosti/novosti/article3428680.html).
Of course, Russian acting Chiefs of General Staff do not make personal political statements during preplanned official speeches abroad. Moscow considers any possible further expansion of NATO to countries bordering Russia as a major threat. Possible future Finnish NATO aspirations do not seem imminent, and Makarov’s statement was a verbal precautionary threat. Georgian NATO aspirations, officially once again acknowledged during the NATO summit in Chicago last month, may amount to a casus belli, as demonstrated by the rapid rearmament of the SMD and the emergence in Moscow of a presumed threat of “Georgian revanchism”.
Last week, military clashes between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces on the Karabakh ceasefire line left several soldiers of both sides dead and wounded, with some unofficial reports putting the number of casualties over 20 (RIA Novosti, June 6). The Karabakh war ended in 1994 with a ceasefire, but all attempts to resolve the conflict have since failed. A serious resumption of hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia could lead to Russia demanding a “corridor” through Georgia to its troops in Armenia, that at present are supplied only by air. Compared to Syria, Russian interests in the Caucasus are indeed considered vital, and military capabilities in the area are formidable. The South Caucasus seems a much more probable destination for any possible future military excursion.