The Russian Navy has confirmed that its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, will visit the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia has its only Mediterranean naval base.
The Kuznetsov and its small supporting battle group is currently in port in Murmansk and Severomorsk, but will shortly set sail for the Mediterranean. As well as Tartus, the Kuznetsov is scheduled to visit Beirut, Genoa and Cyprus.
The announcement comes at a time when Russia is coming under increasing international pressure to abandon its support of Syria’s current government and to support some form of international intervention – perhaps a no-fly zone of some kind – in Syria. Additionally, tensions between NATO and Russia over NATO’s proposed missile shield have been increasing in recent days, prompting Dmitry Medvedev to announce that Russia may base Iskander missiles in Russia’s European enclave of Kaliningrad.
Combine all of this with the recent announcement that a US aircraft carrier group is to remain in the Eastern Mediterranean for the forseeable future and an imminent Russian election, and positioning Russia in opposition to NATO and the US is an obvious vote winning tactic for Vladimir Putin and United Russia.
It’s not surprising, then, to hear that Viktor Kravchenko, the former Russian Navy Chief of Staff, has been wheeled out of retirement to tell the press that sending a Russian aircraft carrier to Syria will deter NATO. “Having any military force apart from NATO is very beneficial for the region as it prevents the outbreak of armed conflict,” he told Izvestia.
It’s unlikely that the Kuznetsov will reach Syria before early 2012 (it’s a long way from Murmansk to the Eastern Med), by which time events may have moved on, but it seems as though Russia is hardening its position on Syria at a time when the rest of the world is beginning to go the other way. Even China seems to be weakening its support for Assad’s regime somewhat, saying recently that it supported the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria’s membership.
Although Russia has a strong pragmatic incentive for backing one of its few remaining (and reliable) supporters in the Middle East, it has to be asked – is this really a sensible policy from the Russian Government? The Kuznetsov is barely seaworthy, and certainly not militarily capable of preventing any kind of NATO action. If push comes to shove and NATO intervenes in Syria (not likely, but certainly possible), is Russia simply going to be forced into a humiliating climbdown just before its own Presidential election?