Russia has reportedly deployed ten warships with three more joining en route to the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Syria, making for the single largest Russian flotilla to reach Syrian shores since the Kremlin began providing direct military support to embattled President Bashar al Assad, and is among the largest demonstrations of Russian naval power since the end of the Cold War. The group, led by the guided missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov, is said to be heavily equipped with Russia’s own version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, known as the Kalibr. The Kalibr has seen successful use in Syria before, being launched from a number of naval platforms including submarines.
“The Russian Navy has dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu told the press on Tuesday. “We will not speculate on the intention of the Russian fleet, but it is important that all actors in the region exercise restraint and refrain from worsening an already disastrous humanitarian situation in Syria. NATO is not present in Syria, but we support the efforts of the United Nations to achieve a lasting political resolution to the conflict.”
This most troubling aspect of this recent show of force is how soon it came after a new round of Russian claims regarding secret American plans for another missile strike against Assad’s Syrian regime. The United States military has conducted two such strikes in the past, both under the direction of President Donald Trump, and both as a direct result of reports of chemical weapons being used against civilians by Assad’s Russian backed forces. Russia has repeatedly claimed that the United States has been supporting ISIS throughout Syria and even that they staged the chemical weapon attacks themselves in order to justify taking military action against Assad, presumably with the intention of eventually removing him from power. However, the limited extent of both missile strikes (the more recent of which saw participation from the U.K. and French forces as well) would seem to suggest that the United States was more intent on sending a message than they were on anything else.
It’s most likely that this flotilla will help to support Assad’s forces as they push into the Syrian city of Idlib, a refuge for civilians and rebel forces alike, some of whom receive military support from the United States and its allies. The region has proven difficult to operate in for Syrian and Russian forces alike, with rebels even successfully shooting down a Russian Su-25 Frogfoot fighter jet in February of this year.
It seems clear that Russia wants their large-scale show of force in the region to deter an alleged American strike in development, but then, that may be a bit of geopolitical theatrics. There are no legitimate indications that the United States is indeed planning any such missile offensive, and even if they were, Russia’s fleet of cruise-missile laden warships would be able to offer little in the way of defense for Assad’s forces throughout Syria. Instead, the best the fleet would be able to offer is the threat of reprisal if such an American strike were to actually take place.
By suggesting that there’s an impending American missile strike in Syria and then further suggesting that their naval flotilla is being sent to the region to serve as a deterrent, Russia positions themselves to claim a strategic victory over the United States in the imaginary conflict they’ve designed. If the United States was indeed not planning any such missile strike, Russia will now be able to claim America backed down, rather than risk an engagement with the Russian Navy.
Like the deployment of Russia’s ground combat drone the Uran-9 or their use of the untested but stealthy Su-57, Russia has an established history of sending assets to Syria in the interest of advancing narratives rather than advancing their ongoing war effort. Now, it appears Russia has positioned themselves to claim victory over the United States in an imaginary staring contest, as the United States can do little more than claim they have no missile strike plans in the works.