Friday, January 18, 2013

Russian Fleet Gathers in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea

Yaroslav Mudry
Despite the very interesting developments this week in Mali, I continue to keep one eye on events in Syria.

By now you may or may not have heard the rumor going around that Assad has relocated himself and his family to a naval vessel offshore. I do not believe this rumor, so stop sending me links. The thing is - this is the kind of thing that the US Navy is actually really good about tracking, and I am of the belief that if Assad was managing the government from a Russian naval vessel we would know, and it would be leaked to a CNN, ABC, or MSNBC Pentagon correspondent no matter how "secret" such information was supposed to be.

The event that I did see today and caught my attention was reported by Reuters and carried on the invaluable Al Jazeera Blog that is monitoring events in Syria. For those who watch too much Fox News, let me assure you it is passed time you revisit your evaluation of Al Jazeera, because in my opinion the quality of their professional journalism - including investigative journalism - is getting better while the quality of western professional journalism - particularly investigative journalism - is slowly decaying in value with heavy reliance on GoogleFu Wikipedia style fact checkers.

So this was reported today.
Two Russian ships heading for a naval exercise off Syria this month are picking up munitions to drop at the Syrian port of Tartous, news agencies reported on Thursday.

Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main foreign protector during a 22-month uprising against his rule and is its biggest arms supplier.

It leases a naval maintenance and supply facility at Tartous that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

A Russian General Staff source told the Itar-Tass news agency that the landing ship Kaliningrad had docked at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to pick up munitions and another landing ship, the Alexander Shabalin, was due there for the same purpose.

It was not clear who the munitions were for, however.
Kaliningrad and Alexander Shabalin are both Project 775 Ropucha I class LST type vessels. Both ships transited the Bosphorus Strait heading north on Monday. The Bosphorus Naval News blog (which is great btw, and can be followed on Twitter here) is doing a brilliant job providing open source intelligence tracking the Russian Black Sea Fleet:
The following warships are in the Eastern Mediterranean according to my tally:
Slava class cruiser Mosvka
Kashin class destroyer Smetliy
Alligator class landing ship Saratov
Amur class repair ship, PM-56
Boris Chilkin class tanker Ivan Bubnov.
Uda class tanker Lena
Neustrashimyy class frigate Yaroslav Mudryy
Sliva class tug SB-921

And this is the list of the warships recently returned to the Black Sea:
Ropucha class landing ship Azov
Ropucha class landing ship Novocherkassk
Alligator class landing ship Nikolay Filchenkov
Ropucha class landing ship Kaliningrad
Ropucha class landing ship Alexander Shabalin
Since that post the Ropucha class landing ship Azov has returned to the Mediterranean Sea heading towards Syria. Russia has been, for a few weeks now, using their Black Sea Fleet amphibious ships to move men and material to the Russian base at Tartous. Russia announced earlier this year they will be holding a large-scale naval drill in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in late January with warships from the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific Fleets.
“The Russian Navy’s drills of this scope will be held for the first time over the past few decades and are designed to improve control, ensure and practice multiservice force interaction of the fleets in the far-off maritime zones,” the press office said...

The drills will also simulate operations to load marine troops and paratroopers from the rough coast of the North Caucasus onto amphibious ships and will help the Navy’s personnel acquire necessary marine practice skills during the performance of “combat training missions in the Black and Mediterranean Seas,” the press office said.
Is Russia arming the Syrians? I do not think the Russians are doing so with these men and munitions being reported by Reuters or with these ships that are carrying all kinds of equipment to Tartous for the upcoming major exercise. Earlier this week Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov dismissed media reports that the Black Sea ships are carrying commando units and military equipment for use in Syria on the amphibious ships, and to be honest I tend to believe him.

Make no mistake, Russia is almost certainly providing military support to the Syrian military as Assad tries to beat back rebel forces, but they are doing so in ways that create political deniability, because that is how every nation - including the US - does shady business when supplying arms to conflict zones. While we don't hear about it, the CIA does a pretty good job tracking vessels and aircraft smuggling arms into Syria, although the identification process is usually an after the fact process, not a 'catch them in the act' process.

Russia really can't afford to cancel this enormous exercise that has probably been in planning for a long time - potentially even predating the Syrian rebellion. It is a pretty big deal for the Russian Navy to coordinate deployments of over a dozen ships in all four fleets, not to mention all the ground personnel and equipment, and have them converge on a single location at a specific point in time. As Americans we tend to take that type of global operational planning for granted because it is how the US military has operated for decades, but it really is a big deal for everyone else in the world.

This article has a list of ships from all four fleets that will be participating in the upcoming exercise near Syria.

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