Reuters confirmed Wednesday what The Daily Beast first reported last week—not only have Russian troops been deployed to Syria but they are indeed taking part in active combat operations, although against which of the manifold enemies of the Assad regime remains unclear.
U.S. government sources told the news agency that two tank-landing ships, aircraft, and naval infantry forces have arrived in Syria in the past 24 hours, with the largest buildup occurring in Latakia, the northwest coastal province—ancestral home of the Assad family—which Islamist rebels have been fiercely contesting of late. Russia, Reuters confirmed, is constructing a new airfield in Latakia, which would represent its second military installation in Syria after its decades-old naval supply base in Tartus, also its only warm-water port since the end of the Soviet Union.
One U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast that Moscow likely has taken the decision to directly intervene in the 4½-year civil war after opposition gains, contrary to what Vladimir Putin told reporters last week—that any such talk was “premature.”
“Russia’s military involvement raises a number of concerns, especially because it does not appear to be coordinated with the other countries operating in the area,” the official said. “It is not clear what Russia intends to actually do. However, Russia has generally not exercised restraint in military confrontations.”
An oft-cited fear in the U.S. is that Russia won’t target ISIS, or only ISIS, but also Free Syrian Army rebels who may be working with the CIA or Pentagon.
But what’s most interesting about this news isn’t that Putin has unilaterally decided to rescue his embattled client in Damascus—it’s the kind of Russian troops he’s using to do it. Some of them are from the same units that spearheaded Russia’s year-and-a-half-long dirty war in Ukraine, which may now be in abeyance.
According to an investigation by Ruslan Leviev, a specialist in social-media intelligence, the soldiers are from the 810th Marine Brigade, which is based in Sevastopol, Crimea. The 810th is one of the few units of the Black Sea Fleet known to have played an active role in Russia’s military takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula 18 months ago.
The deployment of an elite unit from Crimea, which inaugurated Russia’s standoff with the West, is an intriguing choice. Moscow has spent enormous resources moving troops into Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past year. Moving even some of them out of the area to a different conflict zone, particularly one outside of Europe, gives the lie that sanctions and diplomatic isolation have forced the Kremlin into compromise; rather, Russia appears ready and willing to take on multiple wars at once.
Doing so requires a delicate balancing of the ledger, however. Moscow’s belligerence in Syria coincided almost exactly with its (relative) enforcement of a year-old and serially violated ceasefire in Ukraine.
Not that the war in the Donbas has stopped completely. On Tuesday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Monitoring Mission in Ukraine noted that in Schastye, a fulcrum town in Lugansk, one of the two regions occupied by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine, “16 explosions assessed as heavy artillery at a location south-west of its position” were recorded. Moreover, there were close to 100 more explosions registered in Donetsk City as “outgoing,” meaning fired by rebels. Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, has said that the lull in fighting is a feint by Russia to build up materiel and troops behind the front line in preparation for another big offensive, which, he said, could occur “at any time,” though Turchynov doesn’t expect this to happen before the three-week UN General Assembly in New York, which starts on September 15.
Indeed, as Reuters also reported today, Russia’s Defense Ministry is building a 6,000-square-meter military complex to house “3,500 soldiers, warehouses for rockets, artillery weapons, and other munitions” in Valuyki, a village about 15 miles from Ukraine’s border. Bases such as these, NATO has alleged, are how Russia trains its proxies in Ukraine and keeps them steadily resupplied with tanks and anti-aircraft and radar guidance systems.
Also telling is Putin’s move to call a snap drill of a reported 95,000 troops in the Central Military District—and to mobilize assets for it, including attack helicopters, in the Southern Military District, which abuts Ukraine. Significantly, the exercise includes airborne and air transport forces.
The move comes just before the “Centre-2015” exercise, also to be held in the Central Military District, and also to include tens of thousands of troops. While such tests of readiness are not in themselves unusual in the Russian military, their effect is to give Russia a broad pool of forces able to move immediately, without having to provide any other explanation than, “It’s just an exercise.”
Putin previously called just such a drill on February 26, 2014, creating a massive and ready military force just four days after he had decided on the annexation of Crimea. At that time, his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said almost exactly, “It’s just an exercise,” when questioned by observers.
One of relatively few units from outside the Central Military District to be named as taking part in the drill is the 98th air-assault division based in Ivanovo, east of Moscow. Elements of the 98th are known (PDF) to have fought in Ukraine, and to have sustained significant losses there. It is thus not just highly-trained but battle-hardened. If Putin had decided to reinforce Russia’s combat presence in Syria quickly, the 98th would be a logical choice.
That Putin may be keeping one conflict frozen but oven-ready to start cooking another is also suggested in his diplomatic maneuvering and messaging in the last week. He has reportedly negotiated overflight rights to Syria for Russian military transport planes with Greece and with Iran and called for the creation of an “international coalition against terrorism and extremism,” to include the U.S., knowing that his definition of terrorism and extremism encompasses many American partners in Syria.
Building up a garrison in Syria absent any coordination with Washington but coinciding with talk of future coordination is a hallmark of a KGB president looking to get the better of his counterparts: establish a fait accompli, then negotiate the terms of the West’s surrender to it.
Putin knows that the U.S. may be tacitly OK with seeing Russia directly safeguard “state institutions” in Damascus—i.e., the Syrian army and the security services responsible for the bulk of the country’ carnage—especially as the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS creeps ever closer to the capital. He need only read U.S. newspapers, which cite anonymous White House officials objectively supporting Assad’s longevity, to glean as much. He also knows that calls for Russia to “stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad” can be met with an implied, “Yeah, yeah” because the U.S. will never come close to arming and supporting Assad’s opposition in a commensurate manner.
Anti-Americanism is now a central plank of Russian foreign policy, which depicts Russia as the only nation brave enough to stand up to American hegemony. Rebuffing and outfoxing Washington is a now a national pastime.
It was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after all, who went to Sochi last May to cinch Putin’s assistance in reanimating the corpse of a Syria peace process—and ended up criticizing Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, a putative U.S. ally, while there. Now Putin has returned the executive gratitude by redoubling his support for Assad, and daring the U.S. to stop him. That he has done so quickly, and with the help of the Islamic Republic—another anti-American regime he’s meant to be helping the U.S. constrain—is just the cherry on top.
As ever, the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose conundrum only pays off because the West is so willing to play along. Any number of European leaders have not so subtly indicated that they’d be quite happy to barter for an end to an older Russian war in Europe in exchange for a newer Russian war in the Middle East.
Just a week into the Ukraine ceasefire, France’s President Francois Hollande wasted no time in hopefully glimpsing an end to Western sanctions on Russia, which have hurt French business interests and bilateral trade. A former minister and opposition politician, Bruno Lemaire, has called for the creation of “as broad a military coalition as possible, including European states, Russia and the states of the Middle East”—but, pointedly, not the U.S.
Some prominent observers, such as Jan Techau, the director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s European center, now talk openly of a Russian intervention in Syria as potentially “the last best option” for a war-ravaged country. Even the United Kingdom has acknowledged that any political solution for Syria “is going to have to be a decision made by the sponsors of the key players in Syria, and in particular Iran and Russia deciding to call the shots with the Assad regime.” It seems that key players in Syria, Iran, and Russia haven’t waited on London to make their decision.
And of the three, Putin is still the only one telephoned regularly by Western leaders and considered, at least publicly, as a partner in de-proliferation, counterterrorism, and much else. All he need do now is position himself as the one man who can stem the flow of refugees onto continental shores, beat back ISIS, and end a conflict of his own making in eastern Ukraine. Anyone who thinks he can’t pull it off hasn’t been paying close attention.
—with additional reporting from Shane Harris