Why does Russia need an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea?
Diplomacy of the Invincible Armada
As stated officially, the reason behind the voyage of the largest naval surface vessels of the Russian Northern Fleet to the Mediterranean Sea is “to ensure Russia’s naval presence in operationally important areas of the world’s oceans”. For once a Russian statement can be taken at face value. However, the main goal is not just to wave the Russian flag to Europeans and Americans or to exhibit Russia’s aspirations to bear the status of a great superpower.
There are two main goals: 1) to maintain combat readiness in the event of the worst-case scenario stemming from the expansion of its military operation in Syria; 2) to demonstrate to Middle-Eastern rulers that the Kremlin will not hesitate to lend them a helping hand should they encounter problems with the West.
The roots of the Russian approach
Russia formed a naval task force in the Mediterranean Sea – the Mediterranean squadron of warships subject to routine ship rotation – back in spring 2013. The civil war in Syria was already in full swing, Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use a chemical weapon against his fellow citizens and “Islamic state” was still a marginal group of radicals.
Initially, Russia’s motivation stemmed from the helplessness that the Kremlin felt back in 2011 with respect to Libya. It was then forced to stand aside, not only because of Dmitry Medvedev’s personal stance, but also for objective reasons. Recall that Russian citizens were evacuated from Libya with the help of Turkey. Hence, the Mediterranean squadron was formed in order to compensate for the Kremlin’s weakness in the region.
Another important factor was that the deployment of the Russian squadron coincided with the moment that the U.S. drew “a red line” for the Syrian dictator; military intervention was supposed to follow in the event that Assad used chemical weapons.
In this context, given their limited capabilities, Russian forces were probably supposed to adopt the same role as that played by Russian paratroopers in Kosovo in 1999. However, the Kremlin was banking on increased efficiency of the adopted approach this time. It was then, -long before the Syrian campaign officially began - that Moscow doubled-down on military intervention in the Middle East, and adopted a tough diplomatic stance.
Rotation and augmentation
From a practical point of view, the Mediterranean squadron currently functions as cover for the Russian Latakia air base, and the special forces which operate alongside troops and groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The main role is played by the squadron flagships: a Moskva guided missile cruiser (Black Sea Fleet) initially, and a Varyag guided missile cruiser (Pacific Fleet) later. All other vessels, including submarines with cruise missiles, perform auxiliary functions.
However, the problem is that the rotation of the flagships is hampered due to their limited number. The Moskva and Varyag cruisers will soon undergo repair work and the Marshal Ustinov guided missile cruiser of the Northern Fleet has just left the repair dock, and will undergo testing until late 2016. This is the main technical reason why the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky, and the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from the Northern Fleet, have been deployed near the shores of Syria.
Of course, the aircraft carrier and the nuclear-powered battle cruiser together with other ships and submarines provide serious augmentation to the Mediterranean squadron. Still, it is important to understand that the Admiral Kuznetsov as well as the aircraft it carries have such serious technical problems that they are unlikely to last very long away from their base. Moreover, those onboard the aircraft carrier have virtually no experience of long voyages or combat situations.
The Admiral Kuznetsov has sailed to the Mediterranean Sea so the crew may garner the required experience. Consequently, a Pyotr Veliky cruiser shall be at the heart of the Mediterranean squadron near Syria over the coming months. The arrival of the Russian Invincible Armada in the Mediterranean is tasked with not only military, but also foreign policy endeavors of the Kremlin.
The need to get involved
The very limited capabilities of the Mediterranean squadron are of great importance to Russian diplomacy even given its present composition. As is well-known, a coveted accession to the international coalition against Islamic State on Moscow’s terms proved to be unattainable. Hence comes the inevitable Kremlin ambition to cement its strong position as regards the Syrian issue no matter how developments unfold. The military campaign that started in September 2015 and which has brought about fatalities will otherwise culminate in a great fiasco.
Today, as the coalition advances on the offensive in Mosul, it is important for Russia that the West and its allies are not capable of subsequently launching an offensive on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the heart of ISIS territory, without Russia. By all accounts, the Russian fleet is not there to carry out military tasks but rather to serve as a deterrent. Simply put, Russia, in no uncertain terms, issues a warning to coalition members “on the ground” that they are to seek approval from the Kremlin before they embark on a planned operation as they may fall victims to “accidental” attacks with the use of Russian missiles and bombs otherwise.
The main burden is borne by ships and submarines equipped with cruise missiles. Missiles do not even have to be long range as they did in 2015 when Russia’s navy attacked Syria from the Caspian Sea. Russia’s supply of such missiles is scarce due to limited industrial output, and so the regular, readily available, upgraded version of the Kalibr cruise missile with a range of 300 km will suffice.
Besides, one should not underestimate the possibility of an expansion of the Russian campaign in Syria especially given the siege of Aleppo which has enervated troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The Russian Mediterranean squadron would contribute towards intensified bombing of what remains of this city in this case.
With respect to the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier, its practical capabilities in the Syrian campaign boil down to a limited number of sorties by carrier-based aircraft which will reduce the burden on aircraft already in operation in the case of a successful campaign. However, the aircraft carrier’s journey to the shores of Syria has already created a significant political-and-psychological resonance. The move is intended to strengthen Russia’s position on the Syrian issue in terms of coercive diplomacy. Besides, the deployment of the Mediterranean squadron serves Moscow’s more long-term objectives.
The trans Mediterranean spectators
So far, the Kremlin’s traditional logic can best be illustrated by the famous question Stalin asked Churchill during the latter’s visit to Moscow in 1944: “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”. In the context of today’s situation, the question can be amended thusly: How many countries can use aircraft carriers? It is clear that Russia cannot compete with the likes of the United States or France on this front. However, this is not seen as a big problem by the Russian authorities: China and India also have aircraft carriers (built based on the Soviet/Russian designs) but are currently learning how to use them and all the other countries trail even further behind.
Russia is demonstrating in Syria today that it belongs to a tiny “club” of countries capable of using force far beyond their borders even without the use of advanced technologies such as Mistral-class helicopters. The deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean Sea serves to indicate that Russia is politically inclined to use force.
The target audience for this “show” is not the West at all but rather rulers of the Middle East and North Africa. It can be assumed that, by means of their military escapades, the Russian authorities have devised a way of transforming efforts undertaken to save Bashar al-Assad into a redoubling of their power in the region in general.
Thus, Moscow is prepared to consider supporting Iraq and Libya in their war against terror. Russian paratroopers continue to take part in drills in Egypt. Even the participation of the Russian airborne company in military exercises in Pakistan promotes the Middle-Eastern policy of the Kremlin among others. And the deployment of the Invincible Armada is the pinnacle of these efforts. In fact, Russia has put up for auction its image as an independent and unscrupulous military-and-political power, happy to lend a hand to anyone whose mutual understanding with the West and its own people is compromised in the nearest future, or anyone wishing to unbind their hands in their relations with the West, for that matter.
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