By Mark Adomanis
The announcement of two Russian amphibious warships bound for Syria is strange. Not because the Russians are above meddling in a conflict zone or are committed to the principle of non-interference. But because deploying ships and marines represents an escalation in the Syrian conflict — an escalation the Russians have expressly avoided. On the same day news first broke about the deployment of Russian warships, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, totally in line with its previous position, announced that it was seeking the early resumption of the UN mission in Syria.
With conflicting messages coming from different parts of the Russian government, it’s unclear what precisely Russian intentions actually are.
One possibility is that the Russian Ministry of Defense was victorious in an internal bureaucratic struggle against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Russian Defense Ministry convinced Russian president Vladimir Putin and the political leadership that it was time for Russia to stop dithering and draw a line in the sand. Under this scenario Russia will under no circumstances accept Assad’s departure and that it will do everything in its power to ensure he survives, even if that involves committing small numbers of troops.
A slightly more likely, if still unrealistic, possibility is that the ships’ deployment is an extremely limited mission that has no ulterior motive besides the protection of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at Tartus and ensuring that Russia’s physical assets there are protected from Syria’s rapidly deteriorating security situation. Russian military officers often have less than astute political sensibilities. It’s possible they would take a narrow view of the expedition that to American and Western sensibilities would seem ostentatiously political.
What I consider the most likely possibility is that somewhere along the line the wires got crossed and the deployment was announced either as a mistake or floated by the Russian Defense Ministry to test the domestic and international reactions.
The Russian government is notoriously bureaucratic and inefficient. The Russian defense and diplomatic apparatuses have a long history of working at cross-purposes and generally get in each other’s way. Things got so bad during the 1990s that the Russians came up with the term mnogogolosie (multivoicedness). The word describes situations in which the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were independently pursuing incompatible policies, for example in Georgia or Moldova. Things have generally been less chaotic and better organized since Putin instituted the “vertical of power,” the short-hand term for the centralized system of top-down bureaucratic political control centered on the Kremlin generally and in Putin personally. Despite the changes, both offices have very different ideas about what Russia ought to do and how it ought to act.
Calling the deployment a gaffe or mistake is given some credence when we look at what the Russians are actually sending to Tartus: the Tsezar’ Kuznikov and the Nikolai Fil’chenkov. These two aging tank transport ships with a combined total of 600 Russian marines have decidedly limited capabilities and are not serious tools of power projection. The deployment of the Tsezar’ Kuznikov and the Nikolai Fil’chenkov (if they have, in fact, actually been dispatched) is not a serious attempt at military influence but is rather an attempt to demonstrate Russia’s geopolitical relevance by showing the flag.
Given Putin’s generally risk-averse nature it’s difficult to believe this deployment is a serious attempt at a Russian peacekeeping mission. Putin knows better than most the limitations of Russia’s armed forces and their limited expeditionary capabilities. Given Russia’s experiences in the North Caucasus, it’s difficult to imagine a realistic scenario in which he would willingly sign up for the thankless and bloody task of policing a sectarian civil war in a Muslim-majority country. For all his saber rattling Putin has kept defense spending at a generally low level, preferring to use Russia’s status as an energy superpower as his primary means of exerting influence.
If Russia actually does dispatch troops to Syria, if those two ships and the accompanying marines actually arrive and set up shop in Tartus, that would represent not only a worrying escalation of an already worsening conflict but a truly shocking, and terrifying, lack of good sense on the part of the Russian leadership. Russia, faces the serious potential of domestic political instability, and, even in the most optimistic reckoning, has any number of priorities more pressing than intervening in Syria. One of the most potent political forces now opposing Putin are Russian nationalists who are opposed to subsidizing the North Caucasus. If Russian nationalists oppose subsidizing constituent parts of the Russian Federation, they will even more strenuously object to spending blood and treasure in a place such as Syria. Given the paucity of capabilities at Russia’s disposal and the extreme domestic political risks inherent in intervening in Syria, until there is verifiable evidence to the contrary this entire episode is part of a botched attempt at bureaucratic infighting that was blown out of proportion by an exceedingly well-timed and well-placed news story.