Russia’s unique and only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is on its way toward Syria where its battle group will take part in combat operations over the war torn country. In the meantime, Russia has released video of recent flight training operations aboard and around the ship, including clips of its upgraded Su-33s, new MiG-29Ks and Kamov helicopters in action. There is even a shot of what appears to be an interesting infrared countermeasure system being activated off the ship’s starboard side.
The Russian flotilla, the largest since the end of the Cold War, has been seen as a pariah by western nations. No country has yet been willing to refuel the ships as they make their journey from the frigid Barents Sea to the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean.
Originally Spain agreed to refuel the carrier and some of its escorts, but a wave of diplomatic protests and media coverage accusing Spain of helping Russia commit war crimes in Syria by providing material support for their military hardware preempted that operation. The Kremlin says that the ship really doesn’t need ports of call anyway, as it can be replenished underway.
If anything this most recent controversy is a reminder of why Russia sees its port in Tartus, Syria as so strategically crucial, and their lease on that port has been extended indefinitely by the Assad regime. Not just that, but Russia's port facilities there have been drastically expanded and now will be able to accept any ship in the Russian Navy''s inventory. An S-300 air defense battery has also been deployed nearby. Russia's expanded and indefinite access to its only warm water port in the Mediterranean, as well as to its master airbase south of the Syrian port city of Latakia, is clearly a form of partial repayment to Russia by the Assad regime for saving it from collapse via direct military intervention. That intervention started over a year ago and continues till this day.
There have also been media reports that more attack submarines have been deployed to support the Russian flotilla in the eastern Med. These supposedly include two Akula class nuclear fast attack submarines and a diesel-electric Kilo class submarine. That same report said that NATO has been tracking these boats for some time now. It's doubtful that this tally includes the submarine that was already thought to have been escorting Kuznetsov and its battle group, or any of the Kilo class submarines based in the Black Sea that venture into the Mediterranean on a fairly regular basis. These Sevastopol-based subs have even taken part in strikes on targets in Syria using their Kalibr cruise missiles.
It is thought that the Kuznetsov is holding off Libya in order to join up with these submarines. Also in the area is the USS San Antonio LPD-17 supporting anti-extremist operations in Libya.
The addition of Russian submarines prowling the area while Kuznetsov is on station near Syria combined with the US and other NATO subs which sure to be waiting to ‘receive’ the flotilla once it arrives will make the depths of the eastern Med a busy place in the coming weeks.
As The War Zone predicted, the Kuznetsov battle group will likely arrive just as a major offensive in Aleppo begins — an offensive aimed at finally clearing the city of anti-Assad rebels once and for all. As to those Syrian peace negotiations between the US and Russia, well, they are no longer happening at all. As we discussed earlier, the situation has spun nearly out of control. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu now says that peace talks are “indefinitely delayed,” adding "It is time for our Western colleagues to determine who they are fighting against: terrorists or Russia… Maybe they have forgotten at whose hands innocent people died in Belgium, in France, in Egypt and elsewhere?" Tensions between the US and Russia have only increased in recent days as reports of aerial near misses between Russian and US planes over Syrian airspace have surfaced.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated the following about the possibility of extending Russia’s “humanitarian pause” in Aleppo: "All that is impossible if the terrorists continue to fire on neighbourhoods and humanitarian aid routes, to launch attacks, and continue to hide behind a (human) shield. That will not permit the continuation of the humanitarian pause."
The truth is that Russia has made a big investment into not only this massive naval deployment, but also in building up their forces in Syria over the last two months. Pulling these assets back now, just to have to redeploy them is likely very fiscally unpalatable for the cash-strapped Kremlin.
Moscow also likely realizes they need to get the “Aleppo issue” off the table so that Assad’s hold on power can be solidified and Russia can pull its forces back out of Syria on a prolonged basis. The military excursion into Syria has been a costly one for Russia. While the Kremlin has realized significant spoils of war, the longer fighting goes on, the harder it will be to justify it to the Russian people who are already seeing their economy struggle. This likely means that brutally crushing rebel forces in Aleppo, regardless of the cost to innocent human life and the how it may change perceptions of Russia around the globe, may be seen as necessary by Putin and his military advisors.
Now that opposition forces have launched their own offensive, Russia will likely use this move as a justification for starting a hardcore offensive of their own — one that is likely already planned. In fact, they threatened to do just that hours ago.
Suffice it to say that the forecast looks exceedingly violent and bloody for northwestern Syria in the weeks ahead.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com