Why Russia's naval exercise off the Syrian coast is a big deal

The live-fire exercise is labeled as a drill against possible terrorism risks, but it's also a show of force close to Russia's only warm-water naval base overseas.
August 15, 2016, 3:00pm
La nave russa Zeleny Dol viaggia lungo il Bosforo, a Istanbul, diretta verso il Mar Mediterraneo. (Foto di Murad Sezer/Reuters)

The Russian navy began on Monday an exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, off the coast of Syria, to test its ability to deal with "crisis situations caused by terrorist threats," according to a statement by the Russian Defense Ministry.

The live-fire exercise comes while Russian forces are actively involved in fighting in Syria, where Russia maintains its only naval base in the Mediterranean. According to some analysts, Russia's intervention in the Syrian war to support the Assad regime may have been due in part to worries that the Tartus base might fall into rebel hands, depriving Russia of its most important military foothold overseas. Tartus is the only warm-water naval base at Russia's disposal abroad.


The exercise will include "artillery and missile firing in conditions close(ly) resembling" actual combat, the ministry's statement said.

Ships involved in the exercise include two corvettes, the Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol, armed with cruise missiles Russia used last year to hit Islamic State targets in Syria. That was an important first for Russian military technology. Only a handful of countries have sea-launched cruise missiles, which can hit with extreme precision at very long range, and Russia lagged far behind the US and the UK in this regard. Last year, the debut of the missiles, called Kalibr, against Islamic State showed Russia can match the Americans and their allies in an important military capability.

The eastern Mediterranean exercise is also a way to show force at a time of escalating tension between Russia and NATO.

Through its Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, the Russian navy has "certainly one of the most capable maritime forces in the region," according to a paper published by the US Naval War College. Passing through the Dardanelles Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Russian ships from Crimea are just a few days away from Tartus. There, they can land troops, tanks, helicopters and other equipment to support the Assad regime, which is locked with rebels in a tough battle for control of the key city of Aleppo.

Russia has 42 ships and six submarines in the Black Sea Fleet, the Naval War College paper noted, while the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean has only a command ship and four destroyers. However, the US can count on the navies of its NATO allies, while Russia is essentially by itself. Its ally Syria's navy is a small force that cannot do much beyond coastal defense.