Dale R. Herspring
The Russians recently sent several warships to visit Syria. They docked at Tatrus on the Mediterranean Sea, where the Russians have their only overseas base. At the time, a number of observers raised questions about the visit, and some found it provocative. I wouldn’t call it provocative. The visit was one of the oldest diplomatic games around. It was the Russians sending a message to the rest of the world.
The U.S. Navy is probably one of the strongest supporters of freedom of the seas in the world. We are now going eyeball to eyeball with Iran over access to the Strait of Hormuz Iran’s position is that the United States is responsible for tension in the area. Gen.Anatollah Salehi, the head of Iran’s Army, warned the U.S. aircraft carrier John Stennis not to attempt to pass through the strait again. U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta in turn warned Iran that any effort to close the strait would lead to open conflict.
In fact, the Stennis is scheduled to return to the United States. However, it will be replaced by the USS Enterprise. When that ship will pass through the strait is unknown, but when it does, we could see some fireworks if the Iranians decide to push matters.
The U.S.’s Navy support for freedom of the seas means any country can send ships anywhere it wants — period.
So what were the Russians up to? First, it helps to understand that the Kremlin has been upset with NATO and the United States ever since the war in Libya. The United Nations permitted the outside world to provide very limited air cover for the rebels — and to shoot down Libyan aircraft. In fact, NATO expanded that initial charge to the point where we pretty much invaded Libya — and the Russians were left out of the action. My Russian friends tell me that senior officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry were furious. From a diplomatic standpoint, they had been humiliated. They vowed not to let it happen again.
While the Libyan adventure was cooling down, the situation in Syria began to heat up. Again, an Arab dictator, Bashar al-Assad, mistreating his people to the point that they began to clash openly with government forces. In all instances, the government won; the opposition had only those weapons that it could steal from the government or that defecting soldiers brought with them.
The Russians understood very well what was going on in Syria. Its populace was being massacred by the army. However, the Russians recalled the way they were excluded in Libya, and they believed that it was in their interest to maintain good ties with Syria, regardless of how barbaric its forces were are dealing with its populace.
Russia’s only overseas base is in Syria, and it has considerable financial interests in weapons and other sales. For example, 7 percent of Russia’s $10 billion in arms deliveries last year went to Syria, according to a Russian source. Collapse of the Syrian government could lead to chaos. The result could be an Islamic state which lumps the Russians in with the United States and NATO. Moscow wants to show Assad that the Russians are good partners, but it wants to do so without destroying its relations with the West. What better way than a visit by some of Russia’s most important combat ships? It shows both that Moscow supports Assad and that the Russians can be tough when they need to be.
To this end, Russia sent a destroyer (the Admiral Chabanenko, which visited the United States 20 years ago) and the frigate Yaroslav Mudry. To emphasize t he importance of its relations with Syria, Russia added the Admiral Kuznetsov, an aircraft carrier.
The Russian Navy tried to pass the visit off as normal stop at a Russian military base for maintenance. However, it was clear from the way the high-level visits were carried out — from the protocol and the behavior of Russian officers and personnel — that this was no maintenance visit. Besides, the Assad regime touted the visit as a “show of solidarity with the Syrian people.”
So what does it mean? Russia sent a signal, and it was received. Diplomatically, it was a non-event. Nobody lost sleep over it.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.