Russian ships ‘show the flag’

Mediterranean force isn’t looking for conflict

By Dale R. Herspring

It is amazing how the media ca blow things out of proportion, especially in a crisis. This is what happened as events in Syria were becoming more and more serious and dangerous.

Take, for example, the Russian Navy. As events began to heat up in and around Syria, we were informed that the Russians were sending two large ships to the Mediterranean Sea. The obvious implication was that the ships were up to no good — out to create problems for, if not challenge, the U.S. Navy.

Russian ships are not un-known in the Mediterranean.  The Soviet Union maintained the 5th Mediterranean Squadron there from 1967 to 1992. It was formed to counter the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet during the Cold War, and consisted of 30 to 50 warships and auxiliary vessels at different times. 

In late 2012, Russia’s new Defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said Russia needed a group of warships to be permanently present in the Mediterranean “to secure the country’s interests in the region.”  Rumors then began to pop up in Moscow to the effect that Russia was planning a permanent task force in the Mediterranean.  It was suggested that this proposed fleet would consist of up to 10 combat ships and auxiliary ships.

Other voices were raised against such an action.  Not surprisingly, they came from retired naval officers, who, given the sorry state of Russia’s navy, believed it incapable of such a task.  As one admiral put it, “I don’t know why some people are talking the re-creation of the Mediterranean squadron.  Such statements are just big words and wishes, which are not supported by real resources. If such a group is made of the remainder of the fleet, the ships will use their entire motor resources within a year and will have to undergo maintenance.”

Nevertheless, it was not long before the commander of the Russian Navy, Viktor Chirkov, said, “The Defense minister has asked us to form a Navy formation for operating in the Mediterranean on a permanent basis.” He said that cognizant of how serious the navy’s problems were, saying, “The general state of affairs in the navy cannot be called satisfactory.” Chirkov was right. While Russian President Valdimir Putin praised the Russian ships for having conducted a strategic exercise with five warships and several tankers in the Mediterranean last year, the youngest ship involved was the cruiser Moskva, which is 32 years old.  The rest were approaching 50 years old.

Soon it was announced that the Russian Navy would maintain five or six warships in the Mediterranean. This task force was to comprise frigates and cruisers.  The ships for this task force, which became permanent last July 1, were supplied by the Northern and Baltic fleets. Despite having a base in Tartus, Syria, which includes a floating repair shop, the Russians have kept their ships far away from it and instead are using Cyprus as a temporary home. The Russians have even refused to use their vessels to evacuate personnel from Syria, instead using aircraft.

Russia recently announce that the Moskva, from the Black Sea Fleet, and what the Russians call a large anti-submarine ship from the Northern Fleet were being sent to the Mediterranean. I have been aboard both of these ships, and criticisms of them by senior Russian officers to the effect that they are museum pieces are valid. They could cause problems if they had a mind to, but in combat with U.S. naval assets, the Russian ships’ life span would be limited, something Russian naval officers I have spoken to acknowledge. 

While some might dismiss it as propaganda, the Kremlin has said repeatedly that movement of these larger ships has nothing to do with events in Syria. I think they are half right.  They have no intention of getting into a combat situation, but these ships give them a chance to “show the flag,” to let those in the region know that Moscow is doing its best to support them. They’re hoping that the West will exaggerate their importance and win the Kremlin some brownie points — and that’s what the American media have done

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.









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