MOSCOW - Russia’s largest naval deployment in years raised eyebrows as the flotilla sailed past Norway through the English Channel on the way to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to support Moscow’s air campaign in Syria.
The British Royal Navy shadowed the Russian fleet Friday as it passed through the channel, in what was thought to be partly a response test of members of NATO, the Western military alliance.
"It's the general feeling here that Russia is once again obtaining the status of a great power and that we are globally present everywhere," says Victor Mizin, a political analyst at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "That's why the northern fleet, which is probably the most important of all the fleets of the Russian military, is extending its presence there."
The fleet includes: Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov; a nuclear-powered battle cruiser, Peter the Great; a destroyer; and anti-submarine ships. It’s headed to the Mediterranean as part Moscow’s military support for the Syrian government.
The website of Russia’s navy said Friday the carrier battle group will join the permanent naval task force in the eastern Mediterranean, which provides support for Russian and Syrian forces bombing rebels and Islamist militants. Russia’s navy said the deployment was expected to last four or five months before the Kuznetsov would return for repairs expected to take up to two years.
Largest deployment in decades
A diplomat with NATO told Reuters news agency it was Russia’s largest deployment since the Cold War’s end in 1991.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg expressed concern the Kuznetsov could join attacks on Aleppo and "increase human suffering."
Russian defense analysts say the ships add little firepower to Russian forces in Syria. The deployment, they say, is more for training purposes and as a show of strength to the West and Russia's allies.
"Sending these very specialized ships to the Mediterranean – well, it's like sending a Tyrannosaur to catch mice," said Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, adding that it is "not effective. Stupid, actually."
"Some of these ships can attack large targets with cruise missiles," he said. "But, basically, they can do that from any place. They do not have to go close to the Syrian coast for that."
Russia announced a temporary "humanitarian" truce Tuesday in its joint assault with Syrian forces on the city of Aleppo, to allow humanitarian aid and civilian evacuations. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that militants were blocking both aid and civilians.
Western countries, including the United States, have accused Russia of war crimes in Syria.
Final assault expected
Many analysts believe Russia is preparing a final assault on Aleppo to score a strategic win with its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
With the U.S. presidential election looming and the administration of President Barack Obama coming to a close, the timing of the Aleppo offensive is unlikely a coincidence.
"The present administration, I'm afraid, simply doesn't have time enough to make some serious change" in Syria, said Vladimir Batuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies. "And, unfortunately, they in Moscow understand that pretty well."
But the fighting in Syria will not end even if Russian-backed Syrian government forces retake Aleppo.
"I believe it's going to be a prolonged conflict because already ... less than 10 to 20 kilometers north of Aleppo there are Turkish tanks establishing a no-fly security zone,” said Felgenhauer. "Not only fighters but also the population is going to move there. The Turks are planning to build permanent refugee camps on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border. So, they can retreat there, lick their wounds and then come to fight another day. Because the Syrian and Russian forces will not be allowed in.”
Lavrov, the foreign minister, expressed concern over Turkish airstrikes in northern Syria. A Kremlin spokesman on Friday said Russia was concerned also that the U.S.-supported operation to retake Mosul, Iraq, would push militants over the border into Syria.
Some political analysts say Russia does not expect to win the war for Assad but wants to help Syrian forces retake Aleppo so they can return to negotiations in a stronger position.
"Probably it's stupid to expect that Syria could remain as a united, integrated country," said analyst Mizin. "But, the feeling here is that we are there, we are Russians, and we are to prevail. It's like in the Great Patriotic War. The slogan is 'Russians Never Surrender.'"