It is being reported that large Russian amphibious naval ships are steaming toward the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russian civilians and naval infrastructure are under threat from ongoing civil disorder.
“The crews of the Nikolay Filchenkov, Ceasar Kunikov and SB-15 tugboat – together with the marine units they carry – are capable of protecting security of Russian citizens and evacuating a part of the property of the logistics base,” a source at the Russian Navy General Staff told Interfax-AVN on Monday.
But according to an officer stationed with the Black Sea Fleet, the Nikolay Filchenkov and Ceasar Kunikov are still sitting in dock in Sevastopol. Moreover, the crew is said to be on “regular service duty” and are under no emergency orders.
He pointed out, however, that Russian naval ships must be prepared to dispatch anywhere in the world in 12 hours notice.
There has also been speculation over Russia’s Syrian logistics base in Tartus, which operates the PM-138 floating workshop. This facility provides technical maintenance of Russian warships deployed in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Iman tanker, with an anti-terrorist squad aboard, completed a mission off the coast of Syria in May; that same month, plans for the Moscow missile-carrying cruiser of the Black Sea Fleet to patrol the Syrian coastline was canceled in May.
Meanwhile, The Professor Katsman, a cargo vessel, pulled into Tartus on May 26. Some Russian and foreign media outlets speculated that the vessel delivered Russian weapons to the Syrian authorities that could be used to fight the opposition.
Russia denied the claims, stressing that it only provides Syria with defensive weapons to protect it from outside attack.
Last week, the rhetoric between Moscow and Washington escalated when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a press conference that Russia was supplying combat helicopters to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The delivery of the helicopters, she said, would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”
Russia quickly extinguished the inflammatory comments, saying it was merely sending to Syria “old, refurbished helicopters” that it had been repaired and were being returned to Damascus as specified under contractual agreement.
Later, the US State Department issued a statement refuting Clinton’s claim.
On the weekend, presidential aide Yury Ushakov said Clinton’s unverified statement has helped to poison the atmosphere of the Syrian settlement negotiations ahead of the Los Cabos meeting of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on the G20 summit sidelines.
“The presidents will certainly discuss the Syrian situation. As you know, someone is trying to spoil the negotiations’ background,” Ushakov said. “The Americans are escalating tensions with their statements, which are refuted later on. For instance, the statement of Clinton was refuted by the Pentagon, which knew the real situation in the deliveries of military hardware and equipment.”
“They frequently make statements, update and correct them, while tensions escalate and harm bilateral cooperation,”he added.
“Russia and the United States disagree over pressing international issues,” Ushakov said, admitting that“disagreements are tactical rather than strategic in the case of Syria.”
“Actually, both of us want the same – peace and a democratic choice of the future by the people of Syria,” he said.
“Russia unwaveringly supports the beginning of a national dialog in the Syrian Arab Republic, in which the Syrians will choose the political structure of their country. The use of external force is impermissible in this situation.”
From United States Perspectives
MOSCOW — A tiny, frayed Russian military base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast has jumped into international focus amid international concern over how far Russia might go to bolster the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
The site, at the port of Tartus, is little more than a pier, fuel tanks and some barracks. But it is the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union, and its only Mediterranean fueling spot, sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through straits in Turkey, a NATO member.
Russian officials have twice this year denied reports that they are reinforcing the garrison at Tartus with marines, most recently on Friday. On Monday, the news agency Interfax cited an unnamed officer identified as a member of the Navy General Staff as saying two landing craft — the Nikolai Filchenkov and Cesar Kunikov, based in Sevastopol — and an oceangoing tugboat were prepared for an extended mission to Syria. A spokesman for the Black Sea fleet, Capt. Vyachislav V. Trukhochyov, declined to confirm this, saying in a telephone interview from Sevastopol that both ships mentioned in the Interfax report were still moored at their docks.
Still, the reports underscore the importance of the base as a Russian outpost, staffed by uniformed members of the Russian armed services on the coast between Western navies and the fighting inland. It is a tripwire that must be stepped over carefully by any Western nation that decides to intervene to halt the violence in Syria, an option being discussed more vigorously as diplomatic efforts fail. The United States and Russian militaries have been cautious in carrying out combat close to each other, because of the risk of a direct skirmish escalating.
Moscow has been a close ally of Syria since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and has regularly supplied its military in conflicts since. Along with its modest garrison at Tartus, Russia has military officers in Syria under the auspices of its embassy and civilian technical advisers working irregularly on Russian-made air defense systems and repairing airplanes and helicopters in Syria, all of which present obstacles to Western intervention.
Unnamed Russian officers who have discussed the possibility of deploying Russian marines suggested a limited mission of protecting the pier at Tartus and evacuating Russian citizens.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency described the extent of the facility as a floating pier used for repairs, storage warehouses, barracks and various maintenance centers. A few years ago the facility was in such poor repair that it could not dock Russia’s newest battle cruiser, the Peter the Great, and a port call was canceled.
More recently, the site’s main asset, a floating machine shop that is intended to repair naval ships and extend Russia’s sea power into the Mediterranean, was itself in need of repairs after malfunctioning twice at sea.
The barracks, set amid palm trees according to photographs, house about 50 Russian sailors, while another 190 sailors stay onboard the floating repair shop.
“Looks scary, doesn’t it?” Ruslan Aliyev, a Russian military analyst, noted sarcastically of photographs of the repair boat, a rusty relic made in Poland in 1969.
The footprint is so tiny and undermanned, he said, that it might be indefensible in a conflict. In that case, he said, the Russian sailors there now would likely try to preserve their equipment and avoid capture by putting out to sea in the floating machine shop.
New York Times
Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.