NPR Story
2:09 pm
Thu August 29, 2013

Russia Sending Two Warships Near Syrian Waters

Originally published on Thu August 29, 2013 3:34 pm

Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, is sending a large anti-submarine ship and a missile cruiser into the Eastern Mediterranean, as the U.S. moves toward a military response in Syria.

Russian president Vladimir Putin says the naval deployment is required for protecting Russian national security interests and not a threat to any nation.

Defense experts say the warships could give the Syrian regime early warning of missile launches, an possibly jam radars and navigational systems.

Lee Willet, editor of IHS Jane’s Navy International, told Reuters that this is gunboat diplomacy meant to have a political impact.

Russia is one of the biggest suppliers of weapons to the Syrian regime and it has resisted international calls for sanctions and other Western interventions in the Syrian crisis.

So what is Russia’s interest in Syria?

Guest

  • Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research in Washington and Moscow on Russia and Eurasia. He was director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Two Russian warships are headed toward Syria water today. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the warships are needed for protecting Russian national security interests and are not a threat to any nation. But the Russian move comes as the U.S. is moving toward military action against the Syrian regime with the White House ready to make public what it says is proof that the Syrian government carried out a large-scale chemical attack on civilians last week. Russia is Syria's most powerful ally, and it has resisted international calls for sanctions as well as other Western intervention in the Syrian crisis.

So what is Russia's interest in Syria? Andrew Weiss served as Russia under both President Clinton, and before him, under President George H. W. Bush. He joins us from the studios at the Carnegie Endowment where he is the vice president of studies. Andrew, thank you for you joining us.

ANDREW WEISS, VICE PRESIDENT FOR STUDIES, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: It's great to be here.

HOBSON: Well, start with these warships. Are they simply symbolic, or can they provide help to Syria in case of a Western strike on Syria?

ENDOWMENT: I think the Russian military presence in the Mediterranean is pretty limited at this point. I haven't seen an exact head count of how much naval muscle they have, but the Russian navy today is a far cry from what it was in the Soviet period. It's normal for the Russians to use these kinds of signals to show the West that they are a presence in the Mediterranean and that they're not happy with the direction that events seemed to be tending toward.

The question is, is it an intelligence operation where it will help them keep an eye on what Western military activities may unfold, or is this something that's going to actually lead to a better ability of the Syrian air defense to thwart a Western attack? And it's really too early to tell.

HOBSON: So no fears of a clash because Russia already has a strong presence in the Mediterranean, 16 warships and three ship-based helicopters reported there in June. And the U.S. is, of course, now expanding its naval presence with the fourth cruise missile-armed warship.

ENDOWMENT: I don't see a significant threat of a direct confrontation. I've seen different reports, perhaps, than you have about what Russia has in the Mediterranean right now. Some of which suggest that their naval deployment has actually been curtailed in recent months. So it may be that they didn't have anything there, and they're sending these two vessels there to show, you know, that they're on the map.

HOBSON: Well, let's talk about Russia's interest in Syria, starting with the Russian base there.

ENDOWMENT: I think that base is one of these red herrings that folks trotted out in the early days of the Syria crisis to say, look, see, Russia has a warm weather port, and this is really important to them strategically. It's basically a big gas station on the Mediterranean. There's been talk over the years about whether Russia might expand it, whether it could become a meaningful military base. But this is not, you know, Cameron Bay or what the U.S. Navy has in Bahrain. This is a small repair facility. It's staffed by, I think, fewer than 60 or 70 people. It's not a major deal.

HOBSON: Russia is also one of the biggest arms suppliers for Syria. $4 billion in arms to Syria over the years from Russian defense contractors. So is this mainly an economic interest?

ENDOWMENT: No, I don't think it's that. You know, you said at the outset that you thought that, you know, Russia was Syria's most powerful ally. That's not what Russia is. Russia is a diplomatic umbrella for Syria that prevents the U.N. Security Council from reaching consensus. Syria's most important military partner is, of course, Iran and Hezbollah. In this case, the Russian defense establishment, if you stack up their total sales, Syria, I think, is in about seventh or eighth place annually. It's a significant client, but, you know, arms sales is not the, again, not the big driver here.

HOBSON: So what is the big driver?

ENDOWMENT: I think there's about two or three things the Russian government is focused on. The first is that they're fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of humanitarian intervention. We saw that in Libya, where the Russians basically held their nose and abstained and allowed the U.S. and its Arab partners to pursue a campaign that ended up dislodging the government of Moammar Gadhafi. The Russians don't want to see that precedent firmly established, especially not in the region, and they don't want to do it in a way that leaves the Security Council out of the picture.

The second issue for the Russians is they see that there's a big conflict brewing between Sunni and Shia governments in the Middle East. For the most part, Russia sympathizes with the Shia end of that equation. And so, so long as Syria, Iran and Hezbollah remain basically an axis of collaborative powers, Russia doesn't want to see the Sunni monarchies get the upper hand. It views the Sunni monarchies with great suspicion, suspects that they're fostering insurgencies inside Russia or along Russia's southern frontier.

And the final concern, I think, for the Russians is simply they just don't like seeing the U.S. throws its weight around. And they want to have the United States have to reckon with the more powerful, more serious Russia on the global stage. And in this case, it really looks like the U.S. is not choosing to take Russia's views to heart, and that just rankles Russia's sensitivities.

HOBSON: Yeah. I saw that Russia's deputy prime minister tweeted this week that, quote, "The West is playing with the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade."

ANDREW WEISS: Right. I think this kind of thrash talking is something that the Russians excel at. Unfortunately, it also sort of casts, you know, a doubt about, well, what is it Russia really stands for? If, you know, the Russians are interested in promoting stability in an end to this conflict after the loss of 100,000 lives, you'd want to see something meaningful happening on the diplomatic track. But so far, the Russians have not been a significant block on Assad's freedom of action. And if anything, the diplomatic top cover at the U.N. has given Assad more of a free hand.

But the other thing we got to remember is that there's been a vacuum for the past two years. The U.S., particularly President Obama, has been extremely reluctant to get involved, and Russia stepped into that vacuum quite energetically.

HOBSON: What about the idea, and I've seen it written, that perhaps President Putin feels some concern that if a strong man falls in Syria, then somehow it makes him more vulnerable?

WEISS: I think the Russians look at this as part of a bigger pattern, and they wonder is, you know, the U.S. agenda here always about regime change? And we use the language of democracy to cloak our real objectives. So they look at what happened in Libya. They looked to what happened in Egypt. They've looked at what's happened in Balkans in the 1990s.

And to them, it fits this big pattern of the U.S. promoting regime change, and they very much feel uncomfortable with that and they do look at these threats through the lens of domestic politics, where Putin and others worry about their hold on power. They feel a great distance from the Russian people, in general, and they're just worried about the U.S. might be up to.

HOBSON: And, of course, President Obama is going to be in Russia next week for a summit of the G20. Russia is the host. The White House has, as we've reported, canceled bilateral meetings with Russian President Putin, but still probably an awkward meeting next week. Do you think that it's going to play in to any military decisions from the United States over Syria?

WEISS: I think that the fact the president's trip next week creates a lot of awkwardness for the administration, and I'm sure anyone who's got to plan trips like that is really sweating at the moment trying to figure out how to deconflict what might be happening in the Middle East with what's happening in terms of the president's personal whereabouts. I'm not sure we're going to see a meeting between President Putin and President Obama next week. It's really too early to tell. Things are moving fast.

HOBSON: Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment. Thank you so much.

WEISS: Thank you.

HOBSON: And we'll be back in a minute with more. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.