A Black Sea-based Russian surface action group scrambled to the Eastern Mediterranean —under the guise of drilling in the region — are likely there to provide an air defense bubble to protect Russian fighters striking targets in Syria, according to a Russian press report.
In the last three weeks, several surface combatants have departed the Russian Black Sea headquarters in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula for the Mediterranean for an announced series of anti-ship and anti-air drills.
At the time the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) denied the drills had any connection to the Russian build-up of forces in Syria but reports from independent Russian news wire service Interfax-AVN quoted a military source on Friday saying the exercise was to, “test the efficiency of the system protecting the air base near Latakia from air strikes.”
A separate source told The Daily Mail, “ships of the navy’s task force led by the Moskva missile cruiser deployed in the eastern part of the Mediterranean have started taking measures to ensure the aerial defense of the air base near Latakia, where a collection of Russian Air Force fighters has been deployed.”
Russian state controlled media announced on Monday four Russian Navy ships had conducted live anti-surface and anti-air exercises in the region.
Guided missile cruiser and Black Sea flagship Moscow (or Moskva), Krivak-class guided missile frigates Ladny, Pytlivy and Kashin-class frigate Smetlivy “completed firing exercises at marine and air targets using artillery and missile complexes,” read a Black Sea fleet statement to state-controlled wire Sputnik.
In addition to the surface ships, the Russian Navy also deployed a surveillance ship as well as several amphibious ships.
In the last few weeks, Russia has been quietly moving air assets into Syria publically to strike Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) targets — but more likely to keep Russian ally Syrian president Bashar al–Assad in power and assert their role in the Middle East.
Russian air strikes began last week with not only strikes on ISIS positions but several targeted at Free Syrian Army (FSA) sites, according to press reports.
Air defense protection from the deployed ships would give the Russian forces a hedge against any possible U.S.-led collation action over Western Syria.
“By moving big ships like this into place, Russia is sending a clear message to the Americans that if they were to attack the planes at Latakia, there would be a response,” Igor Sutyagin, with the Royal United Services Institute, told the Mail.
While the presence of the Russian ships may constitute a warning to the coalition, what is unknown is the efficacy of both the weapons and the sensors on the 1980s era Russian ships.
Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian surface fleet has been one of the most neglected components of the post-Soviet military and efforts to modernize the force have been repeatedly stalled.