Russia has come under heavy criticism in the West since the crisis in Syria broke out nearly two-and-a-half years ago, mostly because of Russian refusal to allow for any progress under the auspices of the UN on a resolution of the Syrian conflict. Most recently, Russia has refused to support a UK-led Security Council resolution to allow protection measures for civilians in Syria. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennadiy Gatilov stated toward the end of a UN Security Council session that Western intervention in Syria risked becoming a repeat of the quagmire in Iraq.
Many analysts have portrayed Russian intransigence over Syria in terms of Russian national pride, as having found a way to make things purposely difficult for the West so as to assert its own status and importance on the global stage. This has largely been in the diplomatic arena, both at the UN as well as in Russian bilateral relations with various Western states. Yet as military intervention in Syria seems all the more likely, it seems that Russia’s relations with the West vis-à-vis Syria have quickly moved from the diplomatic arena to the naval sphere.
Various naval forces have already begun to move into the Eastern Mediterranean. France has sent its frigate Chevalier Paul to the region and may send its Toulon-based carrier Charles de Gaulle there as well. The UK already has a carrier in the Mediterranean, and both the UK and the US have several destroyers there as well.
Meanwhile, Russia is sending an anti-submarine ship and a missile cruiser. In this case, there is a discrepancy over the stated purposes. Russian news agency Interfax says the move is because of the situation in Syria, and a spokesperson for the Russian Navy has stated they are monitoring NATO activity in the area and will defend Russian national interests in the region. Russian media agency Novosti, on the other hand, states that this is just a regular rotation.
Again, much of the recent geopolitical wrangling between Russia and the West has been largely restricted to the diplomatic arena, with the military being either a largely back-burner factor or one that has had limited engagement. Whenever Russia has specifically used its naval power, it has either been in a relatively small-scale conflict (as during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008) or has been a show of solidarity and alliance, such as Russian ships coming into Venezuelan ports. Russian diplomatic intransigence over issues such as Syria has been portrayed as one of the only ways Russia has been able to assert itself due to poor conventional military strength. Now, however, Russia’s military is moving closer to the center of its great geopolitical confrontation with the West.
At this point, the possibility of open naval warfare between Russia and Western powers seems unlikely, as the U.S. itself is the world’s foremost naval power, a position only bolstered by the presence of France and the UK. It would be foolish for Russia to engage US/Western forces openly, and Russian action will, at least for now, most likely be an extension of its strategy in the diplomatic arena: making things difficult for Western naval forces through blockades and other forms of antagonism, while hoping (or calculating) that the West will not engage Russian forces openly. Yet one must also remember that, in the case of Russia’s navy vis-à-vis Syria, this is not simply an issue of asserting geopolitical power, but defending very real national interests, namely, the Russian naval base at Tartus. Any direct threat or damage to the base and its assets would elicit a very different response from Russia.
Syria may represent a turning point in Russian foreign policy, in that, for the first time since the cold war, Russia is blatantly challenging the West militarily. While no shots have been fired there is no open battle, Russia is now stepping up its rhetoric and showing it is not afraid to back up its word with actions. The possibility of a military confrontation between Russia and the West adds yet another major difficulty to an already complex situation of how to deal with an internal Syrian problem.