The Russians kept on tripping themselves up this week in a tangle of contradictory comments on their navy’s missions.
Russian Navy Chief Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov and Black Sea Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Alexander Fedosenkov denied in Moscow Friday, July 27 that the large Russian fleet cruising in the Mediterranean would enter the Syrian port of Tartus. It was merely conducting exercises, they said.
All the same, Washington and Jerusalem read into the movement of a squadron of Russian warships and landing craft past Gibraltar toward Tartus carrying marines a last Russian warning before intervening in the Syrian conflict.
Chirkov went on to say that if Russian naval base personnel in Tartus were at serious risk, they would be evacuated. He also revealed that Russia is discussing the acquisition of naval “supply and repair” bases in the Seychelles, Cuba and Vietnam.
President Vladimir Putin's office was not slow in issuing a denial of the last assertion.
The Russian Ministry of Defense then said the admiral was misquoted. No decisions on overseas naval bases had been taken, he said. It they were, they would have been the first to be set up since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 after Tartus.
But Moscow didn’t leave it with the MOD statement.
Moscow is keen on foreign naval bases
Incredibly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov chipped in too.
He first disavowed the admiral’s comments on Russian plans to establish more foreign naval bases.
He then went on to say that that a base in Vietnam would give Russian sailors a place for R and R as well as supplying naval maintenance.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and Moscow sources say that the muddled statements from Russian officials point to three processes taking place in the Kremlin:
1. Despite its denials, Moscow is keenly interested in gaining naval footholds in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
This is neither easy nor cheap. Vietnam seems wary about a Russian presence in the South China Sea. Before retiring last week, President Nguyen Minh Triet said he is not averse to making Cam Ranh Bay available to all nations, but is against offering Russia an exclusive base despite the $10 billion worth of assistance loans it has provided Hanoi.
In the Caribbean, Cuba is these days more interested in healing its relations with the United States than accommodating Russia’s strategic demands.
The Seychelles, strategically located in the Indian Ocean, is a holiday playground rather than a naval port. Admiral Chirkov may have been flying a kite to test the ground ahead of Russian negotiations for foreign naval ports.
Russia is short of naval assets to defend its interests
2. President Vladimir Putin's circle were in a fierce dispute with the heads of the Navy led by Vice Admiral Chirkov, who has been pushing hard to put this plan into effect as quickly as possible.
Despite the massive modernization program of its navy, Russia needs large naval bases on all three main oceans to rate as a major league world power.
Chirkov is warning the Kremlin that if war with Iran breaks out this year and escalates into a regional conflict, the Russian navy will not be ready to defend Russian interests either in Iran or Syria for lack of appropriate base facilities in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
Navy chiefs are warning that a war would reduce rather than enhance Russian influence in the Middle East.
3. The Kremlin and the Navy appear to have reached an odd compromise: Moscow will not set up new naval bases but only what Lavrov called “leisure and rest facilities” for Russian sailors.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report this euphemistic phrase scracely found expression in the last two weeks of activities at the Syrian port of Tartus.
Western intelligence officials closely monitoring every military move in Syria noticed that for the first time in the 17-month uprising, the Syrian Army was augmenting its military strength in Tartus and fencing the port around with new fortifications and protective barriers.
At first, they surmised that Assad was preparing Tartus as his refuge if Damascus and Aleppo fell to the rebels, just as a year ago former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi prepared to flee to Sirte if Tripoli fell.
But when a large excavator arrived at the Russian base, which is lodged inside Syrian naval facilities, and began feverish dredging work to deepen the harbor alongside the Russian platforms, the picture changed.
This sort of activity does not fit an R and R resort for Russian troops. Deep water ports are necessary to fulfill the upgrade of Tartus harbor to accommodate deep-draft vessels such as aircraft carriers, which the former Russian Navy chief Vladimir Vysotsky called for in August 2010.
Russia is making its Tartus enclave permanent
The Syrian military buildup in Tartus is clearly there first and foremost to defend the port and the Russian naval base from rebel attacks.
With 22 Russian warships, including four amphibious landing craft and marines, deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, Moscow is saying that its military enclave in the Syrian port is there to stay whatever the outcome of the Syrian civil war and regardless of who takes power in Damascus.