Ominous news for Aleppo as Russian frigate reaches Syrian coast
A Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles has passed through the Bosphorus on its way to the eastern Mediterranean in a potentially ominous development for the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo.
The Admiral Grigorovich, part of Russias Black Sea fleet, arrived off the Syrian coast on Friday as the latest pause in the Russian bombardment of eastern Aleppo came to an end, adding to an emphatic Russian show of naval force in the Mediterranean.
Unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and Peter the Great nuclear-powered battle cruiser, whose arrival in the region has drawn considerable publicity, the newly commissioned Grigorovich has a fearsome ground attack capability in the form of Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles.
Three Russian submarines from Russias northern fleet capable of firing Kalibr missiles are also reported to have arrived in the Mediterranean.
Russia has used Kalibr missiles, equivalent to US Tomahawk missiles, against Syrian targets a handful of times over the past year. The concentration of forces in the eastern Mediterranean in support of the Syrian regimes ambitions to retake Aleppo from rebel forces, suggest they may be used again in the coming few days or hours.
Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin warned Syrian rebels and civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo to leave the city by Friday night, when a temporary moratorium on air strikes was set to expire.
But opposition groups told the Guardian that promised safe passages out of besieged areas did not exist. As the deadline drew near, opposition groups pushed on with an assault on loyalist west Aleppo, while residents seemed resigned to a resumption in airstrikes.
Nothing can be done. Nobody can stop the planes, Bebars Mishal, an official with the White Helmets volunteer rescue service, told Reuters.
The Kuznetsov battle group paused in its approach towards Syria off the east coast of Crete on Thursday, to carry out aviation exercises. Russian ministry of defence footage showed warplanes taking off and landing on its deck. The Kuznetsov is carrying about 10 Sukhoi-33 and four Mig-29 fighter aircraft, as well as up to two dozen helicopters. Although the Su-33s have recently been adapted to drop bombs more accurately, the plane has never been used for ground attack. Only the Mig-29 is designed for that purpose.
If the planes are used to bomb targets in Syria, it would mark the first time Russia has used its only aircraft carrier in combat. That lack of experience, however, may limit its usefulness.
There are very few carrier-trained pilots. In fact, there are more planes than pilots, and most of the planes on board are not made for ground attack. For naval aviation this is largely a training run, Michael Kofman, a Russian specialist at the Centre for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research institute.
They havent done anything done anything like this in a long time, and its getting heavily covered by the local and international media, said Peter Zwack, a retired US brigadier general and former military attache to Moscow, now at the National Defence University. They are arriving in the eastern Mediterranean right before our election. Its posturing and secondarily adding capability in Syria.
The visit of its flagship to the Mediterranean is also a morale-boosting demonstration of military capacity for the Russian navy, which has not played a significant role in the Ukraine or Syrian conflicts, but which is seen by Vladimir Putin as vital to Russian self-image as a global power.
Russias naval presence in the Mediterranean is as much about military posture and ability to project power beyond its region as much as the Syria campaign in general. Moscow sees it as important attributes of a great power, said Maxim Suchkov, an expert on the Russian Foreign Affairs Council.
The importance of image to this naval expedition is illustrated by the fact that Russian sailors have spent several days during its Mediterranean journey painting its deck bright blue, presumably so it looks better in aerial photographs.
The carrier has had a long and troubled history.
It was launched in 1985, but took a decade to become fully operational. It was first called the Riga, then renamed the Leonid Brezhnev as the former Soviet premier died, and then the Tbilisi, after the Georgian capital, and then rechristened after the Soviet Union fell apart and Georgia gained independence.
It was initially armed with a dozen Granit anti-ship missiles, but those have recently been removed to make more space for aircraft. The carrier has had persistent problems with its propulsion system, based on turbo-pressurised boilers, which belch out black smoke due to an excess of fuel over air in its engines.
They have frequently broken down and require the Kuznetsov to be accompanied on high seas duty by a tug. The ship has spent more time in port than at sea and will be out of action for several years for refurbishment from next year.
It is accompanied by the Peter the Great, a massive battle cruiser, with a fearsome array of missiles, but which are designed to hit planes, ships and submarines rather than attack land targets.
A more potent threat from the flotilla sent from Russias Northern Fleet may have escorted the Kuznetsov under the surface. UK reports, quoting British government sources, say two nuclear-powered Akula-class and one diesel-powered Kilo-class submarine have been spotted trailing the battle group into the Mediterranean.
At the same time as the Kuznetsov left Murmansk, two destroyers left Vladivostok, the headquarters of the Pacific Fleet. Those destroyers, the Bystry and the Admiral Tributs, are reported to be off the Gulf of Aden. Kofman said that they could be on call in case the Kuznetsov encounters engine trouble, possibly a Plan B for nervous admirals. However, the Bystry, has the same unreliable propulsion system.
The arrival of the Grigorovich and the Russian submarines armed with cruise missiles could add to the devastation being wreaked on eastern Aleppo, home to 275,000 people. However, if that was Russias only aim, it could easily increase the number of planes it bases at Hmeimim air base, near Latakia. The flexing of naval muscle is about geopolitical image as much as military firepower, but it carries with it the risk of humiliation. The Russian naval base at Tartus is not equipped to host large ships like the Kuznetsov and there are no friendly naval bases nearby in case of breakdown.
Its a dice roll, Kofman said. If anything happens it will be a long tow back home.