Why is Russia so interested in preventing Western intervention in Syria? The second of a two part feature examining the reasons behind Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Read the first half here.
In recent years, Russia has spent considerable sums ensuring adequate naval infrastructure on the Black Sea. In 2010, the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments ratified a treaty extending the Russian lease on the naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine to 2042. In exchange, Russia promised $100 million annually plus a 30% reduction in the price of natural gas it sells to Ukraine for the next 25 years, a significant and costly concession. The base is clearly of vital importance to Moscow. In addition, Russia has invested in a base for 100 vessels at Novorossiysk. Intended as a replacement for Sevastopol, the base will still be used despite the deal reached in 2010. This new base will allow for expansion of the Black Sea Fleet. Fifteen new vessels are intended to enter the fleet over the next decade and the recapitalisation of naval forces is a key development priority for the Russian military.
In addition to developing infrastructure, Russia has helped develop a joint naval force, BLACKSEAFOR, with the other littoral states. This organization is intended to increase cooperation amongst regional navies in combatting terrorism and drug smuggling, two key domestic security issues for Russia. This cooperation also increases trust and decreases the likelihood that any other Black Sea nation would attempt to deny Russian access to the sea. Furthermore, BLACKSEAFOR operations allow the Russian Navy to monitor developments in these other navies, increasing the ability of the Black Sea Fleet to defeat them in the admittedly unlikely case of a war.
Finally, a spate of recent manoeuvres – both in the Black Sea and worldwide – have been designed to demonstrate Russian naval capacity. Beginning in 2008, a sharp spike in naval exercises began. That same year saw ships deployed as far away as Venezuela and South Africa for the first time in years. In January 2009, more Russian vessels were simultaneously at sea than at any time since 1991. The trend has continued with numerous exercises planned and conducted in 2010, 2011 and 2012, including an annual exercise in the eastern Black Sea. The 2008 Russo-Georgian War also served as a demonstration of Russian naval capabilities. Forces from the Black Sea Fleet rapidly defeated the Georgian Navy and landed marines on the Georgian coast. Given the geography and scope of the war, it was an unnecessary operation and could only have complicated planning efforts. It is likely that it was meant to signal Russian naval power to other littoral states.
In conjunction with Russian attempts to directly signal its dominance of the Black Sea, the strategic logic of its support for the Syrian regime is clear. By supporting Syria, Russia gains another front in its efforts to keep Turkey amenable to its influence and maintain control of the straits. In any crisis with Russia – no matter how unlikely given improved bilateral relations – Turkey would have to consider the fact that it is in a sense surrounded. It faces Russian naval forces in two seas as well as Syrian ground forces along its longest shared border. Furthermore, with the ability to operate naval forces on both sides of the straits, Russia has increased its direct influence on them.
If ever the straits were closed, Moscow could use forces simultaneously from two directions to attempt to reopen them. Or, were any state to threaten its control of the Black Sea, Russia would be able to use its Mediterranean forces to keep the fight as far from Russia’s shores as possible, just as during the Cold War. In August 2010, RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency, announced that Russia planned to develop Tartus sufficiently to host ‘guided-missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers’. Tartus is not much of a base now, having only a ‘a floating pier, a floating machine shop said to need repairs and barracks’, but its location and potential make it valuable. Development has proceeded slowly, but it is clear that Russia sees strategic value in its base at Tartus.
Now, strategic logic may necessitate Russian involvement in Syria, but it does not explain Moscow’s support for Assad specifically. Why not just deal with the next regime? The answer is simple: it is safer for the Russians to stick with the partner they already know. It is possible, given the denouement in Turkish-Syrian relations in the years leading up to the Syrian civil war, that any new Syrian regime would seek better relations with Turkey, lessening Russian influence over the straits. Furthermore, at this stage, should Assad fall, any new Syrian regime will likely be hostile to Russia for its actions to date in the crisis. Moscow is willing to risk supporting Assad on the assumption that if he survives he will be extremely open to Russian influence. Such an outcome would guarantee the Russian position on both of Turkey’s flanks.
This all may seem terribly Cold War-esque, but looking again at the 2009 Russian national security strategy it all fits into place. Russia helps secure one of its chief national security goals by maintaining naval forces in the Mediterranean and keeping Turkey distracted. The only cost is a few million dollars a year and the opprobrium of those who think the Assad regime is evil. For a Russian government that is concerned about making Russia a powerful player on the international stage, the investment makes sense. Anger at Russian actions is temporary and relatively cost-free; the strategic advantage of controlling access to the Black Sea is permanent and invaluable.
When viewed from a historical and strategic perspective, Russian actions regarding Syria are easily understood. Direct interests in Syria obviously play a role in guiding Russian policy in the crisis, but its actions also fit into a broader scheme. Russia has always been concerned about controlling access to the Black Sea and securing its ability to transit the straits at will. By controlling this key maritime chokepoint, Russia can easily protect its southern coast and reduce foreign influence on neighbouring states. Moscow’s support for the Assad regime is part of a broader strategic concern, and in addressing Russian actions policymakers should remember that there are critical Russian national interests at stake.
 http://rustrans.wikidot.com/russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020. See paragraph 41 and paragraphs 12 and 13 (accessed 16 July 2012).
 RIA Novosti, 21 July 2011 http://en.rian.ru/photolents/20110721/165314363_13.html (accessed 16 July 2012); Ivan Watson and Maxim Tkachenko, ‘Russia, Ukraine agree on naval-base-for-gas deal’, http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/04/21/russia.ukraine/index.html?hpt=T2 (accessed 16 July 2012).
 IISS, The Military Balance 2008, p. 208
 IISS, The Military Balance 2012, p. 187; The Military Balance 2011, p. 180
 See Gorenburg (2009), ‘Russian Naval Deployments: A Return to Global Power Projection or a Temporary Blip?’, http://russiamil.wordpress.com/publications/ (accessed 16 July 2012).
 See RIA Novosti coverage for details: http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20100707/159728960.html, http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20101217/161822334.html, http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20101208/161688482.html, http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20120421/172947683.html, http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20120710/174532018.html, (all accessed 16 July 2012).
 See Gorenburg (2008), ‘The Russian Black Sea Fleet after the Georgia War’, pp. 1-3, available at http://russiamil.wordpress.com/publications/ (accessed 16 July 2012).
 Ibid, p. 4
 It must be noted that Russo-Turkish relations have improved over recent years. Russian policy towards Turkey appears twofold. Economic cooperation is designed to reward Turkey for good behaviour while increasing military capacity and developing influence along Turkish borders demonstrates the capacity to punish Turkey for bad behaviour. It must also be noted that is not passive. It has its own
 RIA Novosti, ‘Russian Navy to base warships at Syrian port after 2012, 2 August 2010, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/russia/2010/russia-100802-rianovosti02.htm (accessed 16 July 2012); see also IISS The Military Balance 2009, p. 207.
 Boston Herald Editorial Staff, ‘Russia’s Syrian gambit’, http://www.bostonherald.com/news/opinion/editorials/view/20220714russias_syrian_gambit/, (accessed 16 July 2012).
 Steve Gutterman, ‘Russia out to maintain clout, improve image on Syria’, 21 March 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/21/syria-russia-assad-idUSL6E8EL5WQ20120321 (accessed 16 July 2012).
 Vladimir Putin, ‘Being Strong’, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/21/being_strong (accessed 16 July 2012).