Moscow sends warships to Syria: war games or evacuation?

Almost half the ships in a Russian flotilla headed to Syria are well suited for transporting large numbers of people. As many as 100,000 Russians may live in Syria.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
A Turkish Navy cost guard boat (l.) escorts the Russian Navy destroyer Smetlivy in the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, July 11.

A Russian flotilla of a dozen warships, drawn from three naval fleets, is headed for the eastern Mediterranean to hold maneuvers, and will put into the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia operates a naval supply base.

Russian officials insist these war games were scheduled long ago, and that they are designed for all the usual purposes of such exercises, primarily showing the flag in far-flung regions of the globe. But one striking detail tells a very different story: almost half the ships headed for the Mediterranean from Russia's Arctic, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets are giant amphibious assault craft.

That's a type of vessel that's good for transporting large numbers of people (and tanks), and getting them in and out of tight places. Experts say this is pretty conclusive evidence that the Kremlin is actively preparing for the grim but probably imminent necessity to evacuate tens of thousands of Russian citizens and their dependents from Syria as the regime of strongman Bashar al-Assad collapses.

"I am quite sure that Russia is thinking about how to handle the possibility that tens of thousands of our own citizens, and perhaps others, may have to be extracted from a dangerous and volatile situation in Syria," says Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Economic University in Moscow and a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"This was a scheduled exercise, and it has the purpose of demonstrating Russia's support for Assad and its important role in the region, but probably the mix of ships in the flotilla has been changed to reflect a potentially more practical purpose," he adds.

Syria has been a political and military partner of Moscow since 1971, and Russia has stubbornly refused to acquiesce to any international action that would license military intervention or tough sanctions against the regime of Mr. Assad.

Shift in tone?

But in recent weeks, Moscow, perhaps sensing the inevitable demise of Assad, has begun to shift its ground. This week, Russia announced that it will cancel new arms contracts with Syria.

On Tuesday, Russia hosted a delegation from the Syrian National Council, the main exiled Syrian opposition group, as part of its efforts to look more flexible.

"There is a certain transformation in the Russian position, which you can see from the more active diplomatic stance that's being taken," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "Russia is eager to diversify its options."

Russian media report that the antisubmarine frigate Admiral Chabanenko, plus three huge assault craft -- the Alexander Otrakovsky, Georgy Pobedonosets, and Kondopoga -- are on their way with a supply ship and a tug from the Navy's northern fleet base near Murmansk. They are set to rendezvous with a corvette and a tanker of the Baltic fleet, based in Kaliningrad. They will be joined in the eastern Mediterranean by five ships from the Black Sea fleet, including the destroyer Smetlivy, two amphibious assault ships – named in some reports as the Caesar Kunikov  and the Nikolai Filchenkov  – and two smaller vessels.

Estimates of the number of Russians in Syria range up to 100,000, though no one seems to have a clear figure. Part of the reason for that is that thousands of Russian women have married Syrians over the past 40 years – since Syria became a key client state of the USSR, and huge numbers of (mostly male) Syrian students started flowing into Soviet universities.

"Nobody knows for sure, but 30,000 to 40,000 is a good guess, mostly Russian women, wives of Syrian students, who moved there over past decades," says Georgi Mirsky, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Then there are children, other dependents. There are smaller numbers of Russian officials and their families," plus employees of Russian companies that are active in Syria.

Mr. Markov says Russia may have to take responsibility for citizens of other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and also up to 30,000 Circassians    -- Caucasian people who fled Russia in the 19th century but some of whom have reportedly petitioned the Russian government for repatriation.

Experts say that Russia took careful note when China successfully evacuated more than 30,000 of its own citizens from war-torn Libya last year, using landing craft of the Chinese Navy to accomplish part of the task.

"Everyone was very impressed by the Chinese operation; it set down a kind of a marker," says Mr. Lukyanov. "It means that we can't do less than that, should the need arise."

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