There are differing opinions about the exact nature of the reported deployment of Russian troops to Syria. Some of the reporting appears to be circular, and Business Insider has picked apart the original language of a RIA Novosti report in Russian to conclude that the “Russian troops” amount to no more than an anti-terrorism security detachment for the Russian fleet tanker RFS Iman (a Black Sea-based ship deployed for support to Russia’s Horn of Africa antipiracy task force).
It’s hard to say: Iman by herself couldn’t transport very many troops into Syria (a detachment of infantry, maybe, if they were really miserable, sleeping on deck and in passageways, during the few days’ transit), but Iman is an unlikely platform for transporting Russian troops anyway. If Russia puts a substantial number of troops in Syria, it’s likely to be done via airlift.
And that said, I don’t necessarily expect Russia to put big troop formations in Syria. Russia doesn’t want to fight the Syrian civil war directly. Arming Assad and letting his troops do the work is preferable. In the past week, Assad’s army has ejected the rebel forces from Idlib in the north, and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour; Moscow probably is not alarmed that the Syrian army can’t handle the job.
Protecting Russian installations in Tartus, the Russian-operated port, is a priority – and so is reinforcing the impression that Russia is ready to defend Syria against a Western coalition. Seen in that light, the most likely purposes of newly-arriving Russian military detachments, other than protecting Tartus, are intelligence and air defense. And except for man-portable systems, much of their equipment would have to be transported separately anyway.
More troop movements in the Caucasus
But there is another report that the Russians have moved a huge number of troops in the last week. According to media in the Caucasus, they moved between 20,000 and 25,000 troops from Chechnya to Dagestan (both autonomous republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States), reportedly for “anti-terrorism” operations. (This movement comes in the wake of special forces deployments to the central Caucasus reported in January.)
That’s one heck of a lot of troops for anti-terrorism operations. There is no question that Dagestan has seen a spate of assassinations and bombings in the last few months, but 20-25,000 troops represent nearly half of the total Russian forces stationed in Chechnya. (Recent comments on the troop footprint in Chechnya put it at about 60,000; see the Jamestown Foundation article from this past week on the Dagestan deployment.) The 20-25,000 is a very large number, particularly for anti-terrorism as opposed to conventional operations.
Even if the actual number is not that big, eyewitness reports suggest a very large movement of troops and equipment. The “Rosbalt” website – used often by analysts at the Jamestown Foundation – cites statements from eyewitnesses in Dagestan that the military formation on the move was over 10 kilometers long and comprised 150-200 “units,” presumably troop transport vehicles. (Commercial satellite imagery of the Russian base at Khankala suggests that this number of vehicles represents most of those present on the parking aprons.) According to the Dagestani reporting, Russian forces rolled into campgrounds in the Karabudahkent District south of the capital of Makachkala, which sits on the Caspian coast. Statements from locals also suggest that the Russian troops will be quartered in school buildings. Reports like this confirm that this is not a small-footprint deployment.
A look at geography yields some interesting revelations about the deployment. There are two significant perspectives. One is general: Dagestan lies on the west coast of the Caspian Sea; on Georgia’s eastern border; and on Azerbaijan’s northern border.
The other is specific: most of the terrorist incidents in Dagestan over the past several months have occurred between Makhachkala and Chechnya, or across the central “waist” of Dagestan. As seen on the district map, however, the Russian troops have not deployed to that area, but past it, to a southeast position in the coastal district of Karabudahkent, and in the district immediately south of it, Sergokala.
The forests of Karabudahkent have been a perennial hiding place for Islamist terrorists, and some Dagestani hunters were found assassinated there in March. A homicide bomber also attacked a post office in Karabudahkent on 6 March. But these are the most recent in a long list of incidents, most of which have occurred to the northwest of the deployment area. The size of the Russian deployment, and its geographic objective, appear to be tailored for more than this one, most recent security problem.
Russia is concerned, for example, about all three of the general geographic factors. Moving the troops from Chechnya to the coast puts them in a different position in relation to Georgia, and it’s not clear that the new position is less favorable than being in garrison in Khankala. (In fact, it gives the Russians a second vector into Georgia with a large formation – an option they had maintained for a long time until late in 2011; see below.) Russian troops are closer to Georgia in Chechnya, but some passages may be easier from Dagestan. Vladimir Putin, in particular, has been assiduous about improving the road approaches to Georgia in Dagestan.
In 2008, at the end of his last term, Putin inaugurated road construction from Botlikh, Dagestan (see map), where Russia maintained a mountain infantry brigade, to the Georgian border (this in spite of the fact that Putin had ordered the border crossings between Dagestan and Georgia closed in 2006). The Russians removed the infantry brigade from Botlikh in 2011. Besides the new troop deployment to Dagestan, however, 2012 has also seen a new allocation of funds for road construction. There are already roads in Dagestan to the Georgian border; Putin-ordered maintenance on the Dagestani side, coupled with a massive troop deployment, cannot give Georgia a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Russian analysts suggest that concerns about Azerbaijan may be prompting the deployment as well. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan represent roadblocks to Russian freedom of action on the southern flank – the paths to Syria and Iran – and both lie between Russia and Armenia, where Moscow maintains a military base with 5,000 troops, a tank unit, and a squadron of MiG-29s. The military path through Azerbaijan is well laid and ready, with a major highway, Route 29, running from Dagestan into Azerbaijan near the coast.
The Russians also have a military radar facility in Azerbaijan, and the lease is about to expire. Russian media claim that Baku is demanding $300 million annually to renew the lease, far in excess of the current amount (which is variously reflected as $7 million and $22 million). Azerbaijani media seem to have offered no specific counter-claims, and may simply not know what negotiating figure is correct.
At any rate, the US has a military cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan, as does Israel. The last two scheduled joint exercises involving the US and Azerbaijan have been cancelled by Baku, largely due to unease about Russia’s reaction, but the US has provided minor military hardware to Azerbaijan, and a few days ago Azerbaijan and NATO concluded an agreement to demine a large, Soviet-era military training facility, an activity that will bring NATO personnel into the country.
I don’t think any of Azerbaijan, Georgia, or the Caspian Sea – the most obvious geographic feature toward which the troops have been moved – is by itself the chief concern in Moscow. Rather, the potential convergence of events in Central Asia has prompted the Russians to reevaluate their preparedness and the position of a major troop formation.
Shifting factors, shifting posture in Central Asia
Iran is the not the only factor in this thinking, but she may be at the top of the list. A Monday editorial in The Moscow Times summarizes nicely the Russian perspective that Israel and the US are colluding to establish positions in the Caucasus and Central Asia from which to attack Iran. The editorialist says this:
Stratfor wrote in a recent report: “It is difficult to believe that the United States and Israel are not coordinating their activities in the Caucasus. … It can be assumed that the United States has approved the initiatives.” …
Directly or indirectly, Russia and the United States have been bumping up against each other in the Caucasus region where Russia is resurgent.
The most recent “bump” would undoubtedly be exercise Agile Spirit, conducted in March by a detachment of 350 US Marines and the Georgian armed forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the exercise “provocative.” Russia and Iran are also annoyed that the NATO missile defense radar in Turkey has become operational (Iran has been especially assiduous in recording objections to the radar site; e.g., here and here).
Moreover, an interesting emphasis in US military aid to the nations surrounding the Caspian Sea has caught Russian attention. In the 875-page State Department document heralding the proposal, few American readers were likely to run across the naval assistance to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. But regional analysts were paying attention, and highlighting the “concerted [US] effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.”
I wouldn’t be surprised to hear American reactions along the lines of, “What are we doing that for?” I suspect one of the reasons is simply that naval assistance is one of the main things the Caspian nations are requesting. Another is the interest of our European NATO allies in bringing to fruition a trans-Caspian pipeline opposed by Russia and Iran. With no declaration of strategic interest or specific US policy to frame these actions, however, they can look like sneaking US hardware into Russia’s back yard. Why would we take this particular approach to Caspian Sea security?
There is an aspect to this of US interests being effectively declared for us by the priorities of our regional partners. We care very much about the stability of Asia, the security of our Asian and European allies, the resistance of Asia to Islamist terrorism, and about the openness there to political liberalization, trade, and communication – but none of these interests requires building up navies in the Caspian Sea.
In any case, Russia is definitely concerned: the Russian armed forces have deployed their newest coastal missile system to the Caspian Sea, among other upgrades (see here, here, here, and here). I wrote in January about a military exercise conducted by the Russian Federation’s Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the Caspian Sea in 2011, in which the “threat” was a Western consortium.
The 2012 CSTO exercise will be conducted for the first time in Armenia (in September). The all-purpose “anti-terrorism” pretext is cited for holding the exercise there, but it is more likely that Russia’s concern is simply to have the troops there. Visible demonstration of the troops’ activities will be another purpose, but declaring the exercise will justify deployments that could start whenever Moscow deems it necessary – and that, I think, is the principal consideration.
What will Russia do?
It’s a good question. In both Syria and the Caucasus/Central Asia, I assess that Moscow’s immediate purpose is to consolidate territory and deter Western initiative (“Western” including Israel v. Iran). I don’t think the Russians want to fight, and it’s not clear whether or how they would fight if it came to that. I believe the position they envision falling back to, if Western nations launch attacks on either Syria or Iran, entails remaining able to supply their clients so that Syrians or Iranians could keep the fight going. Moscow must also be concerned about stabilizing the Caucasus in the event of an attack on Iran, which is likely to serve as a goad to Islamist terrorism in the region.
(In the case of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, Russian air forces deployed to the Caucasus could conceivably attempt to warn off Israeli strike aircraft operating in northern Iran.)
Meanwhile, affecting Western calculations with the threat of military power increases Putin’s stature for leading a “peacekeeping” coalition – that is, an effort to avert or transition from outright conflict to negotiations of some kind, with an international protection force effectively under Russia’s aegis. Seizing the reins of the foreign intervention in Libya was beyond Russia’s power last year, but with respect to the Syria problem, Russia has not only put together a joint posture with the Arab League but has backed Kofi Annan’s “UN” solution, and continues to block and shape Western multinational proposals.
Under these conditions, NATO reliance on Russia for logistic support to Afghanistan is an increasing vulnerability. Russia naturally wants to retain her bargaining chip in this regard, but we need only look a few months back to find the last Russian threat to close down the “Northern Distribution Network,” as the logistic pipeline through Russia is called. And with Russian troops redeployed pointedly around the Caucasus, independent NATO partners like Azerbaijan and Georgia will be less inclined to anger Moscow by offering us an alternative.
None of these problems is insurmountable, but they can only be addressed to our advantage from the perspective of a clear focus on US interests and a vigorously prosecuted strategy. “Leading from behind” – merely lending our support to the plans of others, as in Libya – will serve to increase our troubles.
Note on maps: Both maps are from the presentation “Land, Votes, and Violence: Political Effects on the Insecurity of Property Rights over Land in Dagestan,” by Yegor Lazarov.