How many old, belching Russian destroyers does it take to establish an international veto in Syria?

Crouching bear, sleeping eagle.

One, if the US is weak and undisciplined.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  The Bosphorus Naval News blog, an excellent source for ground-truth naval information in the Bosporus and Black Sea, has photos of the Russian Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivy transiting the Turkish Straits on 2 April, on her way to Syria.  “As you can see,” says blogger Cem Devrim Yaylalı demurely, “she was smoking heavily.”

According to Russian officials quoted in an AFP report on the deployment, the visit to Syria is a “purely technical port call.”  I actually like that characterization, a lot, and I think we should use it ourselves.  If Israel attacks the Iranian nuclear facilities, we can point out that the event is a purely technical combined-force operation, so everyone should just cool his jets.


Kashin DDG-810 Smetlivy in the Bosporus on 2 April; photo


The counterpoint with the current deployment of USS Enterprise (CVN-65) could hardly be starker.  As the Bosphorus Naval News piece observes, Smetlivy was commissioned in 1969.  Enterprise was commissioned in 1961.  This is her last deployment (a sad occasion indeed for Cold War sailors).  She is on the way from Norfolk to the Persian Gulf, but stopped in Greece last week for a port visit before heading for the Suez Canal.  A news photo of Enterprise at anchor off the Greek coast captures her size and capabilities.

All Hands on Deck! has excellent footage of the Enterprise Strike Group forming up for a photo op during its transit from the East coast in March.  The strike group includes an Aegis cruiser, USS Vicksburg (CG-69) and three Aegis destroyers, USS Nitze (DDG-94), USS Porter (DDG-78), and USS James E. Williams (DDG-95).  Enterprise spends a lot of time anchoring naval formations, as seen in this video from the Mediterranean in late March with warships from NATO allies Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain.


USS Enterprise at anchor off Piraeus in March 2012; AP/Getty photo


 — [Bonus material for navy junkies starts here] —

There’s video of flight ops on Enterprise here (and I can never get enough of the whole business, but if you’d prefer to get to the Rhino-catapult money shot faster, see here).  The average age of the kids who man the flight deck is typically 20, BTW.  (Same for USS Vicksburg, casually recovering a helicopter.)  Enterprise has three Navy strike-fighter squadrons – the VFA 11 Red Rippers, VFA 136 Knighthawks, and VFA 211 Fighting Checkmates – as well as a Marine Corps strike-fighter squadron, the VMFA 251 Thunderbolts.  Her combat support aircraft are the E-2C Hawkeye airborne control and early warning aircraft of VAW 123 (the Screwtops); the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft of VAQ 137 (the Rooks); the C-2 carrier delivery aircraft of VRC 40 (the Rawhides); and the SH-60 Seahawk helicopters of HS 11 (the Dragonslayers).  Traps and cats from the airwing fly-on in March here; see the E-2C unfold her majestic wings and the C-2 wallow like a hog on the three-wire.

The Aegis ships are equipped with the Tomahawk cruise missile, the SM-3 anti-air/anti-ballistic missile, the Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile, the Sea Sparrow anti-ship missile, and the 20mm Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS) – along, of course, with their 5-inch naval guns.  Enterprise also has the RIM-116 rolling airframe missile (RAM) for close-in defense.  (Watch the video for the soundtrack as much as for the RAM shots.)

What we see with the videos is that the US Navy ships do emit smoke when firing weapons (or, in Enterprise’s case, launching aircraft from the catapults).

— [End of bonus material] —

It’s only fair to note that Russia has an intelligence collection ship operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has been keeping one on station.  The Black Sea Fleet ship Kildin took up the patrol in March, relieving the intelligence collection ship Ekvator (which, yes, means “equator”).  So that makes at least two Russian navy ships in the Med at the moment.

It is equally fair to note that while the Enterprise Strike Group is just passing through, USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) and USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) are deployed to the Med separately, for ballistic missile defense patrols.  They are currently participating in joint exercise Noble Dina with the navies of Israel and Greece.  (See Elder of Ziyon’s takedown of the carefully edited Hezbollah – Al Manar – reporting on Noble Dina.)

Capability versus will

Why is it so important to go over these naval details?  To emphasize that merely showing up and tooling around in force doesn’t get the job done politically.  The US Navy has so much more force than Russia has in the Med right now that the comparison could be considered surreal.  But that force isn’t making a difference to developments in the Syria problem, because it is not being used in the service of any focused policy to settle the Syrian conflict favorably.  NATO has an overwhelming preponderance of force in the Med, but it is Russia that wields the effective veto over what the international community is going to do about Syria.

Situation to shift in Syria

The result is that the bloody crisis in Syria drags on.  The events of the last 48 hours suggest that the situation in Syria is going to change, but probably for the worse.  The second “Friends of Syria” meeting was just held in Istanbul, and the Friends (including the US) decided to support the Syrian opposition with, at a minimum, humanitarian aid and communications equipment.  (Arms will be forthcoming from some sources, as discussed below.)  The plan is basically to bureaucratize the Syrian civil war; as the BBC notes, the rebel fighters are to be paid salaries from the monetary aid provided by the Gulf nations in the Friends of Syria conclave.

But if Russian media are to be believed, that isn’t stopping the rebels from visiting Russia, perhaps to see if they can get a better deal.  That is by no means unlikely: Russia could be satisfied to resolve the Syria situation by installing a new client regime.

The rebels are also reported to have expelled 50,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians from the embattled city of Homs, forcing many to flee and slaughtering an untold number of others.  US congressmen have expressed grave concern over supporting the rebels given these and other reports (e.g., that Al Qaeda I represented in the rebel ranks).  But however Orthodox Russia may be, Putin is a pragmatist.

The question will be what he does as a long, drawn-out civil war unfolds.  Press reports have indicated that the Syrian rebels are pulling out of the cities, having determined that trying to hold them is a flawed and vulnerable strategy (which it is).  The UK Telegraph cites their intentions as a shift to guerrilla war.  If they can retain outside support, they can keep the fight going for a long time.

Bear that in mind as you see reports that the Assad regime has agreed to pull troops and heavy weapons out of the cities.  The cost of doing that is not nearly what it would be if the rebels weren’t pulling out and changing their strategy.  Assad will, of course, do what he can to prevent aid from getting to the rebels – and that’s where the strongest likelihood lies that his forces will come into conflict with foreign militaries.  He has already mined areas of the border with Lebanon and Turkey.  Reports that arms are flowing to the rebels via Iraq are probably prompting the regime to fortify that border to some extent as well (although Assad’s forces are overstretched around the country).

Iraq’s political leadership warns that arming the rebels is a bad idea and could provoke a wider regional war.  So does Egypt.  Much of the Arab League has preferred to look for a negotiated solution, rather than arming the rebels as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are eager to do.  Of course, Iraq and Egypt aren’t wearing white hats any more than anyone else is; they have their own, understandable – if not necessarily noble – interests in influencing the outcome in Syria.  Saudi leadership in arming the rebels works to their disadvantage.

Sadly, US media coverage of Syria tends to be disjointed on the one hand, and credulous on the other.  The Friends of Syria decision to inundate the rebels with cash – and arms, from some of the Friends – is mainly a portent of continued killing, and very possibly one of regional destabilization.  It’s not good news.  Russia will oppose it by funneling arms to Assad and seeking her own accord with the rebels, probably by trying to divide and bribe them.  Everyone else – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, regional jihadists – will continue to pursue a leadership role in remaking Syria.  Assad and the rebels will make no concessions that matter.  And China and Iran will continue to collude to evade sanctions on both Syria and Iran.

What Russia has that NATO doesn’t

The prospects for the conflict are framed – bounded – for all the actors in the drama by the Russian veto.  That current condition is to be contrasted with the situation only last year, in which developments in the Libya conflict were bounded by what the US was willing to do.  Geography does make a difference; the situations are not identical, but it is fair to say that the shift from 2011 to 2012 is a major one.  For the first time since 1945, the US has not been the principal limit-setter for the unfolding of a significant regional crisis.

Quite obviously, this is not because we lack power.  But unlike anything the West has done, Russia’s policy has been effective: for averting what she doesn’t want, if not for getting what she does.  The reason is not that she has greater military power – or more allies, or more friendship or credibility in the region.  She does have something important, however.  The remarkable contrast between her naval forces in the Eastern Med and ours is a study in an indisputable truth: the greatest military force on earth has no political force without a focused will behind it.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

35 thoughts on “How many old, belching Russian destroyers does it take to establish an international veto in Syria?”

  1. “an indisputable truth: the greatest military force on earth has no political force without a focused will behind it.”

    The Obama administrations lack of a “focused will” is intentional!

    Obama and his advisers are transnationalists, who therefore reject not only the concept of the US as a super power ‘setting limits’ internationally but reject our national sovereignty to engage in unilateral action, excepting the most direct action necessary to immediate national defense. Obama and his advisers, accept the popular European transnationalist theory that it is nationhood itself that is responsible for wars. The theory’s fatal factual flaw that, representative democracies do not start wars… is an inconvenient truth that adherents simply ignore.

    Obama and his administration embrace the transnationalist European Union model of consensus building (with the caveat that some nations are more equal than others) a union and governance of unelected bureaucrats who reflect the opinion of the liberal, left elite is the ideal sought.

    Once this is understood, the context of Obama’s foreign policies emerges and his actions and lack of focus begin to make sense, from Syria to Lebanon to Obama’s planned unilateral reduction in US nuclear missile capacity, to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support for a UN arms control resolution to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s embracing of Judicial precedents handed down by the International Court, a pattern of behavior emerges which is consistent with the goal of reducing US sovereignty and moving the US further in the direction of supporting the UN evolving into a European Union model with the legal power to enforce its pronouncements.

  2. There’s something of a parallel here with Southeast Asia of 50+ years ago. Only instead of the corrupt regime of Diem being undermined by the Bhuddists and Commies we have establishment tyrant Assad assailed by Al Queda and who knows what other Arab opportunists. Rather than back the established figures and stability, as we did in South Viet Nam, we’ve decided to go with the new guys, having learned our geopolitical lesson from Robert S. McNamara. The smart money is being put down on change, not inertia.

    That’s OK, but what are our superior naval capabilities supposed to do, blow up a bunch of stuff? We could do the same things we did in Iraq, or even Libya, but then what? Everybody on the planet knows that the shelf life of the intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan has passed. What was the real gain? Do we seriously believe that Iraq has become some kind of an island of constitutional democracy in the Arab political sea? The Afghans are just waiting for us abandon disruptive operations there but continue to maintain garrisons, ala Germany & Japan, that they can milk for every possible penny. Economically, these imperial adventures have created a mercenary class that’s now employed, with their weapons, as law enforcement on America’s streets. Oil prices are reaching new highs but Saddam and Osama are both positively dead so everything is just fine.

    1. What would you suggest would be a better policy and use of our position within the community of nations?

    2. “what are our superior naval capabilities supposed to do, blow up a bunch of stuff?”

      That’s a rhetorical question implying that the only concept I might be referring to is the use of naval force.

      Don’t let the Obama record deceive you that sitting around doing nothing, until the only option is to bomb a dictator’s air defenses, is a model of how to manage national security issues. We are where we are, but we didn’t have to be here. Everything that has happened since January 2009 could have been handled differently — and would have been by other presidents. There is nothing typical or ordinary about the Obama approach to international policy.

      We had the power to make Russia back down six months ago, if we had acknowledged Russia’s concerns about Syria and made her part of a solution designed to prevent an Islamist takeover. Part of that power was (and is) our overwhelming advantage in military force.

      I want to emphasize this point: if the US vigorously prosecuted a clear plan for Syria — not a bombing plan, but a plan focused on brokering a peaceful transfer of political power — we would not have to embroil ourselves in a civil war. Civil war is the result of no participant — Assad, the rebels, the jihadists, Russia, Iran — being in a position to end the conflict. A few months ago, we were the one power on earth that could have made it more appealing for most of the combatants to end the conflict than to keep it going — not by putting US troops on the ground or bombing missile sites, but by incentivizing the disputants to go with our plan.

      That would have taken a combination of credible threats and positive incentives, and some level of involvement in keeping the Iranians and Hezbollah out and ensuring the security of an emerging consensual government. We would not have had to do all the work, however, if we had spearheaded a plan. The point of spearheading it is to have the major say in who does what to advance it — and to have a veto over the “good ideas” of likely participants such as Turkey, Russia, and members of the Arab League.

      I wouldn’t trust the Arab League any further than I could throw them to wield armed force for their own purposes inside Syria. Same goes for Turkey and Russia. But a brokered solution involving these entities under US supervision would be quite feasible. With another administration in Washington, at any rate.

      The aspiring great powers of the region aren’t anxious to have everything fall apart until they have positioned themselves to exploit that development. We have that going for us. Inertia and the natural desire of almost everyone to keep his current security conditions in force may see us through to another presidency here at home. Meanwhile, the colossal might of the Enterprise Strike Group is a reminder of the disconnect between the geopolitical power level at which we could be operating, and the weird, verbose, whining passivity that characterize our actual posture today.

      1. Syria is of far less importance to us than is Iran…. We’re not going to go full out with Russia over the smaller problem for us and expend our resources here rather than on Iran.

        We can work around Russia to reshape Syria.

  3. sad nonsense.. the Russians had their veto in the UN. their ship isn’t stopping us from doing anything…….any more than our troops along the DMZ in Korea prevents the Norks from invading.

    1. First, J.E. isn’t suggesting that the Russian’s ship is preventing the US from doing anything, so that’s a ‘red herring’. Shame on you.

      And our troops on the Korean DMZ certainly are doing something as they have since their formation. They act as a ‘trip wire’ that assures the N. Koreans that if they should invade S. Korea, they would be committing an act of war against the US…which is entirely another matter than invading the South. More than any other factor, it’s that implicit condition which has kept the North on their side of the border.

      1. Geoffrey, the opticon sarcastic title not register with you?

        this is just one more bit of fooling around about serious things.

        At least the pictures aren’t as lame as the suggestion that there is a wise and easy military solution to the mess in Syria or a position that should be laid out in public.

        1. I don’t find that the sarcasm of the title apropos to the rebuttal you attempt, fuster. And then you compound to offense by doing it again! The assertion that JE has ever even insinuated, much less stated that, “a wise and easy military solution to the mess in Syria” is available is another red herring and a canard as well. You appear to be reduced to ad hominem attacks, an implicit admission of an inability to substantively respond.

          J.E.’s entire criticism of the Obama administration is, I believe centered on the assessment that American leadership on the political level is entirely lacking. And that failure by the administration to lead reveals an appalling ignorance in foreign affairs, which impels the conclusion that this administration is singularly incompetent.

          That’s a fair assessment, though one with which I disagree. I conclude that the truth of the matter is more mendacious than mere incompetence but rather, one of intentional policies designed to further an agenda with which the great majority of Americans would adamantly disagree, had the administration the honesty to forthrightly put forth. The fact that they don’t and have resorted to subterfuge is a clear indication of dishonesty (rendering them unfit for office) and an implicit admission of their knowledge of certain failure were they to publicly state their motivations and goals.

          1. Geoffrey, I believe that the criticism goes far deeper and often takes the form of deploring the administrations actions as incorrect and more without the critic’s publicly voicing a better alternative.

            1. fuster,

              An assessment that, ” American leadership on the political level is entirely lacking. And that failure by the administration to lead reveals an appalling ignorance in foreign affairs, which impels the conclusion that this administration is singularly incompetent.” is “deploring the administrations actions as incorrect”…
              How could such an assessment be otherwise?

              As for criticism publicly voiced without offering a better alternative…

              “I want to emphasize this point: if the US vigorously prosecuted a clear plan for Syria — not a bombing plan, but a plan focused on brokering a peaceful transfer of political power — we would not have to embroil ourselves in a civil war. Civil war is the result of no participant — Assad, the rebels, the jihadists, Russia, Iran — being in a position to end the conflict. A few months ago, we were the one power on earth that could have made it more appealing for most of the combatants to end the conflict than to keep it going — not by putting US troops on the ground or bombing missile sites, but by incentivizing the disputants to go with our plan.”

              That is offering another alternative.

              It’s appropriate to ask for greater detail as verification that the plan offered is a workable alternative but disingenuous to claim that not offering a complete detailed plan is tantamount to not offering anything as an alternative.

              And, even when unable to offer an alternative, that alone doesn’t negate the validity of an assessment that concludes that a policy isn’t working.

      2. You probably shouldn’t have brought up North Korea. As I recall, you can even now take a tour there of what once was a US Navy ship and who’s crew spent some time in the country and, as one of the members later said, couldn’t believe that they weren’t hearing atomic weapons exploding.

        1. Yeah, the Pueblo incident was an embarrassment but comparing it to N.K.attacking US forces in a massive invasion of the South is comparing fleas to elephants. They’re both animals…but the difference is that between an ‘international incident’, a political embarrassment and outright war, even very possibly, nuclear war.

          1. GB and Chuck… remember you are trying to teach Fuster about real foreign policy, and the critical backing military power gives diplomacy. You are informative and have great points… all of which is wasted on the rubber frog.

            “There is no such thing as successful negotiation if the other guy isn’t isn’t scared sh!tless that you’ll kick his ass if he won’t play nice.” – My old man the Army LTC, combat veteran/airman, and graduate of that same august post graduate military school as JE (much earlier I might add) US Army Command and General Staff College.

            “Speak softy, but carry a big stick.” – Theodore Roosevelt

            “Speak loudly and a lot.. say nothing much, and pee in the guys hand who tries to pick you up.” – Fuster from the heart of the self-important craphole known as New York City. (Upstate they always dropped the C.. and added a Sh… no one much cared about needing the extra T… the point was made)
            -Oh and the last time that I checked, the “Apple in decay” (h/t Foreigner) is still number 1 on the Mad Mullah Atomic Hit Parade.

            Obummer is weak. He is projecting weakness all the while he is also over stressing, and under equipping our military. Disaster is just around the corner.


  4. I note that every Republican administration since 1945 has done absolutely nothing to interfere with Russian hegemony in Syria, its supply of armaments to the Syrians, or its use of Syrian bases.
    It miight just have come to your notice that the Russians are in Syria because the regime invited them in. Just the same as lots of other regimes (including some unpleasant ones like the Saudis) have invited us in. Perhaps the Russians are being weak in the face of our steadfastness in not invading Saudi Arabia.

    I think mikefoxtrot has been rather too charitable when he uses the words “sad nonsense” to describe this latest (prolix)instalment of rambling pseudo-analysis.

    1. Knee jerk support for the administrations ‘lead from behind’ foreign policy is hardly a considered evaluation of the situation in Syria.

      Honest, knowledgeable disagreement with J.E.’s logically consistent, coherent evaluation and conclusions is one thing but to disparage it as “rambling pseudo-analysis” reflects badly upon you, by revealing an agenda motivated response, dishonestly rendered.

      1. We all have our agendas. Some of us – Dyer being a prime example – have little else.

        Dyer is neither logical, consistent, or, let’s say it, intellectually honest.

        She mightn’t be very bright, but even she knows that Syria has been a Soviet/Russian client since the 1950’s. She also knows that the Russian navy and Russian military advisors have been a presence in Syria under Democratic and Republican administrations. Even a former low-level operative like her is well aware that the Russians have been invited into the country by the de-jure and de facto government of Syria. Finally, the Russians have exercised their UN veto against UN intervention in Syria. In the converse, where we have a similar clientist relationship (as we have with several toxic outfits in the region) the Russians don’t intervene. These are the long standing unwritten rules the Ruskies and ourselves have lived by under Dems and Republicans, Commies and Putinistas.

        Yet, Dyer, true to form, manages to consume acres of print in a rambling discourse without alluding to these rather basic facts. But of course, these facts give lie to her central thesis that all evil stems from Obama. And you call her logical, consistent, and (most laughably) “coherent”? Get a grip, man.

  5. Again just some thoughts, analysis takes too long. And this is commentary in a blog, hardly the proper forum.

    To answer the Title question, none. I think we should be more concerned about Russian troop deployments in the Caucasus,. Just in case the comprehensive regional deal agreed to falls through for some unexpected reason. (Like a rouge attack by some minor regional player, that was specifically told to stand down). It’s much smarter for Russia to find a pretext to retaliate there (Caucasus), than to be dragged into a losing cause in Syria. They will find a way to maintain some influence in an Alawite or Christian breakaway state anyway. We can throw in our lot with the Sunni fanatics and Al-Qaeda, God bless us. I don’t know whether to laugh of bang my head against the wall realizing that that, is exactly what we have done. Besides the Iranian have more a stake in Syria than Russia does regardless of Russian profits from the Arms trade.

    Historically the Russian Army has played a much more decisive role than the Navy, especially in their backyard, Eurasia.

  6. Russian submarine patrolling waters south of Crete identified as the Kilo class B-871 “Alrosa”, commissioned 1990, in case anyone is interested.

    1. Anyone is. Thanks, jgets. If I can’t find a link on that, maybe you have one.

      1. After taking part in NATO’s submarine rescue exercise Bold Monarc in June 2011, Alrosa sailed to the Baltic to be refitted. Has her overhaul finished?

        1. As I’ve posted previously about the source site, I cannot personally vouch for its accuracy. Nor do I have the means to verify independently. To make such an error in identifying the vessel would be incredibly unprofessional. If I unknowingly posted erroneous information my apologies. Maybe you should contact them directly to verify and let us know.

  7. Your welcome and again, my pleasure. If this keeps up, I’m gonna start asking the boys over at the site (same as Drones over Syria story) for a commission.:)

  8. Devrim Yaylalı — welcome, very glad to see you here. You have an excellent blog with a lot of good information. You have a good question about the submarine sighting mentioned by jgets. I haven’t been able to find any reports that B-871 Alrosa has left the Baltic. A Polish blogger had noted her arrival last year.

    In February, the Black Sea Fleet commander projected Alrosa’s return to the fleet in 2016:

    That sounds likely, given the time it usually takes for repairs in the Russian shipyards.

    The latest satellite imagery I can find online is from 2010, so that’s no help.

    I would need to know more about the situation of the submarine that was sighted to comment further. It’s not impossible for a Kilo-class submarine to be in the Eastern Med (Algeria has operational Kilos), but it’s unlikely. The Algerian navy numbering system is different too; the Algerian sub numbers are in the teens: e.g., 012, 013.

    On the other hand, if the sail number was correct (871), it’s hard to say what the submarine might be. I would hope the source can tell the difference in submarine types, but in any case, I don’t know of another navy besides Russia’s that has a submarine numbered 871 that would be operating in EASTMED.

    1. I could not have known of issues between you and the source Devrim. But I’ll tell you this. It will be a priority of mine to contact them tomorrow myself and let you all in on what their response to the “Phantom Sub” or “Alrosa” is. I certainly don’t appreciate unwittingly being put in the position of spreading rumors.
      Regardless of your grudge, I have to give them the opportunity to verify their article. We will see if/how they respond.

  9. Assad muddying the regional waters?
    Attempted assassination of anti-Syrian Maronite political leader Samir Geagea in Lebanon. Source

    Contacted on submarine sighting this morning as promised, awaiting their news department’s reply.

  10. Got a response from In their defense I’d like to state that previous info I’ve garnered from them has been timely and accurate, occasional hyperbole aside.
    Their report was based on an Israeli source. On closer examination they agree that it could not have been the “Almora”. It happens to the best of us. I’ll exercise more caution in the future.
    One silver lining, They’ll be reading the optimisticconservative on a regular basis from now on 🙂

    1. Thanks very much for following up on that, jgets. Sounds like we can stand down from GQ on Alrosa.

      1. Acknowledged.
        All this does leave some intriguing thoughts though. Why are all recent Greek and Israeli reports of Russian submarine activity in the EASTMED false? Why are the parties involved in “Noble Dina” uncharacteristically silent? Why is “Anatolian Eagle” being held with the involvement of Turkish naval units (essentially a counter exercise to “Noble Dina) in the EASTMED (a first). While at the same time Turkey is the conduit for the administration’s overtures to Iran on their nuclear weapons development program and one of the primary vectors on offensive strategy regarding Syria? Confusing? Or is it just me.

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