Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown that Russia is willing to take bold steps to demonstrate its military capabilities in the world often catching other nations, the United States included, off balance. The most recent Russian moves in Syria show that Russia is determined to make its mark in the international arena. Not coincidentally, Russian airstrikes in Syria began a few days before USS Theodore Roosevelt left the Middle East to undergo needed maintenance. It’s no secret that the United States will not have another carrier in the region until winter and Russia was able to quietly build up its own forces in the region leading up to the Roosevelt’s withdrawal.
Russia’s airstrikes are very concerning. Various politicians, pundits, and analysts have written off the Russian military as unable to undertake serious operations. One New York Times article head line announced that it was “more rust than ready.” However, Russia has proved them wrong by successfully deploying aircraft, bombers, ground forces, and ships to the region and carrying out a significant number of strikes. Publically, Russia claims that it is fighting ISIS but is often actually targeting US-supported Syrian rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad- a close Russian ally.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet is using international waters to protect avenues into Syria that might be used to supply anti-Assad rebels and potentially threaten NATO airstrikes. They can use their naval variant of the S-300 air defense system to provide long range anti-aircraft firepower without aggravating Israel. Meanwhile, the Caspian Flotilla fired long range land attack missiles into Syria. Other countries were unaware that Russian corvettes were able to launch strikes from that range.
Russian airpower is completing a prodigious number of airstrikes with estimates from 48 to 96 per day. In August the US averaged 6.8 strikes per day and in October so far only 4 strikes per day. This should make us pause and reconsider whether we’ve underestimated Russian capabilities.
Most importantly, Russia’s moves highlight the absence of a US Navy aircraft carrier in the Middle East. US naval power was the only capability in the Persian Gulf that was able to counter ISIS when it was expanding its territory at an incredible rate. Before the Roosevelt withdrew it was providing 20 percent of all US airstrikes against ISIS. The primary advantage of sea-based forces is that they can operate freely in international waters. The US Navy is able to take advantage of this freedom in action and provide forward presence. Normally other nations are not able to use the seas to project power but Russia has shown that it is building its capability. As the Navy must plan its shipbuilding years in advance, it is prudent and necessary that the United States seriously consider that Russia’s naval power is growing. We cannot view the world through rose-colored glasses.