Russian Unnerves Caspian Neighbors with Naval Strikes into Syria

On October 7, a Russian Caspian Flotilla frigate and three destroyers launched 26 Kalibr 3M-14T cruise missiles at 11 targets in Syria, which flew nearly 1,000 miles through first Iranian and then Iraqi airspace before hitting terrorist sites in Raqqa, Aleppo, and Idlib provinces. The Syrian ambassador to Russia said the attacks took place after the exact location of ISIS bases were given to Russians. The missile used in the strikes, the Kalibr 3M-14T (NATO designation SS-N-30A), is an improved version of the Granat land-attack cruise missile, similar to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk BGM-109.

As you might know, Russia is one of the top military forces in the world and when they target someone, they always get the job done right away. These missiles that they launched on the terrorist were one of the most advanced ones that are designed for that type of destruction. The Syrian terrorist didn’t have any chance to get away from these missiles because they are a much more improved version of the Granat land missile.

Washington’s response was immediate: on the same day, State Department spokesman John Kirby said, “Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against Isil or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists,” targeting instead the moderate Syrian opposition. He added, “So whether they’re hit by a cruise missile from the sea or a bomb from a Russian military aircraft, the result is the same, that Assad continues to get support from Russia. Assad continues to be able to have at his, you know, at his hands the capability of striking his own people, including those who are opposed to his regime. And that’s not a good future for Syria. It’s also, as we’ve said before, we believe a mistake for Russia, because not only are they going to be exacerbating sectarian tensions there in Syria, but they’re potentially exacerbating sectarian tensions in Russia itself. They’re putting themselves at greater risk.”

Across town at the Atlantic Council, Admiral William Gortney, Commander, North America Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, speaking on “Protecting the Homeland” told his audience that the Russian cruise missile threat is a “particular challenge for NORAD and for Northern Command.”

The next day U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declared, “We have not and will not agree to cooperate with Russia so long as they continue to pursue this misguided strategy. We’ve seen increasingly unprofessional behavior from Russian forces. They violated Turkish airspace, which as all of us here made clear earlier this week, and strongly affirmed today here in Brussels, is NATO airspace. They’ve shot cruise missiles from a ship in the Caspian Sea without warning. They’ve come within just a few miles of one of our unmanned aerial vehicles. They have initiated a joint ground offensive with the Syrian regime, shattering the facade that they’re there to fight ISIL. This will have consequences for Russia itself, which is rightfully fearful of attack upon Russia. And I also expect that in coming days, the Russians will begin to suffer casualties in Syria.”

The launch was a message to the world and the U.S. military that it does not have a monopoly on long-range cruise missile operations; these are also capabilities of the Russian military, which they, too, can deploy.

But if NATO was startled by the first combat use of Kalibr 3M-14T cruise missiles, their launch was a clear signal to the other Caspian states – Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, that Russia has de facto naval superiority in the Caspian, a factor that will have to be taken into consideration as all five nations collaborate on the issue of dividing the Caspian’s offshore waters and seabed while simultaneously developing their own nationalist energy policies. Diplomatic progress on the former has been torturously slow, while Russia is loath to see some regional energy initiatives succeed, such as Azerbaijan’s seeking to supplant Gazprom in the EU market and Turkmenistan’s efforts to construct a westward Trans-Caspian seabed natural gas pipeline. In such instances, naval power can prove a powerful peacetime diplomatic tool.

The Caspian basin is on the edge of changes, as rising turmoil in the Middle East and Afghanistan will intensify problems in the Caspian, and Russia intends to retain the dominant voice there.

The numbers tell the story. Russia’s Caspian Flotilla has 27 warships and dozens of support vessels. Russian Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky has stated that the Caspian Flotilla will get 16 new ships before 2020. Russia’s Zelenodolsk Shipyard named after Gorky launched the 1,500-ton stealth Dagestan guard ship, the most powerful warship in the Caspian, armed with the Kalibr-NK missiles, capable of hitting targets in the sea and coast. The Caspian Flotilla’s Tatarstan flagship is armed with the Uran missile system capable of hitting targets up to 100 miles away.

Iran has the second strongest Caspian fleet but deployed no missile ships until deploying the Jamaran-2 destroyer introduced changes to the fleet’s potential. Iran’s Caspian Flotilla has 90 other small motorboats and minesweeping vessels but is scheduled to be upgraded with anti-ship missiles, artillery systems, and helicopters. Last June Iranian Naval Forces Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Admiral Abbas Zamini said that Iran was planning to launch light submarines in the Caspian.

Kazakhstan is building a naval base at Aktau port to house its navy’s 17 small motorboat vessels. Three years ago Kazakhstan launched its first indigenous missile vessel, displacing 250 tons. The Kazakh Navy intends to construct several more warships in the next couple of years. In a development that Russia might object to, Kazakhstan has solicited U.S. assistance to help develop maritime aviation.

Azerbaijan has 30 patrol boats built in Turkey and three constructed in the U.S., sent through the Volga-Don Canal. The U.S. also helped Azerbaijan build coastal radar stations and an operations control center in Baku. Azerbaijan has recently signed agreements for the construction of several ships, including two submarines.

In 2008 Turkmenistan started building up its Caspian naval potential, purchasing three guard ships with remotely operated missiles in Russia and two Sobol patrol boats the following year. In 2009 President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov announced plans to build a naval base at Turkmenbashi to protect Turkmenistan’s maritime borders, having earlier purchased several Kalkan-M and Grif-T patrol boats from Ukraine along with renting seven Iranian motorboats and a destroyer. In 2012 Turkmenistan bought two patrol boats in Turkey and the Molniya missile boats from Russia; the latter carry 16 Uran-E anti-ship missiles. Turkmenistan recently also signed a $130 million contract with South Korea’s Hyundai Amco to build a shipyard and a ship-repairing facility in Turkmenbashi to start constructing own Arkadag patrol boats.

One casualty of Russia’s display of military power has been civil aviation routes over the Caspian. On October 9 the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a safety bulletin alerting airlines that there had been “several launches of missiles from warships, located in the Caspian Sea, to Syria on 06 and 07 October 2015. Before reaching Syria, such missiles are necessarily crossing the airspace above Caspian Sea, Iran and Iraq, below flight routes which are used by commercial transport aeroplanes.” While the EASA did not issue a specific recommendation to avoid Caspian airspace, in the wake of its communiqué, Air France said, “From October 10, on the recommendations of its safety directors, Air France has temporarily put in place special measures concerning the flyover of Iran and the Caspian Sea,” but did not elaborate. On October 14 Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific announced that it was suspending flights over the Caspian, to be followed two days later by Kazakhstan’s flagship carrier Air Astana

Last year Russia convinced the other “Caspian Five” states to bar foreign militaries from the Caspian by agreeing to a “Convention on Independence of the Caspian Sea.” The Caspian’s sole entry and exit is the 37-mile-long Volga-Don Canal, built under Joseph Stalin and currently under Russia’s sovereign control. The canal’s other exit is in the Sea of Azov, which connects with the rest of the Black Sea via a narrow strait now controlled from both sides by Russia after the March 2014 Crimean annexation.

Since the Volga-Don Canal qualifies in international maritime law as Russian “internal waters,” Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan can expect no outside naval intervention if their relations with Russia turn difficult. As none of them have Caspian combat experience, the Caspian Flotilla’s recent Kalibr 3M-14T cruise missiles launch represent regional gunboat diplomacy at its finest.