When the Russian Navy’s last remaining Kashin-class destroyer, Smetlivyy, departs Sevastopol on April 1, how will military officials characterize the purpose of the ship’s 45-day deployment? Combat training, of course. But what will the true purpose be?
- Early-January: Russian Northern Fleet combatant ships conduct two-day port call in Tartus, Syria, in early-January. Ships conduct a typical working port call: moor, take on supplies, leave. Nothing more, nothing less. But neither the Russian nor Syrian press machines could forgo mentioning the tour given to high-level Syrian officials aboard the Russian Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza N.G. Kuznetsov. Moscow downplayed the visit, while Damascus proclaimed the visit was a sign of deep military cooperation between the two nations and support for the al-Assad regime.
- Early-February: Internet chatter indicates the Russian Black Sea Fleet is preparing to send Ropucha II-class landing ship Azov to Syria, possibly to evacuate non-combatants from the crisis-plagued nation. The ship never departed the Black Sea and, instead, has been involved in annual certifications, to include taking part in a command-post exercise this past week.
- Mid-February: Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy is preparing to deploy to the Mediterranean.
- Early-March: Internet chatter indicates some Black Sea Fleet naval infantry personnel will depart in mid-March to participate in two month-long counter-terrorism training in Italy. The personnel will return to Russia aboard Smetlivyy. Later, the training in Italy later is postponed or canceled.
- Mid-March: Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy begins weapons and stores onloads on/about March 16 in preparation for subsequent at-sea certifications and deployment. Smetlivyy departs Sevastopol on March 19 en route to Novorossiysk to complete its annual combat certifications.
- Late-March: Internet chatter indicates Smetlivyy will depart Sevastopol on April 1 for its nearly two-month deployment.
So, What’s Up?
Were Moscow truly concerned about openly supporting the Syrian regime, one would expect much more military cooperation, to include a continuous or near-continuous naval combatant presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. And perhaps that is exactly what Moscow is doing. Earlier this month, Moscow defense officials had to negate media reports that Russian naval combatant ships were operating near Syria’s shores. And the statement appears to have been true on that date. Officials did add, however, that two Black Sea Fleet auxiliary vessels – Olekma-class oiler Iman and Moma-class intelligence collection vessel Ekvator – were either in-port Tartus or operating near Syria’s coastline. Two days after the first statement, an unnamed naval official told Interfax that Moma-class Kildin would soon replace Ekvator, which has only been deployed for about three weeks. And now internet chatter suggests Amur-class repair ship PM-138 may soon get underway, presumably to replace Iman (deployed since February 26) in Tartus.
So, what will Smetlivyy’s mission be? Continued Russian Navy presence in or near Syria? Internet chatter indicates the ship will visit Tartus twice during this deployment – at the beginning and end of April. What it will do in between remains a mystery, but it could simply conduct “training” operations in the eastern and central Mediterranean. Perhaps a nice port call in Malta, Italy, and/or Turkey is on the schedule. In any case, Smetlivyy’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea coupled with the continued presence of intelligence collection ships near Syria certainly will be an interesting issue for the U.S. 6th Fleet, U.S. European Command, and NATO over the coming weeks.
Just wait until Russian Northern Fleet Udaloy I-class destroyer Vitse-Admiral Kulakov shows up in the Mediterranean Sea in a few weeks on its way to conduct a counter-piracy patrol near Somalia. And when Black Sea Fleet Slava-class cruiser Moskva deploys to the Mediterranean (and beyond) in June...