Conflict & Justice

Analysis: Russia steps up its old game over Syria


The Kremlin wants to plant a bigger footprint.


Yuri Kadobnov

BOSTON — Russia has sent Syria advanced antiship cruise missiles, part of an assertive new display of support for President Bashar al-Assad. The move comes shortly after Moscow announced plans with Washington to hold a conference on a political solution to the Syrian crisis next month.

Russia has defended the sale by saying it’s merely fulfilling a contract signed in 2007 for a version of the Yakhont system. Moscow says the missiles are for coastal defense and won’t be used against the Syrian opposition.

Russia previously delivered missiles, mobile launchers and other equipment for the Yakhont system in 2011. However, the latest missiles include advanced radar to make them more effective, the New York Times reported.

The latest delivery is part of a large weapons trade between Damascus and Moscow, Syria’s main arms supplier, which is reported to currently hold weapons contracts worth $1.5 billion. The Kremlin stands to lose billions more if international sanctions are imposed against Syria.

In recent years, Russia sold Damascus MiG-29 fighter jets and upgraded its Soviet-era tanks. It has also provided SA-17 surface-to-air missiles, some of which were bombed during a recent Israeli airstrike.

Israel, which hasn’t acknowledged the raid, says it’s ready to take military action to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with the Syrian regime. US officials have warned of possible Israeli strikes against the Yakhont missiles.

The new Yakhont missiles, which have a range of about 180 miles, will enable the Syrian government to make it more for international forces to impose a no-fly zone or establish a naval blockade.

Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated this week that Moscow is also pushing ahead with a sale of advanced S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria despite Western pressure.

The Kremlin says it does not support Assad’s regime. However, it has used its UN Security Council veto to block international sanctions and opposed other attempts to influence the conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives. Russia has also blocked a UN investigation into possible chemical weapons use in Syria as well as a fact-finding mission to ascertain the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

In addition to the arms deliveries, Russia is sending about a dozen of its warships to the Mediterranean as part of a show of support for Syria, one of the largest of such displays since the Cold War. Moscow has said it wants to protect a Russian naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. However, experts say the base is more like a resupply stop Russian shops used infrequently before the Syrian crisis began.

Moscow sent ships to the Mediterranean earlier this year.

A staunch supporter of national sovereignty, Russia steadfastly opposes international intervention in Syria. However, its latest moves are only partly motivated by the fact that Damascus is Moscow’s last ally in the Middle East. Russia’s main interest in blocking attempts to resolve the crisis peacefully lies in increasing its own influence in the world.

The Kremlin is also concerned about foreign support for the Russian opposition at home, especially during a crackdown against dissent that’s been roundly criticized abroad.

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Western countries, encouraged by Russia’s occasional criticism of Assad, have long hoped Russia would use its influence to pressure him to step down.

The Kremlin’s support for the planned conference next month raised the most recent such hopes. However, Russia’s insistence Iran must take part appears to have torpedoed even the most optimistic observers’ expectations.