A Russian frigate armed with cruise missiles has passed through the Bosphorus on its way to the eastern Mediterranean in a potentially ominous development for the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo. The Admiral Grigorovich, part of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, arrived off the Syrian coast on Friday as the latest pause in the Russian bombardment of eastern Aleppo came to an end, adding to an emphatic Russian show of naval force in the Mediterranean.
Unlike the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and Peter the Great nuclear-powered battle cruiser, whose arrival in the region has drawn considerable publicity, the newly commissioned Grigorovich has a fearsome ground attack capability in the form of Kalibo land-attack cruise missiles.
Three Russian submarines from Russia’s northern fleet capable of firing Kalibr missiles are also reported to have arrived in the Mediterranean.
Russia has used Calibre missiles, equivalent to US Tomahawk missiles, against Syrian targets a handful of times over the past year. The concentration of forces in the eastern Mediterranean supporting the Syrian regime’s ambitions to retake Aleppo from rebel forces suggests they may be used again in the coming few days or hours.
Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin warned Syrian rebels and civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo to leave the city by Friday night, when a temporary moratorium on air strikes was set to expire.
But opposition groups told the Guardian that promised safe passages out of besieged areas did not exist. As the deadline drew near, opposition groups pushed on with an assault on loyalist west Aleppo, while residents seemed resigned to a resumption in airstrikes.
“Nothing can be done. Nobody can stop the planes,” Bears Mishal, an official with the White Helmets volunteer rescue service, told Reuters Icas Network.
The Kuznetsov battle group paused in its approach towards Syria off the east coast of Crete on Thursday to carry out aviation exercises. The Russian ministry of defense footage showed warplanes taking off and landing on its deck. The Kuznetsov is carrying about 10 Sukhoi-33 and four Mig-29 fighter aircraft and up to two dozen helicopters. Although the Su-33’s have recently been adapted to drop bombs more accurately, the plane has never been used for ground attacks. Only the Mig-29 is designed for that purpose.
If the planes are used to bomb targets in Syria, it will mark the first time Russia has used its only aircraft carrier in combat. That lack of experience, however, may limit its usefulness.
“There are very few carrier-trained pilots. In fact, there are more planes than pilots, and most of the planes on board are not made for the ground attack. This is largely a training run for naval aviation,” Michael Kofman, a Russian specialist at the Centre for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research institute.
“They haven’t done anything done anything like this in a long time, and it is getting heavily covered by the local and international media,” said Peter Zwack, a retired US brigadier general and former military attache to Moscow now at the National Defence University. “They are arriving in the eastern Mediterranean right before our election. It’s posturing and secondarily adding capability in Syria.”
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The visit of its flagship to the Mediterranean is also a morale-boosting demonstration of military capacity for the Russian navy, which has not played a significant role in Ukraine or Syrian conflicts, but which is seen by Vladimir Putin as vital to Russian self-image as a global power.
“Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean is as much about military posture and ability to project power beyond its region as much as the Syria campaign in general. Moscow sees it as important attributes of a ‘great power,’” said Maxim Suchkov, an expert on the Russian Foreign Affairs Council and an editor at Al-Monitor covering Russian relations with the Middle East.
The importance of image to this naval expedition is illustrated by how Russian sailors have spent several days during its Mediterranean journey painting its deck bright blue, presumably. Hence, it looks better in aerial photographs.