At the beginning of February 2022 — a week before the invasion of Ukraine — social media was flooded with pictures of Russian armoured vehicles emblazoned with ‘Z’ and other symbols.
Although the emblem had a purely functional purpose, to avoid ‘friendly fire’, they have been banned in some countries that deem them symbols of the invasion.
Now it is the Ukrainian army that is labelling its armoured vehicles, as it proceeds with its counter-offensive.
It would seem that under these conditions, the Kremlin should give undivided attention to the Ukrainian front — especially provided Kyiv’s declared ambitions to not only drive Russian troops out of the Donbas region but also to try to take back Crimea.
But instead, the aftermath of the Wagner rebellion led by Yevgeny Prigozhin has taken centre stage. Shocking events grabbed international headlines and the world's attention following Prigozhin's failed mutiny attempt in June.
And yet Ukraine remains just one of the subjects in the spotlight of Russian media, along with the situation in Syria.
Russia ups activity in Syria
Since March, US officials have repeatedly stated that Russia has upped its activity in Syrian skies. Russian jets and drones began to fly over US military targets with high-frequency contrary to deconfliction agreements.
Since March, US officials have repeatedly stated that Russia has upped its activity in Syrian skies. Russian jets and drones began to fly over US military targets with high-frequency contrary to deconfliction agreements
Similar incidents might have happened before but with less intensity. According to the leaked Pentagon documents, in November 2022 Russian air defence assets in Qamishli nearly shot down an MQ-9 Reaper UAV, the very type of drone that was intercepted and damaged by a Russian fighter over the neutral waters of the Black Sea in March 2023.
Moscow has levelled its own accusations at Washington over escalating tensions — not only in the Black Sea but also in the Mediterranean region.
Russia claims that the US-led coalition violated protocols to avoid escalation of conflict and the US-Russia Memo on Air Safety Over Syria 213 times in April alone.
Leaked Pentagon documents showed that Ukrainian military intelligence was allegedly planning to attack Russian forces in Syria, which should have forced Moscow to redeploy military resources from Ukraine, however, Kyiv eventually abandoned the idea for several technical and political reasons.
Yet there are objective doubts that Moscow has adopted a purely reactive approach to geopolitics in Syria. There are grounds to believe it may have a plan to target US facilities in the region.
There are objective doubts that Moscow has adopted a purely reactive approach to geopolitics in Syria. There are grounds to believe that it may have a plan to target US facilities in the region.
First, as early as 2021, the Kremlin tried to draw Nato into negotiating a new European security architecture — not only through the threat of military action with Ukraine but also through activity in Syria, by conducting large-scale exercises or deploying strategic nuclear-capable bombers, basing them temporarily in them Khmeimim Air Base.
Tellingly, Russia had again deployed TU-22 M3 bombers to its Syrian base at the end of March 2023.
It is no coincidence that a surge in Russian activity in Syria again coincided with an increase in incidents involving Iranian proxy forces and US troops.
Previously Russia refrained from associating itself with Iranian attacks and largely froze its activities in eastern Syria.
However, things changed at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, which heralded Moscow's deliberate attempts to demonstrate coordinated action with Iran or even China — often without their consent — to demonstrate the Kremlin's determination and the availability of resources to fight the war.
Solidarity limits and safeguards at sea
The Kremlin understands that solidarity with Iran must have clear boundaries, given Israel's opposition to Tehran's deployment of radars and air defence facilities in Syria.
Put together, Russia's actions seem to be aimed at helping its war effort in Ukraine by ramping up pressure on its enemies outside of Ukraine.
Russia's actions seem to be aimed at helping its war effort in Ukraine by ramping up pressure on its enemies outside of Ukraine.
Additionally, Moscow has made no secret of the fact that it would like to conclude a new treaty to prevent incidents on the high seas and in the air similar to the Soviet-American treaty of 1972. In the Cold War era, this document limited, among other things, the distance at which ships and warplanes were allowed to approach each other during manoeuvres.
However, the fact that Moscow is carefully linking the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions into a single 'package' is quite natural and not a tactical anti-crisis plan. The Kremlin is guided in this matter — not by diplomatic or even political logic — but by purely militaristic thinking. Considering this line of reasoning, one can make sense of Moscow's seemingly illogical steps.
When Moscow officially became a party to the Syrian civil war in 2015, many of the Kremlin's arguments seemed illogical.
Making sense of Moscow
Even many Russian Orientalists and Caucasian scholars have consistently questioned the official line that the Syrian campaign is supposedly helping the Russian authorities fight terrorism at a distance.
Experts understand that the Russian authorities themselves encouraged the departure of unwanted people from the North Caucasus to the Middle East before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, not caring much about eliminating the causes of the spread of extremist ideas among Muslims. Terrorist attacks took place in Russia regardless and their perpetrators directly linked them to revenge for interfering in Syria.
Among Russian diplomats there also were many of those who understood that the line about fighting extremism was really propaganda and that the military operation had completely different goals and objectives that were primarily political.
From the point of view of the Russian military, however, the Kremlin's actions had straightforward logic. And it was the military who spun the narrative around Russia's intervention in the direction they pleased.
In Russian military planning, the Southern strategic direction — which corresponds to the Southern Military District (YuVO), includes not only Central Asia, the Black Sea region and the Russian-Ukrainian border, but also the North Caucasus, the South Caucasus — is a bridgehead for projecting force into the Mediterranean Sea.
Since the war with Georgia in 2008, the troops of YuVO have received more modern equipment than other districts and are considered better trained.
After annexation, Crimea and the peninsula's Sevastopol were included in YuVO in 2014 followed by the Donbass territories in 2023. Because of the peninsula's proximity to Syria, the Russian military stationed in the region was supplied by large landing ships from Sevastopol.
The ships of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla, which are part of the Southern Military District, also carried out strikes against opposition and terrorist targets in Syria. Combat aviation was mostly redeployed from Crimean airfields for the Syrian operation, while units of YuVOformed the backbone of the Russian military police in eastern Aleppo.
Yet even with the recent changes, the South Military District remains the smallest military district in Russia, while its area of responsibility includes the most problematic and conflict-prone regions.
In Nato's military planning, however, the most important bridgehead for a possible attack on Crimea is the Mediterranean Sea. Since the Cold War, the eastern part of this vast sea basin has been seen by the United States as a convenient platform for a hypothetical attack on south-central Russia with carrier-based aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
After the beginning of the war in Ukraine — and after the destruction of the guided-missile cruiser Moskva and the forced sinking of the large landing assault ship Saratov in Berdyansk — doubts arose about the real ability of the Black Sea Fleet to effectively conduct combat operations.
Exactly a year ago Moskva cruiser was sunken.
The sunken flagship became Russia's most expensive military loss in the war with Ukraine. According to DW's estimates, with an initial cost of about $2 billion, the residual value of the cruiser was $750 million.
This is why Russia is now preparing to remove the four Russian fleets and the Caspian Flotilla from the military districts and reassign them to the main command of the navy, as it used to be so that sailors can directly engage in combat training, bypassing the bureaucracy.
However, even in the event of a hypothetical transfer of combat operations to the Crimean Peninsula, the supply of the Russian group in Syria would remain unchanged. After Turkey's 2022 decision to restrict Russian military flights to Syria and close the Turkish straits to warships, Sevastopol found itself shut out of the so-called Syrian Express.
The entire burden of supplying Russian troops and al-Assad regime forces with arms and humanitarian aid is carried by dry cargo ships along the Novorossiysk-Tartus-Novorossiysk route.
For quicker deliveries, the transport aircraft that have been flying through Iran and Jordan for more than a year are mostly used, except for spot flights with humanitarian cargo, which Turkey allows through its airspace to Khmeimim.
Since the end of April 2023, an unprecedented situation for the Russian army has arisen off the coast of Syria. The capabilities of the Russian task force have been drastically reduced, as three ships at once — the Black Sea frigate Admiral Grigorovich and two Baltic corvettes Soobrazitelny and Stoykiy — left the Mediterranean Sea.
Since the end of April 2023, an unprecedented situation for the Russian army has arisen off the coast of Syria. Three ships left the Mediterranean Sea at once.
The crews of Soobrazitelny and Stoykiy have spent almost half a year (since October 2022) in the eastern Mediterranean, while the crew of Admiral Grigorovich has set a record that has never been set before in the USSR or in modern Russia.
The ship left Sevastopol for Syria in October 2021 and has been in combat service all this time without docking or other repairs.
Of the large combat surface ships in the region, only the frigate Admiral Gorshkov remains. Also on combat duty is one diesel-electric submarine B-265 Krasnodar, which is not enough to create any effective defence of the approaches to the Syrian coast against a large ship formation.
It is impossible to replace them with ships from Sevastopol because of the Turkish ban, the only way to strengthen the group is to send a large anti-submarine ship Admiral Levchenko of the Northern Fleet to the Syrian coast.
US naval power
The only thing saving Russia's position is that the US has now withdrawn the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS George HW Bush from the Mediterranean Sea.
It leaves the Russian military faced with the task of maintaining permanent activity in the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions, both to project the vision of strength and to respond to various Nato exercises, like the Neptune Strike 2022 manoeuvres of the 6th US Fleet, and to press its geopolitical opponents politically.
Yet Russia's capacity to project force in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean is uneven. There is a shortage of large surface ships in the fleet.
More complications come from the continuing Turkish ban on the passage of Russian warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. That limits the ability to repair and upgrade the ships of the inter-Fleet Mediterranean squadron.
It is in the Kremlin's interest to fill these gaps with resources that are available, such as aviation activity.