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Published in Press Stream:
October 28, 2015

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Published in Stream:
October 28, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Kommersant Reveals Russians Planned Syrian Air Strikes Under Cover of Exercises; Turkey Leased Ships to Russia Painted Over to Supply War
6 years
Stream: October 28, 2015
Publication: Putin in Syria
Previous Press
Russia's business daily Kommersant has a good round-up of the major events since Russia began airstrikes on September 30, authored by Ivan Safronov and Sergei Goryashko for Kommersant's Vlast' [Power] section.

The Interpreter has made a summary and provided some comments and context as well as direct quotes from the article.

A map accompanying the article shows the areas of strikes and the types of war planes involved, with a graph showing the intensification of strikes this month.

2015-10-28 19:59:17

The authors call the Syrian operation "the first full-fledged maneuver since the 'five-day' war with Georgia in 2008." They supply evidence that planning for these strikes by Russia's Defense Ministry began long before President Bashar Al-Assad's appeal to Russia for assistance and the meeting of Russia's Security Council on September 29 where the decision was announced to launch the strikes. Foreign Minister Lavrov said that President Vladimir Putin informed President Barack Obama of the forthcoming strikes during their meeting September 28 at the UN General Assembly, and Obama replied briefly (in reverse translation), "We supposed as much."

There was some indication right before this meeting that Russia was contemplating air strikes:

In an interview for CBS 60 Minutes aired September 27, Charlie Rose asked Putin whether Russia would put ground troops in Syria. He replied:

"Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don't plan on it right now. But we are considering intensifying our work with both President Assad and with our partners in other countries."

Putin also added:

So, I want you, your audience to finally realise that no one except for al-Assad's army is fighting against ISIS or other terrorist organisations in Syria, no one else is fighting them on Syrian territory. Minor airstrikes, including those by the United States aircraft, do not resolve the issue in essence; in fact, they do not resolve it at all. The work should be conducted on the spot after these strikes and it should all be strictly coordinated. We need to understand what strikes are needed, where we need to strike and who will advance on the ground after these strikes. In Syria, there is no other force except for al-Assad's army.

According to information obtained by Kommersant Vlast', Russia began its build-up of personnel and materiel in August and early September when the troop ships Novocherkassk, Korolev, Saratov, Azov, Tsezar Kunikov and also the freight steamer Aleksandr Tkachenko all jammed into Novorossisky's port to load up on armor, ammunition and fuel. The ships then headed across the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean Sea. The ships carried air bombs and air-to-surface missiles "sufficient for only one assignment -- to relocate the air force." This was relatively easy to do under cover of the Center 2015 exercises involving more than 150 planes, say the authors (translation by The Interpreter):

Under such cover, Russian Su-30SM fighters, Su-34 and Su-24M frontline bombers, Su-25 attack planes flew from the air fields of Krymsk and Mozdok and also, bypassing the Caspian Sea (or the air space over Azerbaijan) and also Iran and Iraq, reached Syria. By September 30, a full-fledged mixed aviation group with more than 50 vehicles was created at the Hmeemeem air base: Mi-8 and Mi-24P helicopters were added to the planes by that time, and continue to strike Syrian provinces where ISIS and Al Nusra fighters are located.
According to the Defense Ministry, from September 30-October 22, Russian pilots performed 934 combat flights from Hmeemeem (of which more than 100 were at night) and destroyed no less than 819 targets. Most of the strikes were carried out with high-precision X-29L air-surface class missiles, and correctable KAB500S air bombs, with a maximum deviation from the target, according to the soldiers themselves, of no more than 5 meters.

According to a source in the defense industry, in connection with the growing demand of the military for deliveries of armaments due to the operation in Syria, workers from the Tactical Missile Armament corporation were forced to move to three shifts.

The Russian Navy made an emergency acquisition of eight transport ships from Turkish ship-owners in order to deliver this freight to Tartus, which were quickly incorporated into the list of auxiliary ships by assigning them military status: the large troop ships could not cope alone with such a heavy load.

The Interpreter notes that one watcher of ships in the Bosphorus saw a hasty paint job on a ship under a Russian flag passing by at the time.

Aside from the air component, on October 7, four ships from Russia's Caspian fleet (the small missile ships Uglich, Grad Sviyazhsk, Velikiy Ustyug and the sentry ship Dagestan) made 26 Kalibr-NK 34M14 cruise-missile strikes on 11 ground targets, which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported personally to the president that same day. This case stands apart: on October 5-6, [Russian] reconnaissance had discovered militant facilities, and upon decision of the Defense Ministry leadership, it was decided to destroy them immediately. The military managed within an extremely short period to get permission for the launch from Iran, through whose air space the rocket's trajectory would run.

Judging from updated information from the RF Defense Ministry, the main strikes of the Russian armed forces were delivered primarily on the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Latakia, Palmyia, Damascus and Hama. According to Russian reconnaissance data, it was here that the majority of the militants' command centers were concentrated (including fortified areas and mortar outlets) arms stocks and training camps.

Russia's airstrikes immediately led to criticism from Syrian human rights activists and Western leaders that they were killing civilians, and striking rebel groups opposed to Assad, not ISIS. The Russian military denied this. Kommersant Vlast' spoke to a source within the General Staff who said that the choice of targets was made not only on the basis of Russia data, using virtually 24-hour electronic monitoring from the Persona No. 2 spy satellite and Orlan-10 drones, but information from allies in the operation -- Iran, Iraq and Syria.

These countries formed an information center to coordinate their actions located in Baghdad; its chief purpose is to collect, sort, aggregate and analyze ongoing information about the situation in the region. Military officers from the four countries staff the center, rotating out every three months. The Russian team is currently commanded by Gen. Sergei Kuralenko of the 6th Field Army.

Col. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov,  chief of the Main Operations Directorate of the Russian General Staff, who is directing the operation in Syria, told Kommersant Vlast' that before each strike, a special log is created citing computer modeling of the previous strikes, and only after this is a final decision made to hit a target (translation by The Interpreter):

"We strike only the targets of internationally recognized terrorist groups. Our plans do not fly in the southern regions of Syria, where, according to our information, the formations of the Free Syrian Army are located."

A military attache told Kommersant Vlast' that it was difficult to cooperate with the US, because its goal was removal of Assad, not just battling ISIS. He said only Russia is "absolutely legal" in making its airstrikes because it has the request from Assad; the US, France and Turkey are "making strikes without any legal basis." However, this source believed progress was being made; the US and Russia agreed to coordinate information for the sake of flight safety, and "Russia continues to count on receiving data from the American military, citing the coordinates and outlining the location of both the  militants and civilian regions." The US has refused, and on October 22, a Pentagon spokesman accused the Kremlin of using cluster bombs in areas of the civilian population in Syria.

There have been some "international scandals" along the way, say the authors -- a Russian Su-24M violated Turkish airspace on October 3, supposedly due to "poor flight conditions," causing President Recep Erdogan to threaten to stop making gas purchases from Russia. (Russian-Turkish relations further deteriorated when Turkey shot down an apparent Russian drone over Turkish territory and threatened to do the same with an intrusive plane, and now Ankara is taking Gazprom to court as we reported.)

From the outset, Putin has said no ground forces would be involved. He said it in the interview with Charlie Rose; the point was reiterated by the speaker of the Russian parliament. But rumors persist of a presence of troops involved in combat; Novaya Gazeta reported a rumor that  two dozen fighters from the Sever (Northern) Battalion of the Chechen Interior Ministry troops were dismissed to enable them to go to Syria; Zaur Dadayev, a former member of this unit and the chief suspect in the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, appealed to Putin to release him to enable him to and fight ISIS in Syria.

Kommersant Vlast' spoke to a source in the General Staff who said the Russian military contingent in Syria consists of contract soldiers from the 810th Separate Marine Brigade out of Sevastopol and the 7th Guards Mountain Division of the Airborne Division from Rayevskaya, that their only assignment is to guard Russian facilities, and they are not engaged in combat. The confirmation of a report of a soldier killed in Syria has led to speculation that the Russians are covering up their combat role in Syria, although the wounds of the soldier suggest that he could have been a victim of hazing.

The authors point out that for the first time in its modern history, Russia is following the doctrine of the Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet, an aerial strategist who in 1921 published a book The Command of the Air, in which he said the air force should take the leading role in a war, and striking the enemy's key targets can lead to victory. The Russian armed forces until now have always used a Soviet model relying on their ground troops, with strike forces, corps and battalions) and deployed various types of forces in a war.

Aleksandr Perendzhiyev, an expert of the Association of Military Political Analysts said Russia's air force has faced a number of problems in the Syrian operation: lack of coordination with the Western coalition, anger from the local population over some of the airstrikes, and the weakness of Assad's army.

There are some reports that Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps are supporting Assad's forces, although Kommersant Vlast' says they have no information that they have been in battles. The first major offensive was on October 8, where for the first time, Syria's 4th Army Assault Corps took part, which had hitherto not taken part in combat.

Yet the Kremlin admits that they will not achieve success without a ground operation. As Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, said during the Valdai conference this year:

"As much as you bomb, you will never achieve success, we understood that from the outset and planned these actions only in coordination with the Syrian Armed Forces."

Konstantin Sivkov, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Rocket and Artillery Sciences believes the Russian air force is working at its highest efficiency and the pilots are highly trained, but Assad's army is not making advances:

"Our forces in Syria are insufficient for conducting military operations, and Assad's forces don't have enough ammunition or specialists to lead an offensive quickly."

Assad came to meet Putin last week. He was whisked out of the Chkalov air base from Latakia on board an Il-62M from the Russian Defense Ministry on October 20th, and returned home on the 21st. Putin said there were "serious positive results" -- in his speech in Valdai he said that Assad had agreed to hold talks with "those opposition forces prepared for dialogue."

Ivanov added during Valdai that Putin and Assad discussed coordination of Russia's air force with Syria's ground troops and concluded that a ground operation against ISIS, Al Nusra and other terrorist groups should be made by the Syrian Army and the Kurdish fighters. No one could say how long this might take.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick