Analysts agree that the “surprise” large-scale naval exercise which the Russian navy conducted in the Black Sea on Thursday is a case of muscle-flexing, but opinions differ as to the addressee whom Russia intended to send a message to via the drill.
While some maintain that it may be related more to the developments in the Syrian crisis, others are of the opinion that the exercise is a demonstration of Russia's ambitions in the Black Sea.For Nüzhet Kandemir, a lecturer at Bahçeşehir University, the naval exercise is muscle-flexing, sending a message to all the countries showing an interest in the Black Sea. “Russia wants to deliver the message that it's the leading country which should have a say over the Black Sea region,” he told Today's Zaman.
The naval exercise, which was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin on his return flight from a summit of BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- organized in South Africa, is said to be a test of combat readiness and how fast the Russian military would be able react to contingencies, while at the same time asserting Russia's presence, a signal to Western countries, in the region.
Being a major energy supply route for Central Asia, the Caucasus and Russia itself, the Black Sea is an important sea route which Western powers have also tried to control. Noting that the crisis in Syria is not unrelated to energy issues, Kandemir, who is also a former ambassador to Washington, noted that “in recent years, Russia has observed that the US, the European Union and Turkey have become engaged in activities [to become more influential] in the Black Sea region.”
Thirty-six warships, up to 7,000 troops and an unspecified number of planes are taking part in the exercise, but Dmitry Peskov, the president's spokesman, didn't inform reporters how long the exercise would last. Putin, who has long emphasized the importance of combat readiness of the armed forces, last month ordered the Russian military to reorganize itself in the next couple of years, drawing attention to the need for Russia to block Western attempts to tip the balance of power in the region.
Sait Yılmaz, the director of the National Security and Strategy Research Center in İstanbul Aydın University, also believes that the naval drill is more related to the Black Sea region than Syria. “If the exercise was connected to developments in Syria, then Russia would organize it in the eastern Mediterranean,” he told Today's Zaman, noting that the US is seeking ways to have a presence in the Black Sea. “This [drill] may be an indication that tensions may rise in the Black Sea,” he added.
The naval drill may also have to do with the developments in Syria, given that the course of events seems to have picked up speed in recent weeks. The frequency of calls for a no-fly zone, which Turkey has also long demanded, to prevent the Syrian military from staging air attacks against the opposition forces have increased in the last couple of days.
Syrian opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib stated on Tuesday that the US should use Patriot missiles in Turkey to protect opposition-controlled areas from embattled President Bashar al-Assad's airpower. “I have asked [US Secretary of State John] Kerry to extend the umbrella of the Patriot missiles to cover the Syrian north and he promised to study the subject,” he said. Right after Khatib's call, a Norwegian general, Robert Mood, who had formerly served in Syria as head of the UN monitoring mission to achieve a cease-fire, said on Wednesday that it was time to consider a no-fly zone over Syria using the Patriots missiles in Turkey.
Celalettin Yavuz, vice-chair of the Ankara-based Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TÜRKSAM), doesn't rule out a military intervention against Syria in the coming months and believes that the exercise may be related to an evacuation scenario of Russian personnel in Syria. “The circumstances are now ripe enough,” he commented to Today's Zaman, adding, “But there is disagreement over the timing.” Noting that Russia has, in the last couple of months, toned down its protests with regards to the future of Assad, the US and Russia seem to have reached an agreement on the issue, with Russia to keep its naval base in Syria's Tartus after the downfall of the Assad regime.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in the meantime, harshly criticized the Arab League's recognition of the Syrian opposition as the only representative of the country, noting that such a step would lead to the failure of efforts to reach a peaceful solution in the civil war. Russia takes the Arab League's decision as a clear indication that the international peace plan approved in Geneva in June, and which was also supported by the Arab League at the time, is now being discarded.
France and the UK tried to convince EU leaders, at a summit in Brussels in mid-month, to lift the arms embargo which the union had imposed on the Syrian opposition, but failed. But before the summit, French President François Hollande had announced that France was ready to go at it alone if its efforts to convince its partners in the EU fail. “Should one or two countries block the move… France itself would take responsibility,” he told the press.
For Habibe Özdal, a Russia analyst from Turkey's International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), the drill is mainly being organized to polish the image of the Russian military, which came under strong criticism following the war which the country was engaged in against Georgia in 2008. She doesn't see any reason for the drill to be connected with developments in the Black Sea. “The message is more directed to the Mediterranean [to the crisis in Syria] than the Black Sea,” she commented to Today's Zaman, noting that Russia has no problems with the Black Sea countries regarding the status of the sea. In her analysis, Syria comes into the picture as a potential second reason for the drill. She believes that the exercise is a show of muscle-flexing while negotiations are probably ongoing between great powers behind closed doors.