Last Friday, as Russia deployed its only aircraft carrier and eight warships on a Mediterranean voyage to Syria, it hoped to send a message that Russia was back on the world stage as a major military power. Yet as The New York Times notes, the visual presented was less than impressive:
Belching thick black smoke, the Soviet-era warship, previously known more as a threat to its crew than anything else, led a battle group of eight vessels, including an oceangoing tug that traditionally accompanies the carrier, which has a reputation for breaking down. The flotilla is expected to deploy off Syria in late October to bolster the military operations propping up President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s main Arab ally.
If the 15 warplanes on board the Admiral Kuznetsov join the bombardment of Syria, the carrier will have its first active combat role since it was launched more than three decades ago as part of a last gasp by the fading Soviet Union to challenge American naval power.
The flotilla caused some alarmist rhetoric in the West, with NATO officials calling it “the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War,” and Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon warning that Russia was trying to test NATO’s capabilities.
But if Moscow inspired dread in some corners of the West, it was unprepared for the ridicule unleashed on the Russian web as images of the lumbering, smoke-spouting Admiral Kuznetsov were released. Soon enough, Putin opponents took to social media to make Russia’s aging aircraft carrier the butt of snarky memes.
The bombardment of Syria is no laughing matter, but the disconnect between Western alarmism and Russian mockery illustrates a potent truth about today’s Russia. As we have argued before, Russia actually has a weak hand to play against the West. That certainly extends to its military capabilities: Russia’s aging, rusty fleets and air force are no match for American capabilities. Still, the fact remains that Russia has helped turned the tide in Syria with a relatively small commitment: 42 jets at the peak of Russia’s mission.
Russia’s ability to change the facts on the ground in Syria is a matter of political will and canny opportunism, not technical superiority. All the hype about Russia’s military strength obscures both its weakness and the West’s fecklessness in allowing Putin a free hand. Putin has played his cards well, correctly calculating that the West could not build consensus on standing up to him. Indeed, some in Europe seem willing to help: earlier today, reports suggested that Spain would allow Russia’s Syria-bound warships to refuel at Spanish ports. The request has since been withdrawn after NATO outcry, but the incident only illustrates the West’s lack of solidarity against Putin.
If the U.S. and NATO wanted to challenge Russia’s forces in Syria, they have every means to do so. But Putin has acted decisively while the West has faltered, and that has made all the difference.