On Wednesday, we highlighted reports from Flashnord which indicated that Russia was set to send its only aircraft carrier - the Admiral Kuznetsov - to Syria.
If true, it would mark only the sixth deployment in the ship’s history and would serve as a test for a vessel that has historically been less than reliable.
Now, Russia is out denying the “rumors”. Here’s Xinhua:
The press service for the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet on Wednesday denied reports that the fleet's aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is bound for Syria.
The aircraft carrier is currently undergoing maintenance work in the northern port of Murmansk, Russia. On completion of the maintenance work, it will be put to a series of routine tasks in the Barents Sea over the coming weeks, said the Northern Fleet's press service in a statement.
Fair enough. And because you can’t exactly hide an aircraft carrier, we’re sure someone, somewhere, will speak up if the Admiral Kuznetsov shows up in the Mediterranean in the coming weeks and months.
In any event, it’s not entirely clear that Russia even needs a flattop vessel to achieve its operational goals in the Mid-East.
As we’ve documented extensively, it seems fairly clear at this point that part of the plan here is for Iran to use its influence with Shiite lawmakers and militias in Iraq to get permission for Russian strikes against ISIS and other targets in the country. Indeed this was all but confirmed earlier this week. Here’s al-Jazeera:
Iraqi MP Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the parliamentary and defence committee, told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that Iraqi air force jets used the intelligence to target a meeting of mid-level ISIL commanders .
Officials had initially claimed the attack targeted the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but security officials later said he had not been present.
The intelligence sharing alliance, which comprises Syria, Iran, and Russia, was announced last month. Iraqi sources said two Russian one-star generals were stationed at the centre.
Zamili, a leading Shia Muslim politician, said each of the four member countries has six members in the intelligence sharing and security cooperation cell, which holds meetings in Baghdad's fortified "Green Zone" that once housed the headquarters of the US occupation.
"We find it extremely useful," the Iraqi official said. "The idea is to formalise the relationship with Iran, Russia and Syria. We wanted a full-blown military alliance."
And then from Sergei Lavrov (via Sputnik):
Russia provides military and technical assistance to Iraqi Kurds with the consent of Baghdad and exclusively through the Iraqi government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday.
Of course the Iraqi Kurds and to a much greater extent, the country's Shiite militas, receive a great deal of support from Iran as well. The obvious next step here is for Russian airstrikes to move from Syria to Iraq. If that is indeed the plan - and we think it certainly is, as it would not only allow Russia to expand its influence in the Mid-East on the way to completing Moscow's utter embarrassment of Washington, but would also effectively give Tehran complete control of the country - then the question becomes one of logistics, and thanks to Russia's air base at Latakia, The Kremlin really has no need to send the Admiral Kuznetsov.
Here's Stratfor with some color on how Russia can conduct airstrikes in Iraq:
The start of Russian airstrikes in Syria has given new hope to loyalist forces in their battle against a host of rebel factions, including the Islamic State. Now Russia may expand these operations into Iraq if requested to do so by Baghdad. Indeed, from its position in Latakia, Russia has the range to strike Islamic State targets in Iraq, although further deployment of resources may be required to do so effectively.
Strictly speaking, targets in Iraq already fall within range of Russian naval assets in the Caspian Sea and of the Su-24 Fencer and Su-34 Fullback long-range ground attack aircraft Russia has positioned at Bassel al Assad airbase in Syria. Though these aircraft would have to spend less time over targets in Iraq than they do in Syria, Russia could conduct aerial refueling operations to remedy that.
Russian ships launched 26 cruise missiles in the Caspian Sea, striking targets across Syria after traveling through Iranian and Iraqi air space. Four of these cruise missiles crashed in Iran, near the town of Takab, as a likely testament to Russia's limited experience in actually using this type of weapon system in an operational environment. But the strikes still demonstrate that Russia's naval assets give it the power to hit targets in Iraq.
In other words: whereas previously, Russia only had a naval base at Tartus, it now has an air base at Latakia as well, which gives Moscow the range to conduct effective strikes on targets in Iraq and means its aircraft can also reach the Suez Canal, a key chokepoint for oil and global trade:
And while the long-term strategic significance of this should not be forgotten, the obvious near-term questions are: what happens to the US in this equation? Will Washington simply cede the airspace over Iraq to the Russians just as it has in Syria? Or is there a breaking point here at which the US decides that enough is enough with the Russian-Iran Mid-East power play?