Russia’s so-called naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus is receiving growing Western media attention amid reports that Moscow has dispatched eleven warships to the eastern Mediterranean Sea for exercises—and that some of the ships will visit Tartus. While some mainstream news organizations, such as The New York Times, have characterized the base as “little more than a floating refueling station and some small barracks,” others argue that a recent dredging program has prepared the harbor to accommodate the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Russian aircraft carrier, and suggest that one aim of the naval mission could be to protect Tartus. What’s going on?
On-the-ground reporting from Russia’s Vesti news channel is a good departure point for anyone interested in the base and raises considerable doubt about its military utility. Even for those who do not speak Russian, the video is revealing. It shows aging equipment onshore and on a repair ship currently stationed there—one close-up in the vessel’s machine shop shows a factory-installed serial-number plate dated 1967. Those who speak Russian learn that the “base” has a staff of four (now effectively two, according to the report) and that the PM-138 repair ship has only one-third of its normal crew of 150, with its capabilities accordingly constrained. The commander of the men on shore describes having lost twelve kilograms over the last six months as he shows the reporter a vegetable garden the few remaining troops use to supplement their rations. He adds that they receive half of their low pay via debit cards that are unusable in Syria. Whether or not an aircraft carrier could enter the port, it is unclear what it could accomplish while there.
It is also helpful to establish a little context. According to media reports, Russia pays $2 million per year in leasing fees for its base at Tartus. In comparison, in 2009 Moscow provided a $2 billion aid package to Kyrgyzstan to encourage the country’s leaders to shut down the U.S air base at Manas (though the Kyrgyz government ultimately permitted the base to reopen). This would have been enough to cover the fees in Damascus for a millennium.
Moreover, even with its low costs and with a military budget that doubled in the decade from 2001–2011, Russia’s Defense Ministry has allowed its Tartus facility—the only Russian military base outside the former USSR—to fall apart. This certainly says something about the Russian military’s priorities thus far. While Russian officials have in the past announced plans to modernize and expand the country’s presence at Tartus, something noted in the Vesti news clip, it is difficult to know whether the plans were serious even before Syria’s protests spiraled into civil war. Whatever Moscow’s original intent, however, upgrading the base now seems like a remote prospect.
Some commentators, like Daniel Drezner, look at the limited benefits that Tartus offers to Russia’s military and draw the erroneous conclusion that Russia has little at stake in Syria. This is superficial and foolish.
First, national interests are subjective rather than objective. In Moscow, it is Vladimir Putin and his advisors who define and prioritize the country’s national interests—rather than Russian think tanks or Western academics. The only practical criteria for evaluating a leader’s effectiveness in this task are the degree to which the leader’s views of national interests align with public perceptions (even in less-than-democratic societies like Musharraf’s post-9/11 Pakistan) and the eventual results of his or her policies.
Second, symbolism can be an important national interest even for hardheaded pragmatists; see Machiavelli or, for that matter, Nixon or Reagan. Credibility and the perception of strength are almost as important as real power and often can spare nations the expense of exercising their power, something especially desirable to those who may in fact have little of it to employ. (After all, Russia could not militarily prevent outside intervention in Syria, even at a very high cost.) Mr. Putin’s public statements certainly reflect this view.
Third, excessive focus on Tartus as a military base and even on the Russian-Syrian arms trade and Russia’s wider commercial relations with Syria misses some key facts. For example, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov claims that there are as many as one hundred thousand Russian citizens living in Syria; one of the articles cited above notes that Tartus could play a major part in evacuating them. More broadly, what would the United States have done thus far if one hundred thousand Americans were in Syria?
Rather than looking to Russia’s access to Tartus as irrelevant or, conversely, seeing it as the driving force behind Moscow’s policy, those striving to understand Russian objectives in Syria would do well to consider using a little nuance and common sense. The base has minimal military value—it can host high-profile visits by a few ships and allow them to spend a little more time in the Mediterranean Sea but probably could not sustain any extended or large-scale military operation. Nevertheless, its loss could have profound symbolic impact in the Middle East, especially if it occurs as part of an American-led regime-change process in Syria that moves forward despite Russian opposition.
It’s not so much that Tartus is Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet region but that the Middle East is the only region outside the former USSR where Russia continues to enjoy visible influence. Moscow has engaged only weakly in Asia and has little or no presence in Africa or Latin America (notwithstanding periodic trips to Venezuela by top officials). While its commercial ties in Europe have been growing, Russia’s efforts to gain a political role there have often been counterproductive. If Russia were to abandon Syria, or to suffer a political defeat, officials may fear losing influence in the Middle East peace process (where Russia is a member of the “Quartet” that also includes the United States, the European Union and the United Nations) and in international discussions of Iran’s nuclear program. Without visibility on those two issues, Russia’s international profile would be much reduced.
Russia’s naval base at Tartus is one component in these calculations but probably not a defining one. Yet it is intimately connected to many other Russian interests in Syria, including Moscow’s political interests. Neither overdramatizing the base nor dismissing it will contribute to wise U.S. policy choices in dealing with Russia or trying to end Syria’s civil war.
Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.