In Depth

How Russia is using Syria in ‘Cold War-style stand-off’ with West

Moscow deploys nuclear bombers to strengthen Bashar al-Assad’s regime - and boost its own power

Moscow is tightening its grip over President Bashar al-Assad by deploying three nuclear-capable long-range bombers to Russia’s military base in Syria.

Russia’s Defence Ministry confirmed on Tuesday that “three Tu-22M3 bombers have arrived at the Hemeimeem air base”, which is located in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia and is “the main hub for Moscow’s operations in the country”, Associated Press (AP) reports. 

The deployment is part of Vladimir Putin’s “efforts to beef up Russia’s military amid tensions with the West” and “marks the first time since Cold War times that Moscow has stationed heavy bombers in the region”, the news agency adds.

‘Stand-off’

The Russian president has been masterminding a military campaign in Syria since September 2015, providing aerial assistance that has helped the Assad regime regain control of much of the country from Syrian rebels and Islamic State militants. 

However, AP reports that the Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers sent to Hemeimeem have “a range exceeding 5,000 kilometers [3,100 miles]” – far enough to reach all of Europe, Scandinavia, Africa and other nuclear powers including India and Pakistan.

The Russian Defence Ministry has announced plans to use the bombers, codenamed Backfire by Nato, in training exercises in new geographical areas over the Mediterranean.

US President Joe Biden is trying to orchestrate a “detente by meeting President Putin in Geneva next month”, but Moscow’s move into the Mediterranean “advances its Cold War-style stand-off with the West in Europe”, says The Times.

The nuclear deployment also boosts “Russia’s growing military and diplomatic clout across the Middle East”, at a time when the US is staging a withdrawal from the region amid a “pivot to Asia”, the paper adds.

Russia’s “clout has grown rapidly” in the Middle East, agrees Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, in an article for The Hill

“And much of that clout comes from its gamble to increasingly insert itself in the Syrian civil war,” he writes. Russia’s “perceived success in Syria” has helped thrust the re-emerging superpower back on to “the world stage”.

Moscow’s recent decision to deploy nuclear bombers to Syria “will have been agreed by Assad, but possibly with reluctance”, The Times says. To maintain “real power”, Assad is “uneasily dependent on the whim of Russia and his other main benefactor, Iran”.

Shifting sands

US troops and their Nato allies will leave Afghanistan “by early to mid-July”, well ahead of Biden’s 11 September withdrawal deadline, in an “accelerated ending to America’s longest war”, The New York Times reports.

But “the race to the exits” has left the US “grappling with huge unresolved issues that officials had thought they would have more time to figure out”, including “how it will combat terrorist threats like Al-Qaeda from afar after American troops leave”, says the paper.

Meanwhile, Russia “has opened doors” in the region, with “traditional US partners such as Egypt, the Gulf states and Israel” now listening to Moscow “in ways they didn’t just ten years ago”, Frantzman writes on The Hill.

The Syrian conflict has been “transformational for Moscow”, he continues, with “the US essentially sidelined” as Russia “prevented the fall of the Assad regime” and “rapidly became a power broker in Syria, working with Iran and Turkey”. 

Now, the deployment of the nuclear bombers means Russia is “ideally located for mounting maritime bomber patrols and keeping watch on Nato naval operations in the Mediterranean”, says The Times.

But the move is also emblematic of a wider shift, adds Frantzman. “If the US and Western countries want to confront Russia successfully they will need to understand how Moscow leveraged its Syrian model for influence and became a power broker around the Middle East and further afield,” he concludes.

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