With the fog of war swirling around Russia’s military intentions in Syria, a growing body of evidence pointing to the actual units being deployed suggests Moscow may have much bigger plans in the works, security experts say.
Photographs and videos compiled by bloggers in recent days have yielded images of Russian tanks, aircraft, artillery, and other equipment in Syria, as well as naval ships traversing Turkey’s Bosphorus.
Meanwhile, Russian blogger Ruslan Leviyev has discovered evidence on Russian social=media sites pointing to Moscow’s deployment to Syria of troops from a brigade prominently involved in the stealth campaign to seize Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula last year.
This unit -- Russia’s 810th independent Naval Infantry Brigade -- was one of at least three involved in the takeover of Crimea, in which armed, camouflaged men lacking identifying insignias seized strategic points around the peninsula in February and March 2014.
Leviyev found a post on the popular Russian social-networking site Vkontakte by a man identified as Anatoly Golota, who said he belonged to a subunit of the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade. The VKontakte profile has since been deleted, but in an archived September 1 post, the user wrote: “Off to Syria.”
Another Vkontakte profile featured a “contract” soldier named Maxim Mazhnikov, who also appears to be serving with the 810th brigade. One photograph appears to show Mazhnikov standing in shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops next to an illustrated poster showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin with the caption “The Time Of Courage And Real Men.”
Military observers say the 810th brigade consists of around 2,500 troops and is considered a capable unit that in the past has participated in operations in Georgia, antipiracy efforts off Somalia, and in Chechnya, where it suffered casualties during Russia’s second war with separatists that began in 1999.
“These are the guys who would go in first. Probably the case is that a bigger contingent will be coming sooner,” said Stephen Blank, a Russian foreign policy and defense expert at the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council. “These are the guys who would go first in a power-projection operation.”
Mark Galeotti: "It’s clear the Russian are upping the ante in Syria."
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University who researches Russia’s security and military structures, said the 810th brigade not only performed effectively in Crimea, but its subunits may have also rotated through front lines in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces have battled pro-Russian separatists in a bloody war that erupted in April 2014.
This would mean that more of the brigade’s officers have actual combat experience, he said.
“It’s clear the Russian are upping the ante in Syria, including combat troops rather than just specialists and trainers and tactical advisers,” Galeotti told RFE/RL. “Yes, it’s noteworthy, but it’s not something that will tilt the battlefield for Syria, for Assad’s forces.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova this week confirmed the presence of Russian military personnel in Syria, Russia’s longtime ally. But she said they are merely specialists assisting with arms deliveries, something Moscow has provided Syria with for years.
WATCH: What Are Russian Troops Doing In Syria?
Zakharova also said that the Russian deployment was aimed at combating terrorism and the Islamic State militant group in particular -- an argument that fits into the Kremlin's insistence that backing Assad is essential to defeating the militants.
Both NATO and the United States have expressed concerns over reports of a growing Russian military presence in Syria.
It remains unclear exactly what Russia’s longer plan for its presence in Syria might be.
Galeotti said a sustained operation could prove difficult because Russia has few good supply lines. Moscow lacks the equipment to airlift large numbers of troops or heavy weaponry like tanks, so the materiel would have to be sent by ship, which is more time-consuming and more visible to surveillance in passing through Istanbul, he said.
Galeotti added that Russia’s best-trained combat units and related forces have been stretched thin by the fighting in eastern Ukraine over the past year, though Russia denies accusations by Kyiv and the West that it is supporting the rebels with troops, training, and weapons.
If a larger contingent were to be deployed to Syria, it would potentially hamper Russian actions in Ukraine unless the Syria deployment involved conscripts, which is highly unlikely, Galeotti said.
Earlier this week, Dmitry Gudkov, one of the only independent legislators in Russia’s lower house of parliament, sent a letter to the Russian Defense Ministry asking specifically if Russian soldiers were being sent to Syria.
“I doubt that the Sunnis, or Shi’a, or the Alawites of the Middle East ought to be more valuable to Russia than its own citizens,” Gudkov wrote in an accompanying Facebook post.
“Enough with us fulfilling our ‘international obligations,’” Gudkov added, before making reference to the disastrous Soviet war in the 1980s. “We paid in full in Afghanistan.”