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Listening and watching

Russia’s relationship with Syria has its roots in the Cold War, when the Soviets and the West sought clients and allies in the Middle East. Damascus has been in Moscow’s camp since Hafez Assad, the father of current President Bashar Assad, seized power in 1963.

The Russian base at Tartus on Syria’s coast — also thought to house a listening post for Russian intelligence — is Moscow’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. The recent deployments are part of a familiar pattern of gunboat diplomacy off the Syrian coast since the turmoil began there in March 2011, said Lee Willett, editor of the defense journal IHS-Jane’s Navy International.

Russia has, of course, deployed task groups to the Mediterranean on a number of occasions over the last two years as the Syria crisis has ebbed and flowed,” Mr. Willett said. “On each occasion, the use of naval force has enabled it to display [a military] presence without overcommitting itself to Assad’s cause.”

According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Moscow has sent the Priazovye to the eastern Mediterranean with the anti-submarine ship Adm. Panteleyev, two destroyers (the Smetlivy and the Nastoichivy), a frigate (the Neustrashimy), and four landing ships (the Alexander Shabalin, the Adm. Nevelsky, the Peresvet and the Nikolai Filchenkov).

According to IHS-Jane’s Fighting Ships, the Soviet Union built five spy ships like the Priazovye in the 1980s and equipped them with a full suite of electronic and enhanced optical sensors that gather intelligence through passive “listening” and “watching” of electromagnetic emissions from target vessels.

During the Cold War, they were often deployed just outside U.S. territorial waters to try to eavesdrop on U.S. communications and operations.

Russian officials have said publicly that the deployment is for the evacuation of Russian personnel and other citizens if Syrian security collapses.

This week, the Russian armada will be joined by two more large landing ships (the Novocherkassk and the Minsk) and the missile cruiser Moskva, which Mr. Willett said is “one of the most capable ships in the Russian fleet.”

Superpower dreams

But the Russians are not seeking confrontation, he said.

“Sending naval ships to international waters off Syria enables Russia to make its point without risking confrontation with the United States,” Mr. Willett said.

This muscle-flexing on the high seas follows Russia’s decision to become a roadblock to international action on Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb Aug 21.

The Russian naval deployments were leaked as Mr. Putin hosted last week’s G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, from which Mr. Obama limped away without even the closest of U.S. allies backing his call for immediate military action.

Eleven of the 20 countries did sign a joint statement saying the evidence indicated the Syrian government’s culpability and calling for a strong international response. But the statement made no mention of U.S. plans for a military strike.

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