Why Is Putin Flexing His Muscles in Syria?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, October 7. Putin is taking full advantage of the maxim “Never let a good crisis go to waste," the author writes. Aleksey Nikolskyi/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The Russian Navy's initial firing of 26 cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea into Syria on October 7 generated little effect on the Syrian battlefield—but that may not be the primary objective.

Russian President Vladimir Putin capitalized on this opportunity to showcase this new sea-based, long-range precision strike capability as a strategic messaging tool aimed at a variety of audiences:

  1. The international community. The American monopoly on the employment of long-range precision strike weapons is over. Additionally, even though this strike was executed from the land-locked Caspian Sea, it was a demonstration of Russian naval capability which inherently means Russian global capability. However, the Russians will need to secure access to port facilities for logistics sustainment to deploy this capability beyond the European theater, as I wrote last week.
  2. The United States. This event clearly demonstrated Russian naval capability and the will to employ it. Additionally, the Russians demonstrated the submerged launch of a "Kalibr" missile from their newest "Yasen" class nuclear- powered submarine back in 2012 that enables them employ this strike capability from the cloaking of the sea. It has been reported that the "Yasen" is quieter than the U.S. Navy's venerable Los Angeles–class submarine; the U.S. Navy is working diligently to rebuild the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability and proficiency of its air, ship and submarine forces to defend the homeland against the threat of land-attack cruise missile-equipped Russian submarines.
  3. Europe and NATO. All of Europe is now at risk from conventional precision naval strike; any fixed target can be struck by the Russian Navy while operating from the freedom of maneuver afforded by the maritime domain. This long-range strike capability can be employed far beyond the reach of maritime coastal defenses, which will force NATO and other European countries to review their Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (MISR) and ASW capabilities to detect the presence of Russian naval vessels; sea control capability to destroy those vessels if necessary; and cruise missile defense capability to protect against any "leaker" missiles that make it through those two layers of defense.
  4. Iran and Iraq. The missile flight path through Iran and Iraq was the only realistic option available to the Russians because a flight path over NATO member Turkey would have been too risky—particularly after the stern NATO response to an incursion of a Syrian-based Russian fighter into Turkish airspace last weekend. However, the fact that the missiles overflew Iranian and Iraqi airspace are a signal that adds "glue" to the Russian/Syria/Iranian/Iraqi intelligence sharing agreement announced on September 26.
  5. The Russian domestic audience. It is a long-standing Russian tradition to stage grandiose displays of military power at home for their domestic audience. However, the Syrian conflict has presented the Russian military with their first opportunity to leverage the power of the digital media age to stage a modern information operations campaign, complete with air combat footage, naval combat footage and images of Russian troops deployed to Syria.

Putin is taking full advantage of the maxim "Never let a good crisis go to waste." While the majority of media coverage has been narrowly focused on Russian aims in Syria, the world should keep an eye on the broader Russian objectives of this campaign—of which the end state in Syria is but one small part.

Captain Sean R. Liedman, U.S. Navy, was the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven operating the P-8A and P-3C maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. He has twice served in the Air Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operation's staff and also as the executive assistant to the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

Why Is Putin Flexing His Muscles in Syria? | Opinion