Russian Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean — snapshot of activity

Back in April there was uncorroborated information circulated on social media, announcing that Russia was to protect the Iranian ships — in particular the tankers carrying vital oil supplies to Syria.  Yet, it wasn’t readily known whether this would be a regular mission for the Russian Navy.   For a while now, tankers and cargo ships heading to Syria would go “dark” on AIS after transiting the Suez Canal. Hardly any Russian warship regularly uses AIS, so any information on escorts is sketchy to say the least.

The following article provides some details on an escort carried out by the Russian Nav back in October 2020.  Very little information is available on other escorts undertaken since then, until now. This is how the escort was framed by the UK tabloid newspaper, the Daily Express: with its lurid far-fetched clickbait headline,  — WW3 stuff, hardly.

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The reality is more mundane, with all likelihood elements of NATO SNMG2 keeping tabs on both the Russian Navy in the region and also Iranian shipping, but it is Israel that has more at stake in this matter, (more on this later).  The UK sent a patrol ship to the region recently as part of the NATO ‘Operation Sea Guardian’.  HMS Trent was last in Cyprus after having been off the coast of Port Said and also the Levant coast too. Add this, NATO SNMG2 ships were in the Syrian channel (between Cyprus and the Levant).

The Russian Navy had dropped a hint about escorting merchant ships back in October 2020, about ensuring “smooth passage of civilian ships.” The timing fits in with the article previously mentioned above.  In fact, the VMF carried out an exercise off Tartus “to monitor the situation at depth and on the surface, and to create a safe area for the passage of merchant ships.”  Certainly, it suggests that Russia was aware of ships being targeted by Israel back even.

Fast forward 6 months, the WSJ ran an article in March 2021, alleging a dozen of Israeli attacks on merchant shipping, (which I wrote an article about).

On 17 April Arabic Sputnik reported that a “tripartite joint operations room” would be established in the Mediterranean to ensure the safe arrival in Syria of oil and flour shipments as well as other goods to the Syrian ports.  This news came on the back of recent incidents with Iranian ships.  Several days later, there was a reported attack on an Iranian tanker moored off Baniyas.  Claims were made by officials that it was attacked by a drone, causing a large fire in which a Russian helicopter had to drop water to extinguish the fire.

This would have ruffled a few military feathers in Russia and Damascus, given the proximity to the Russian naval base at Tartus.  What with the deployment of air defense ashore and the deployment of the designated anti-saboteur ‘Grachanok’ class and the fast Raptor boats for port protection.  Even more, the Russian Navy has conducted exercises repelling an attack by saboteurs, (undersea and afloat), hinting at concern over covert operations. Similarly, the naval exercise in October 2020 was also about responding to a potential threat of SOF “group of swimmers” that could have been deployed from a submarine.

The Baniyas’ attack’ took place after another Iranian cargo ship off Yemen, the ‘Saviz’, was reportedly attacked by Israel in the Red Sea on 6 April. The ‘Saviz’ has been stationed in the southern Red Sea for several years and is reported to be an Iranian intelligence ship.  Reports of an Israeli submarine operating in the Red Sea were noted on social media and also featured in an article by H.I. Sutton.

Israel had once more stepped up its tit-for-tat attacks against Iran.

Snapshot of an escort

Image 1 Ivan Antonov. Source: author

Image 1 Ivan Antonov. Source: author

A Russian ship was seen on AIS, about 25nm to the north of Port Said in the evening of the 4th of May, waiting.

AIS screenshot: Source: vessel finder.com

AIS screenshot: Source: vessel finder.com

At the same time, a 231 m long Aframax Iranian tanker, ‘Sirvan Sabou’ was leaving the Suez Canal, entering the Mediterranean.

AIS screenshot

AIS screenshot

The AIS specifications matches to the  ‘Ivan Antonov’,  a Black Sea Fleet minesweeper forward deployed as part of the permanent naval squadron in the Mediterranean is based in Tartus, Syria.  Marine Traffic clearly shows the naval ship:

AIS screenshot: Marine Traffic

AIS screenshot: Marine Traffic

Interesting to note that it is a minesweeper that is providing an escort, but I doubt it is on its own though.  Until recently, the Russian Navy had a Project 22160 class large patrol ship ‘Dmitry Rogachev’ but it returned to the Black Sea at the beginning of April. There is the ‘Admiral Grigorovich’ frigate and also a Buyan-M missile ship part of the squadron.

[NB: HMS Trent which had been visible on AIS until its Cyprus port call has gone AIS dark since then].

Russian Navy escorts will help in circumventing the repugnant US and EU sanctions, since Syria is reliant on Iranian oil and wheat imports, thus effectively breaking the sanctions siege.   This is largely due to the fact the majority of Syria’s oil and gas resources as well the traditional breadbasket is located in the northeast, the area being under US-backed Kurdish control and out of reach of Damascus. To note that the US not only guards the oil infrastructure but also facilities the transfer of oil and wheat out of Syria via Iraq.

Middle East media reported that a convoy of three Iranian vessels has already arrived at Syria’s Baniyas under Russian naval escort in late April.  This was particularly noteworthy as the Suez Canal was temporarily blocked by the mega containership “Ever Given’, which caused a backlog of shipping, including much-needed oil imports for Syria. The Suez Canal blockage only serves to highlight even more the vulnerability and severe shortage of Syrian imports, and it stands to reason why the Russian Navy is escorting ships, to allow “smooth passage of civilian ships”.

According to social media information, Israeli defense sources claiming that the Russian Navy is also helping with the smuggling of weapons to Syria.  Israel has for a long time been monitoring and carrying out airstrikes to deny Syria armaments, that have been either flown in or transferred by land from Iraq.  Now it seems according to Israeli experts that there is a shift to the transportation on ships. Consequently, Israel is apparently vexed about this recent arrangement because targeting a ship under Russian Navy escort would incur hefty risks.  (Not that I see Israel unable to find another way or location to hamper such voyages, as hinted by the attack on the ‘Saviz’ in the Red Sea, or indeed infrastructure on land). Russian Navy presence in the Red Sea is limited to an intelligence (AGI) and a floating maintenance ship, (both called into Port Sudan recently), not something likely to undertake an escort role.

I think that there is a lot more behind the scenes to this, escorting Iranian ships is just one facet, barely visible, given the complicated and overall geopolitical context.  Although, it has become clear that a line has been drawn in not accepting the US and EU sanctions or Israeli actions in the Mediterranean.

The Russian naval escorts are another spanner thrown into the works by Russia as far the US and its allies in enforcing sanctions intended to deprive the Syrian state of a vital lifeline for the population.