Putin walking in the footsteps of the Iron Lady

Since Russia has started fighting actively in the Syrian Civil War, it has mainly stuck to providing air cover and close-air-support to loyalist forces as well as bombing positions of forces opposed to Bashar al-Assad. Although Russia has stated differently, it has been widely documented that these attacks mostly target rebel forces that are not affiliated to ISIS. Russia has deployed an aerial expedition force consisting of twelve Sukhoi SU-24M2s, six SU-34s, twelve SU-25SMs, four SU-30SMs, four Mil Mi-8MTV-5s and twelve Mi-24Ps to Latakia Governorate’s Khmeimim Airbase near Bassel al-Assad International Airport (and could be expanding its actions to another air field located in western Homs Governorate as well). 

However, the Russian forces have not only operated from inside Syria. In the beginning of October, four vessels of the Russian Caspian Flotilla launched a barrage of twenty-six 3M-14TE Калибр (Kalibr) cruise missiles against targets in Syria and from November 17-20th the Russian Air Force (RuAF) initiated one of its biggest air attacks since World War II. No less than fourteen Tupolev Tu-22M3s, six Tu-95MSMs and five Tu-160s conducted these sorties. Up to 20% of the Russian strategic bomber force and even 42% of all combat-ready Tu-160s were involved in this raid.
(UPDATE added at the end of the article) 

Tu-22M3, source
Tu-95MSM, source
Tu-160, source

Lastly, on December 8th 2015 it was reported that for the first time submarines were involved in the Syrian campaign. Several 3M-14TE Kalibr missiles were fired from Kilo-class submarine Rostov-on-Don operating from the Mediterranean Sea.

Rostov-on-Don, source
Rostov-on-Don, source
All of these attacks proved little to no tactical or even strategic gains regarding advances of loyalist fighters or at least the reduction of the losses of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and those militias it is allied with. However, these strikes should not be considered useless or absurd at all. For a better understanding of this instance, it may be helpful to have a look at events which happened some 30 years ago. 

On April 2nd 1982, Argentinean units attacked the British Falkland Islands, the main archipelagos being located approximately 480 km (300 mi) to the east of Argentina in the southern Atlantic. The invaders had previously taken over South Georgia some 1,400 km (870 mi) east-south-eastwards of the initial Falklands. The British government was caught by surprise and had no opportunity to launch an immediate full-scale counterattack to answer the assault on its territory. Instead the Royal Air Force (RAF) was ordered to deal the first blow with forces stationed in the UK. Two Avro Vulcan B.2 and eleven Handley Page Victor K.2 were sent to the small island of Ascencion where the RAF maintained (and still maintains) a base. 

Distance Ascension-Falklands, source
Though it was the nearest possible British owned position to conduct raids against Argentinean positions on the Falklands, the attacking aircrafts still had to surmount a journey of over 12,600 km (6,800 mi) during each sortie. This is why only the Vulcans were set to act as bombers, whereas all of the Victors served as tankers. 

Avro Vulcan, picture taken after plane returned from Black Buck 1, source
Handley Page Victor, source
Operation Black Buck 1 started on May 1st 1982. One of the two Vulcans reached the target and bombed the airport at Port Stanley. Two devices hit the runway and another one damaged the tower. Three Argentinean soldiers fell during these raid and some aircraft on the ground were damaged. The actual damage dealt to the British’ enemy surely did not justify the immense financial cost and logistical expenses caused by the operation and, in fact, the goal was a different one. Rather than being effective in a military sense, Black Buck 1 was supposed to send a message that the UK would not tolerate an invasion and would strike back by any means necessary. It was, so to speak, an act of PR. Concerning the latest Russian actions in Syria, namely the firing of cruise missiles from the Caspian fleet’s vessels, from half of Putin’s strategic bomber fleet and from the Rostov-on-Don, certain similarities to Black Buck 1 cannot be denied. 

From a military point of view these attacks had little to no tactical value, at best they were symbolically important. The bombed targets were less important, but a means to an end. It speaks for itself that even the Syrian or Russian media did not cover the destroyed targets of the above attacks in detail, but rather how they were destroyed: with the latest missile systems carried by huge bombers or huge ships. 

Both Russia and the UK used weapon systems the addressee of the intended message did not expect. The Argentinean generals had not thought of the possibility of such a long-ranged mission and were shocked that the Malvinas, as the Falklands are commonly called in Spanish, were vulnerable to British attacks before the enemy naval forces had reached the region. Moreover, during the war Argentina feared attacks on their mainland and held back fighter squadrons to protect it, thus lowering the number of fighters over the Falklands. As the British had intended, the message reached their enemy. 

This, to a large extend, reflects the situation in Syria. Much has been written about the Russian army in the past years. Most experts referred to the Russian army as underfunded and rotten which was not entirely false for several years following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Especially the submarine units and the bomber fleet had substantial problems which became apparent, when the Oscar-class submarine Kursk sank due to a malfunctioned torpedo on August 12th 2000. Furthermore, many of the Tu-160s could not be held in flying condition. So by using large parts of the heavy bombers as well as important navy units, Russia displays their new military capabilities.

However, there is one important difference between both situations. Whereas the RAF was on a mission to intimidate the actual enemy in a confrontation of war, the Russian attacks have another addressee: the Western world. Putin’s new message should be read as a signal to his political opposite numbers and a show of force to all those he sees as real or potential threat. Figuratively speaking, Putin does not address his opponents directly like Great Britain did, he is instead using Syria as the envelope to send the message he desires to be read. And this message is quite simple: Russia is strong and is to be seen once again as a super-power. 

UPDATE (December 28th 2015): 
Today I stumpled upon an article on the Swiss offiziere.ch. It features an amazing map and analysis of the Russian action in Syria up to December 11th 2015. Regarding the planes the RuAF uses in Syrian airspace, offiziere.ch lists slightly different numbers from those written above. It gives a hint on how hard it is to provide exact information about the Russian involvement and the very composition of the forces present on the battlefield. (Click here for high-resolution)

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