After the Russian plane exploded over the Sinai and the terrorist attack in Paris, more and more often we hear talks about the inevitability of the Russian army’s ground operation in Syria. Although the official Russian government is hesitant to admit it, but more and more new military units of the Russian armed forces appear on the Syrian map. Building up the Russian group in Syria can be traced using open sources – by the traffic of the Russian ships going through the Bosphorus and by the changes in the Russian fleet.
In early September, activists of the InformNapalm international volunteer community analyzed the journeys of the Russian ships and suggested that the Russians were preparing a military operation in Syria. As a result, just two weeks after our article and right after Putin’s speech at the UN Security Council, the military operation in Syria was started.
And now InformNapalm, having analysed the information from open sources and personal data from the profiles of the Russian servicemen, will identify the locations of the units which take part in the Russian inofficial ground military operation in Syria. We will also analyze the increase of the maritime traffic and name the ships involved in the transfer of weapons and equipment for the needs of both air and ground operations. Most of these data are reflected in the infographics created thanks to meticulous work of the Visuals project.
Syrian Express Goes at Full Throttle
Today, two months after the launch of the Syrian campaign, we can make an assumption that Russia has already begun its ground operation in Syria, but has not officially announced it yet.
In less than two months, the Russian ships made about 50 journeys through the Bosphorus. Compared with the beginning of the year, the monthly traffic has increased more than twofold.
As before, almost 70% (33 out of 49) of the journeys were made by landing platform/docks (LPD).
Since the beginning of the operations in Syria, 17 journeys of LPDs to Tartus have been recorded. As before, LPDs of the Russian Black Sea Fleet take a more active part than other ships in this ‘Syrian traffic’.
- Black Sea Fleet: ‘Caesar Kunikov’ (3 journeys to Syria), ‘Nikolay Filchenkov’ (2), ‘Saratov’ (2), ‘Azov’ (2), ‘Yamal’ (2), ‘Novocherkassk’ (1).
- Baltic Fleet: ‘Korolev’ (3).
- Northern Fleet: ‘Aleksandr Otrakovskiy’ (2).
Approximate number of LPDs’ journeys to Syria by years:
29 journeys in 2013, 46 journeys in 2014, 66 journeys in 11 months of 2015. This number is likely to increase further by the end of the year.
Interestingly, in the last three years, the normal speed of passage through the Bosphorus (round-trip) was 10-11 days, but in the past two months most LPDs’ journeys lasted 8-9 days. Apparently, the rate of cargo operations increased and the time spent in port reduced.
After six months of repairs, LPD ‘Yamal’ is in the road again, and has already made two journeys in two weeks.
LPD ‘Aleksandr Otrakovskiy’ of the Northern Fleet actively travels along the route from Novorossiysk to Tartus, and its crew hasn’t seen its home city of Severomorsk for a year now.
Besides warships, auxiliary vessels of the Russian Navy are also actively used to carry supplies to Syria.
For instance, a bulk carrier ‘Yauza’, which was under repairs at ‘Nerpa’ plant (in Murmansk Oblast) since 2008, arrived to the Black Sea. Only in May 2015, the vessel was transferred to the Navy to join its Arctic group. However, already in September this ‘ice class cargo-passenger ship’ joined ‘the Syrian shipments’ fleet and has already made two journeys.
Another interesting fact: freight ferry ‘Aleksandr Tkachenko’ was sent from Kerch ferry port to Syria. On its deck during its passage through the Bosporus tilt-covered Urals and military personnel in camouflage could be seen.
Fuel for the group will be delivered by large sea tankers ‘Ivan Bubnov’ (Black Sea Fleet), ‘Lena’ (Baltic Fleet), ‘Sergey Osipov’ and ‘Genrikh Gasanov’ (Northern Fleet): “Large Russian Navy tankers of 1599-B Project can carry 1,000 tons of jet fuel, as well as 2,050 tons of diesel fuel, 8,250 tons of fuel oil and up to 220 tons of dry cargo and food”. , .
However, this was not enough.
Any way out?
Load capacity of the Project 775 (480 tons) and of Project 1171 (1,000 tons) LPDs, which are in service of the Russian Armed Forces, does not allow establishing of an uninterrupted supply for a large group of troops.
A possible option would be involvement of the civil river-sea class vessels (Volgobalt, Volgodon, etc.). However, the question of price arises here. Syria is at war now, the insurance rates for such journeys is higher. Transportation of the dual-use cargos to hot spots means additional surcharge for each trip.
In peacetime, the time charter rate of 7,000 dwt shipment (deadweight capacity) from Novorossiysk to Tartous is about 4-5 thousand dollars per day. In case of war risks price rises to 6-7 thousand dollars a day. Journeys that have been already made by the Russian ships lasted 20-30 days. As a result, one run to Tartus could cost above 120 thousand dollars. And these trips are needed regularly.
As a result, the Russian authorities decided to buy a few of these vessels from private owners and shift part of the traffic to them. Bloggers were the first who started to talk about this – it was about 8-10 bulk carriers, bought out from the Turkish shipowners. This has not yet been commented officially, but in October-November the newly acquired auxiliary vessels of the Russian Navy began the cargo loading in Novorossiysk:
- ‘Dvinitsa-50’, former Turkish bulker ‘Alican Deval’ (built in 1985, draught 7509 tons, cargo load 4638 tons) , .
- ‘Vologda-50’, former Turkish bulker ‘Dadali’ (built in 1985, draught 7250 tons, cargo load 4218 tons) , .
- ‘Kazan-60’, former Ukrainian dry-cargo/refrigerator vessel ‘Georgiy Agafonov’ (built in 1987, draught 2099 tons, cargo load 1774 tons) , .
- ‘Kyzyl-60’, former Turkish bulker ‘Smyrna’ (built in 1996, draught 4509 tons, cargo load 3796 tons — it was loaded at docks of Novorossiysk naval base on October 18) , .
One trip of such a vessel can replace several trips of military LPDs and free the main forces of the Navy for ammunition transportation.
The estimated cost of the ‘Alican Deval’ (‘Dvinitsa 50’) class ships can reach 1 million dollars for 1000 dwt. However, taking into account the age (30 years), these ships cannot enter any European port, but they can still work along the African coast of the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey, etc. As a result, the price for the ‘Alican Deval’ and ‘Dadali’ class ships can reach 4 million dollars. ‘Smyrna’ cargo ship is newer thus the price is around of 6 million dollars.
‘Georgiy Agafonov’ bulk carrier, reportedly sold by the ‘Ukrainian Danube Shipping Company’ to Turkey for scrap, began to sail under the Mongolian flag, but was quickly bought out by the Russians for the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The price paid – 0.8-1.5 mln. dollars.
The newly acquired ships are already involved in the ‘Syrian Express’. Thanks to the automatic identification system (AIS) we can trace the history of movements of yet civil ‘Alican Deval’ dry-cargo freighter this year: callings numerous Turkish ports of the Black Sea, passage through the Bosphorus, arrival at the port of Novorossiysk (October 4 – November 17). Then the ship was renamed to ‘Dvinitsa-50’ and assigned to the auxiliary fleet of the Black Sea Fleet. The AIS can be switched off on Navy’s auxiliary crafts, but for now it still works. Tracking of such ships is possible thanks to the help of projects like ShippingExplorer, MarineTraffic, etc.
We do not see any trips to Syria here, but ‘Alican Deval’ (‘Dvinitsa-50’) has already been shown on the first photos made by the Russian marines in the Syrian port of Tartus. This picture (archive) was made not later than on November 2 (please pay attention to the deckhouse repainted with the colors of the Russian flag, characteristic smudges on the boards and painted over name).
The picture shows the passage through the Bosphorus during a trip from Novorossiysk to Tartus, Syria (the archives contain the geolocation info)
We would like to note that much more vessels seem to be involved in the actual shipments to Syria. Most of these crafts have their AIS systems turned off and privily unload at Tartus and Latakia. Mikhail Voitenko adduces examples in the article in ‘Maritime Bulletin‘: ‘Atlantic Prodigy’ container carrier, the Egyptian ‘Kareem R’ bulk carrier, the Lebanese ‘Transfair’ freighter and others.
Vessels pass the Bosphorus, call some conventional Egyptian port, turn off AIS and ‘get lost’ in the eastern Mediterranean for a few days. Apparently, the practice of disabling AIS is intended to hide the involvement of vessels in shipments to Syria. And the shipments themselves involve much more crafts, including private ones. It seems that the Russians try to save on insurance, and try to hide the real scope of shipments.
Ground operation expected?
Increase of supplies to Syria did not slip under the radar in the social networks. Originally, the Russian side announced a contingent of 1500 troops for aerial support of the Syrian army and defense of airfields infrastructure.
To strip away this myth we list the detachments and equipment recorded by InformNapalm volunteers during last two months:
- Soldiers of 336th separate marine brigade, province As-Suwayda;
- 24th separate special operations brigade or 32nd separate motorized rifle brigade, Hama province;
- Soldiers from 28th separate motorized rifle brigade, Hama province;
- Loading of aviation bombs and 152mm shells in Novorossiysk on warship ‘Nikolai Filchenkov’;
- Dispatch of snipers company of 34th separate motorized rifle brigade from Novorossiysk;
- Soldiers from 74th separate motorized rifle brigade in Hama province;
- BTR, artillery tractor and ‘Msta-B’ howitzers from 291st/120st artillery brigade near Latakia;
- Handing out the ‘Syrian’ uniform to the soldiers of 8th separate artillery regiment of coastal troops of Black Sea Fleet;
- ‘Solntsepyok’ heavy flamethrower systems (presumably 20th regiment of radiological, chemical and biological defense);
- BTR-82А from 27th separate motorized rifle brigade in Latakia;
- Few newest T-90 tanks were found on the pictures of the concert of the band Blue Berets in Syria, Hmeymim;
- Local journalists photographed T-90 tanks in Aleppo province;
- Russian ‘Orlan-10’ drone was shot down over the Turkish-Syrian border;
- Military personnel of the 810th and the 61st brigades were spotted on warship on their way to Syria.
Thus, soldiers of several marine and motorized rifle brigades as well as special equipment, which is in service only in the Russian armed forces, were spotted in Syria. Here we should add also the mixed air regiment, which in two months grew up almost precisely twice from 34 to 69 jets, helicopter support, air defense systems, airfield service, regular air and sea shipments by air forces and ships of Black Sea, Baltic and Northern fleets.
In less than two months small ‘victorious air operation’ grew up to full military campaign, where thousands of soldiers in Syria and dozens of thousands in whole Russia are involved. Economical losses of this operation for the Russian Federation’s economy are huge and political dividends are very sparse, even if treat them as tactical victories. It is clear that Russia, trying to lull the attention of world community and divert it from the Crimea annexation and military operations in Donbas, is stuck up to the eyebrows in Middle East with the same reputation of ‘clumsy circus bear’. From all tricks of the Russian ‘bear’, simultaneous juggling and pedalling is the worst one…
Infographics by Visuals.ua