CNN's Matthew Chance is on board a Russian missile cruiser deployed off Syria
It plays a crucial role in Russia's Syria intervention, providing support to air raids
The warship was deployed in the region after Turkey shot down a Russian jet last month
Several miles off the Syrian coast, the Moskva, a Russian warship laden with long-range guided missiles, is a formidable symbol of Russian naval might in this stretch of the eastern Mediterranean.
I’ve been given rare access on board this 11,500-ton, 186-meter (610-foot) missile cruiser to witness the key role it plays in Russia’s air war against jihadist rebels in Syria’s grinding civil war.
Equipped with a powerful air defense system, the Moskva has been situated off the Syrian city of Latakia to provide support to the Russian warplanes crisscrossing Syrian skies in an unrelenting schedule of sorties from the Hmeymim air base.
In the two days I’ve been touring the Russian military operations in Syria, their jets have flown more than 100 sorties, destroyed 287 rebel strongholds and 40 oil installations, and killed more than 400 rebels, the Russian Defense Ministry says.
The Moskva was deployed here, not far from Syria’s border with Turkey, in the wake of Turkey’s shootdown of a Russian Su-24 jet last month, bringing an extra layer of air defense to the Russian intervention in Syria’s civil war. Russia has launched missiles from the sea during its Syrian campaign, although not from the Moskva.
Not long ago, an international journalist being granted this kind of access to an active Russian warship would have been even more of a rarity.
But the Kremlin’s newfound openness around Russian military activities is a reflection both of lessons learned from recent campaigns, and the sense of confidence Moscow has about its intervention in the Syrian conflict.
These days, Russia’s Defense Ministry runs a Facebook page and regularly posts updates about its actions. It’s a far cry from its stance during hostilities in the recent past – such as the 2008 conflict in Georgia – when it was difficult for international media to get a sense of the Russian perspective.
It also underlines just how well the Russians perceive their campaign in Syria is going.
Russian defense officials say that since the country entered the Syrian conflict at the end of September, in response to a formal request from Syria’s government, it has been able to significantly degrade the capabilities of ISIS and other terror groups, including the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
With more than 4,000 sorties flown, Russia has been able to stop ISIS in its tracks, striking the terror group’s assets and shrinking the territory under its command, they say.
They compare their impact favorably with the efforts of the U.S.-led Western coalition in Syria, which began airstrikes in September 2014. During that period, until Russia entered the fray, the territory under the control of Islamist forces grew significantly, they say.
Critics have accused Russia of unhelpfully targeting moderate rebels opposed to beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, rather than focusing its raids on Islamist terror groups, in order to configure realities on the ground in Assad’s favor and thus shore up Russian interests.
Wednesday, amid the roar of warplanes taking off at Hmeymim airbase, I asked Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov what Russia was doing in Syria – targeting ISIS, or supporting Assad.
“I can answer the question with our actions,” he said.
“Every day we show you how Russian aviation is fighting international terrorism, destroying their infrastructure in Syria.”
CNN’s Tim Hume contributed to this report.