CNN was given rare access to Russia's usually secretive military
When it is given, it is truly astonishing, writes CNN's Matthew Chance
Russians are renowned for their endless patience – and I sometimes feel they like to test us foreigners whenever they can.
Certainly our journey into Syria with the Russian defense ministry was testing: Seven hours on a bus to a military airport outside Moscow, three hours going through security, then six hours on a Soviet-era Tupolev passenger jet to Syria.
It was 4 a.m. when we finally touched down, bleary-eyed, at the Hmeymin Air Base in Latakia on northwest Syria’s Mediterranean coast, the staging ground for Russia’s air war against Islamist terror groups fighting for control of Syria.
As we dragged our heavy boxes of equipment across the tarmac, the sun rose over the mountains on the horizon, casting light on the vast air base – and the sheer scale of Russia’s military involvement in Syria.
For Western journalists, any kind of access to Russia’s normally secretive military is rare. But when it is given, it is truly astonishing.
First hand, it’s clear that Russia is all in on Syria, militarily and politically.
It has deployed its most modern, sophisticated air weapons to the country and is using them to relentlessly pound the enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin’s Syrian government ally.
We were taken to the edge of the runway to watch close-up Russia’s warplanes take off on bombing raids, and return with their payloads spent.
We weren’t told what specific targets were being hit. But I can confirm that Russia’s war in Syria is an extremely noisy affair. Our ears were left ringing – perhaps permanently – by the deafening roar of Russian jet engines.
Once, our military minders took us a little too close.
A bomber landed off-center on the runway in front of us, with its wing overhanging the verge on which we stood. As it sped past, we were forced to dive for cover to keep our heads. Even standing around watching these machines has its dangers.
Food has never been the Russian military’s strong point – I remember being fed slices of lard in Chechyna when I covered the brutal battle for Grozny.
Almost exactly 15 years later, the lard – or salo – is off the menu. But limp, canned frankfurters with mashed potato for breakfast, with a pickled green tomato on the side, was firmly on.
It’s often said, by those who know about these things, that in any military, the Navy always eats better than the Army.
In Russia that is apparently true, as we found on our second day in Syria.
Lunch was aboard the missile cruiser, Moskva, deployed off the Syrian coast in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Moskva, as I reiterated in my report from its deck, is one of the most important Russian ships in the region and a key part of the Kremlin’s creeping military campaign in Syria.
It was deployed off Syria immediately after the shoot-down of a Russian Sukhoi 24 bomber by Turkish interceptors in November.
As well as being able to carry nuclear missiles (which we were told it is not), it is armed with a highly sophisticated air defense missile syste.
Along with advanced systems now deployed on the land in Syria, it means that Russia now has the ability to control the skies over Syria.
Actually, the range of the powerful systems means it can control the skies over southern Turkey, Northern Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon too.
The captain of the ship, whose actual rank is “commander,” told me the number of U.S.-led coalition planes flying missions over Syria has significantly decreased since his ship arrived – without even firing a shot.
Lunch, by the way, was a Russian naval classic, macaroni po flotski. Basically, it’s pasta with meat and no sauce, with a dollop of ketchup on top.
The Kremlin has consistently resisted the demand by Western countries, and armed rebel groups in Syria, that Bashar al Assad should step down ahead of any peace talks.
The fact no mention was made of the future of Assad in the recent U.N. resolution on Syria is undoubtedly the result of Russia’s growing diplomatic clout on the issue.
The Kremlin, of course, has economic and military interests in Syria it wants protected.
Although Russia has always left the door to the possibility of a leadership change in Syria, it’s formulation that it “should be the Syrian people who decide” leaves plenty of wiggle room to reject any candidate it feels is not sympathetic enough to the Russian view.
Any candidate, perhaps, that is not Assad.
To illustrate the complex nature of the Syrian problem, I assume, we were taken – on day three of our tour – to a government-controlled camp for people displaced by the war.
Russia is providing food, shelter and medical supplies at two similar camps in Syria in what it calls its humanitarian effort. But it was deemed too dangerous for us to be taken to either of those, so we were taken to the “Sport City” camp in Latakia instead.
Near the entrance, a large poster shows Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al Assad warmly shaking hands.
“This is thanks to Russia,” the poster reads.
The camp is home to about 5,000 people displaced by fighting who have made the choice to seek refuge not in the vast camps outside Syria, or in Europe, but under the protection of the Syrian government.
One woman, Aisha Adbulraheem – displaced with her family from Aleppo, told me why.
With her husband in the Syrian army, she was at risk from the “terrorists” she told me. Rebels cut off the heads of family members of Syrian soldiers, she said.
The Syrians that CNN spoke to said they were terrified about what would happen to their families if Assad left power. However, indiscriminate bombing by the regime and an ongoing civil war that began in 2011 has left more than 300,000 people dead and forced 10.6 million – nearly half the population – out of their homes.
It is not just the Kremlin determined to have its interests in Syria guaranteed.