Exactly 304 years ago, the first Russian regiments to ever set foot south of the Terek River, make a landfall in what is today Northern Dagestan. They were brought there by the newly built Astrakhan fleet, designed by Peter I (1682-1725) for the purposes of the expedition. The Russian army numbered some 50 000 troops, along with a substantial amount of guns, munitions and food supplies. Their arrival was anticipated for months – the Moldavian prince in exile – Dimitrie Kantemir had produced a proclamation, written in Russian, Turkish and Persian. In it, Russia claimed to be interfering on behalf of the rightful government of the Safavid shah Tahmasp II in order to restore peace and justice. When the Petrine army halted their advance and constructed their first encampment, they were quickly approached by a variety of local followers – prostitutes, craftsmen, trades and people, who a present-day observers might choose to call ‘fixers’. This is how the story of Russia’s first intervention in the Middle East -the so called Persian campaign (Persidskiy Pokhod) came to be. Russia’s presence on the southern shores of the Caspian sea would last for twelve years until 1735. The army contingent that maintained the occupation came to be known as the Nizovoy Korpus (Lower corps). Altogether, 70 000 troops served in its ranks, a good half of whom perished from sickness, food poisoning and the unfavorable weather. The meintainance costs for the corps amounted to over 60% of the total military spending of Russia, which itself comprised between 80% and 110% of the available yearly finances of the Northern Empire.
In the course of the Persian campaign, Russia became the first European state to use a standing regular army outside of the ‘Old world’. Peter’s campaign paved the road for Russia’s Middle eastern policy, which gradually unraveled over the next three centuries. The Northern Empire gained some very valuable, even if hard earned, lessons from its foreign political entanglements with the peoples of the Caucasus, the Levant and Central Asia. Today, these political lessons are being applied when the Kremlin is constructing its contemporary aggressive approach toward the elaborate political ethos of the Post-Arab Spring West Asia.
It was on 1st September, 2015 when Russia set its newly proclaimed Space forces into motion and forever changed the course of the Syrian civil war (2011- )In the aftermath of the initial air campaign, Moscow sent ground units, which had to fill the gaps in the pro-Assad defenses and revers the unfavorable (from Damascus’ point of perspective) course of the Syrian conflict. The ground troops reached their greatest extend in 2017, when at least 4 500 Russian Troops, along with 2-3000 military police servicemen were stationed around several of the conflict’s hotspots. Along these regular forces, Russia deployed some 3 000 mercenaries, mainly from the infamous “Wagner” private army, although several other similar mercenary units were also present in Syria. An interesting add-on were the so-called “ISIS hunters”. Publicly portrayed as a Syrian governmental elite unite, they were (and are) infact a mercenary, multinational forces under direct Russian command and training. According to an official report from Russia’s Ministry of Defense, between 2015 and 2018, over 63 000 regular troops have been on rotation in Syria, without counting the number of mercenaries, who served terms (usually two or three ‘missions’ per volunteer). These are almost as many as the troops Russian brought in to occupy Persia in the XVIII century. The difference lies in the death toll. So far, Russia has lost 112 regular servicemen in Syria, most of whom died in accidents with failed military equipment. There is no official record of the number of mercenaries killed, but at least 500 have died so far since 2013 when the so-called Slavonic corps (which predated ‘Wagner’) was devastated by ISIS in Central Syria. The main reason for the relatively high body count of the mercenaries is attributed to them being used as assault troops for government offensives against a number of jihadist and rebel forces and fortresses.
Maintenance costs for the contemporary “Nizovoy corps” are also substantial though not as consuming as the old version of the Petrine era. It is estimated that Russia spends some 11-12 000 000$ on a daily basis (4 000 000$ in 2015, 8 000 000$ in 2016). This is due to the substantial number of military equipment deployed by Moscow to support its effort. It is estimated that Russia has deployed some 120 aircraft of different size and purpose, as well as at least 17 vessels, among them the only carrier – “Kuznetsov”. In addition, Russia has spent huge amounts of money and resources to maintain its constant and aggressive bombing campaign all across Syria. In another report by MoD, the Kremlin admitted to testing over 230 types of weaponry in Syria.
In 1722, Peter calculated (rather wrongfully) that the income from silk trade, marble and cotton production and the control over the valuable land trade routes would balance the army upkeep. In addition, as today, Russia sought to counter Istanbul’s aspirations for political influence as well as actual territorial expansion. Iran was again perceived as an ally, even if only to a certain extent, and local tribes were to be played one against the other. Today, the Kremlin is again driven by the pursuit of both economic and political gains. A report n the “Komersant” in 2016 estimated, that some 6 – 7 000 000 000$ were expected to come from military contracts for the provision of weaponry to the Syrian regime. Apart from these funds, Russia gained substantial income from its overwhelming grain exports for the Assad’ regime. Some 1 000 000 tons of wheat are delivered on a yearly basis since 2016 and it even created a small food stuff crisis in Russia in the spring of 2018. Other than the exports, Russia hopes to capitalize on its newly acquired rights to drill for gas, oil and phosphates – resources which can grant millions. In addition, Moscow has gained exclusive rights to build and maintain large military bases and airfield across Syria. The port base in Tartus was liaised for some 60 years, with the Syrian government renouncing its juridical rights over the entire base and everything in it. Different other deals have been made for Hmeimim airbase in Latakia, the T4 base near Palmyra and also several airfields in Deir ez Zor, Hamah, Aleppo and Damascus governorates. All things considered, Russia has certainly calculated the possible benefits from its intervention far better than it did in 1722
It is interesting to note that today, as was 300 years ago, Russian military presence acts as a sort of an economic stimulus for the local economy. Today, Russian troops have also attracted a permanent contingency of camp followers – prostitutes, craftsmen and trades, as well as fixers. In the big settlements where Russian troops are stationed, entire market lanes have popped up with signs and advertisements written in Russian rather than Arabic. Along these legal enterprises, the so called ‘gray sector’ also flourishes. Russian oligarchs and mafia have used the political chaos to strike profitable deals with local warlords, drug dealers and antiquities smugglers. The unregulated exports of gas and oil under existing canals is also a source of considerable income, in which political and military alignment have faded away in the face of lucrative gains. With the expansion of the ‘Governmental area’ some of the illegal oil and gas refineries that previously existed in Islamic state lands, have completely gone off the record.
A rather overlooked element of the new Nizovoy corps deployment is the increase of Russia’s military presence in the Caspian Sea. During the last three years, Russia has on several occasions used its Caspian navy to launch missiles against targets across Syria. The demonstration of forces has attracted much attention toward Syria but experts have overlooked the clear political and military message, which Moscow sent to all the states bordering the world’s largest inner sea. The recently invigorated debate on territorial waters in the Caspian sea will certainly provoke Russia into bullying its interest onto its Central and West Asian counterparts.
The role of the new Nizovoy corps will continue to unravel as the conflicts in West Asia drag on. In the XVIII century, a decade had to pass before Russia would pool out its forces from northern Iran. Russia has already spent three full years in Syria and as far as present day events demonstrate, a new ten year term is certainly not out of the picture. The Kremlin has learned its lessons rather well – no need for large territorial gains, only the acquisition of strategic bases and ports, along with lucrative trade routes and natural resources. Under Putin’s watchful eye, Russia has carried out, though with setbacks, a piecemeal policy in Syria, which has, so far payed off. The question that remains is for how long would Russia’s partners and opponents in the Middle east stand by and leave Moscow’s political ascendance unchecked.