BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Russian naval buildup in the eastern Mediterranean off Syria has reached disturbing proportions and threatens to intensify the war in Syria, a clear challenge to the United States and NATO made more pointed because it is taking place as Donald Trump prepares to become the United States' commander-in-chief.
Some military experts said they suspect the naval force that Russia has assembled in the eastern Mediterranean presages a significant intensification of Russia's air and missile strikes against rebel forces battling its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Others see it as a glorified training exercise in long-distance power projection by the Kremlin to show off its new and untested naval air arm and to demonstrate that Russia can do whatever the United States can — all to consolidate Russian President Vladimir Putin's push to reinstate Moscow's Cold War influence in the region.
Whatever its purpose, the Russian task force by all accounts now totals some 20 warships and submarines, with others on standby in the Gulf of Aden.
NATO sources said it is Russia's largest foreign naval deployment since the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. "They're deploying all of the Northern Fleet and much of the Baltic Fleet in the largest surface deployment since the end of the Cold War," one said.
"This is not a friendly port call. In two weeks we'll see a crescendo of air attacks on Aleppo as part of Russia's strategy to declare victory there."
Igor Sutyagin, a Russian studies analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London, takes the opposite view. "This is not the beginning of World War 3," he said in October. "It's more a public relations exercise, a show of force... This fleet is not capable of high-intensity warfare for more than 50 minutes."
If all Putin wanted to do was boost Moscow's firepower in Syria, however, he could simply reinforce the land-based air wing of 50-plus strike jets and attack helicopters already there.
Sending in a naval task force is a much more expensive undertaking and it is more provocative since the weapons systems these ships carry are capable of countering any air and naval operations against Russian forces the United States or NATO — or Israel, for that matter — might unleash to curb Russian ambitions in the region.
Many observers say Trump's relationship with Putin will define his presidency, which is expected to upend U.S. foreign policy and take the West into unchartered territory.
Throughout his election campaign, Trump refused to criticize Putin's expansion ambitions for Russia and has portrayed Russian air and missile bombardments in Syria as part of the campaign against terrorism. In return, Putin has heaped praise on the new U.S. president.
The task force is led by Russia's only aircraft carrier, the problem-plagued, 30-year-old Admiral Kuznetsov and the nuclear-powered battle cruiser Peter the Great, flagship of Russia's Navy.
The squadron includes the Udaloy-class destroyers, the Severomorsk and the Vice Admiral Kulakov, and four support vessels.
In October, it joined 10 other Russian Navy ships deployed off Syria in what is clearly intended to be a permanent Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, a significant challenge to the United States and NATO, which have dominated the region since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
Russia's state news agency Tass reported in July that the 55,000-ton Kuznetsov, which carries 15 Su- 33 and MiG-29 fighter jets and two dozen helicopters, would remain off Syria until January and would participate in Russian operations there.
It would seem Moscow wants to up the ante in a conflict that, if it comes out on top — and it seems to be doing just that right now — could do much to restore the global power status it lost in 1991.
Indeed, one way or another the Kuznetsov and its escorts look to be heading for their baptism of fire off Syria since the Americans, who want Assad gone while Moscow is fighting to keep him in power, may soon be left with no strategic option but to brace the Russians and their Iranian allies.
Western military sources say at least three submarines armed with cruise missiles are also to be deployed off Syria. Britain's Royal Navy tracked the subs — two nuclear-powered Akula-class boats and a diesel-powered Kilo-class boat — as they cruised through the North Sea from Russia to the Mediterranean.
Moscow has not confirmed this but there are concerns that the submarines could be deployed to launch Kalibr cruise missiles against Syrian rebel forces holding eastern Aleppo despite heavy assaults by regime forces.
"The Russians now have submarines in the Med," a senior British naval source told the Sunday Times of London.
Further, the recently commissioned frigate Admiral Grigorovich, serving with the Russian Black Sea Fleet, reportedly arrived in the eastern Mediterranean on Nov. 4. The state-of-the-art warship carries land-attack versions of the Kalibr.
On top of this, the missile-armed destroyers Bystry and the Admiral Tributs left Vladivostok, headquarters of Russia's Pacific Fleet, the same day as the Kuznetsov sailed from Severomorsk and are reported to be in the Gulf of Aden, possibly to back the task force in the eastern Mediterranean.
This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.