Governments around the globe are watching Russia carefully to see what the Kremlin’s next move will be in its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, and every utterance from Russian lawmakers and government officials is getting extra attention. Unfortunately, interpreting exactly what the leaders of the Russian government mean when they make public statements can be a bit tricky these days.
For instance, with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, words that have historically been translated as “local self-defense units” have turned out to actually mean “Russian soldiers in uniforms stripped of insignia.”
Similarly, in early comments about Russia’s object in Syria, Putin himself promised that the objective was to defeat “ISIS.” As it turned out, in that context “ISIS” actually meant “anybody that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad needs us to drop bombs on to ensure he retains a hold on power.”
On Monday, new remarks by Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, who chairs the Defense and Security Committee in the Russian Federation Council, discussed the future of Russian involvement in Syria using another word with a questionable definition: “volunteers.”
Speaking to the government-run Interfax news service on Monday, Komoyedov said, “It is likely that groups of Russian volunteers will appear in the ranks of the Syrian army as combat participants.”
Now, to anyone who has been paying attention to the ongoing rebellion in eastern Ukraine, what exactly constitutes a Russian “volunteer” is very unclear indeed. Confronted with overwhelming evidence that uniformed Russian troops were operating inside Ukraine and engaging in combat with Ukrainian government forces in support of the separatists, Putin repeatedly referred to the soldiers there as volunteers. Any enlisted Russian soldiers fighting there, he said, were probably just on vacation.
However, evidence collected by international monitors, including the social media posts of individual Russian soldiers, made it clear that the so-called volunteers were in Ukraine at the orders of their superiors.
So, a week after one of Putin’s surrogates assured the Russian people that the Kremlin’s military intervention in Syria would be limited to airstrikes, another Russian lawmaker appears to be opening the door to the introduction of ground troops.
Interfax reported that Komoyedov said volunteers fighting in Syria might be motivated by “ideas” or “Of course, money most likely.” Interfax suggested that volunteers might be paid as much as $50 per day.
Also on Monday, Komoyedov said that it is possible that Russia will escalate its involvement in Syria to include the use of naval power. The Russian Navy has several ships positioned in the eastern Mediterranean, including the guided missile cruiser Moscow.
“Artillery strikes have not been ruled out,” he said, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news service. “The ships are prepared … But there is no sense in doing this yet, the terrorists are located where artillery can't reach them.”