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Russia Changes Its Military Posture In Syria


It's over a week now since Turkey shot down a Russian bomber along its border with Syria. Russia responded with harsh rhetoric and economic sanctions against Turkey, and it seems to be changing its strategy in Syria as well. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Moscow. Corey, how is Russia changing its military posture in Syria?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, it seems to be expanding its military activities a lot and especially its ability to defend its own forces there. Last week, for instance, we know that Russia announced that it's deployed its most advanced antiaircraft system - it's called the S-400 - and that's seen as a warning to Turkey and to NATO as well because these antiaircraft missiles can hit planes at a distance of up to 250 miles away, so in other words, deep into Turkish airspace. Russia also says that it's equipping its bombers with air-to-air missiles now, meaning that they can now shoot down planes that they see as a threat.

WERTHEIMER: So they are protecting their own forces presumably against another shoot down by Turkey. Does this mean Russia plans to keep up airstrikes close to the Turkish border?

FLINTOFF: Well, that seems very likely. Russia's Ministry of Defense said it's been bombing rebel positions in the mountains near where that bomber was shot down, but it looks like Russia's also planning to increase its reach into Syria by establishing a second air base. U.S. defense officials are saying anonymously now that Russia's begun building a second big airstrip at a base southeast of Homs. And they are saying that base could accommodate another 50 Russian planes, so double the number of Russian planes that are there now and possibly as many as another thousand Russian troops. Of course, so far, Russia's not confirming any of this.

WERTHEIMER: Now one thing President Putin and other officials said when this started was that this would be a limited operation. Does this mean that Russia is now making a bigger commitment?

FLINTOFF: That's hard to tell. Analysts think that if Russia develops this second air base, it would put them into position to strike at the Islamic State forces in Palmyra. You know, that's that city with all the beautiful Roman antiquities that ISIS has been destroying. So presumably, they'd be supporting Syrian army forces who'd be doing the fighting on the ground and not putting Russian troops into the fight. But even so that would be a significant escalation.

WERTHEIMER: Corey, NATO did something today that is pretty certain to displease Russia. It invited Montenegro, which is part of the former Yugoslavia, to join the alliance. That's something that Russia has said would be confrontational.

FLINTOFF: Yes, we expect to hear some angry reaction from Russian officials today. You know, they've already said that this is another move by NATO into a former communist country, and they see it as part of a plot to surround and isolate Russia. And this also comes at a time when Russia's been trying to cultivate individual NATO countries, such as France, and get them to cooperate in Syria. So it's going to be interesting to see whether Russia maintains a high level of confrontational rhetoric about this or whether it's going to be more conciliatory.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Corey Flintoff reporting from Moscow, Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.