On August 29th, 2022, an Israeli satellite company, ImageSat International (ISI), reported that Russia had shipped a battery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to a Russian port near Crimea in an apparent attempt to bolster its air defenses in the ongoing war with Ukraine.
Back in April 2022, ISI captured pictures showing the presence of the S-300 anti-aircraft battery at Masyaf, Syria, a city in northwestern Syria, and compared them to the pictures taken on August 25th which showed the empty site that was left after the hardware was shipped to the port of Tartus, located on the northern edge of the Syrian city of Tartus where the Russian naval facility is based. Images taken between August 12th and the 17th showed the battery components on a dock at Port Tartus.
However, by August 20th, the battery components were no longer seen and ISI concluded they had been transferred to the Sparta II, a Russian vessel, which left Tartus for the Russian port of Novorossiysk, located at the head of Tsemes Bay on the Black Sea’s northeastern shores in southwest Russia near Crimea, the illegally annexed Ukrainian territory. Data from Refinitiv Eikon, one of the world’s largest providers of financial markets data and infrastructure show the Sparta II is currently docked in Novorossiysk, having arrived there through Turkey’s Dardanelles Strait.
ISI images have also shown that the radar component of the S-300 battery had been separately moved from the Masyaf base to the Khmeimim air base, north of Tartus, on the Syrian coastline. According to ISI’s analysts, the size and weight of the radar made it unsuitable for shipment by sea, and may require an airlift by an Ilyushin-76 aircraft from the Khmeimim air base back to Russia.
Although the Russian defense ministry has declined to comment, if the transfer is confirmed, it would indicate a significant Russian move to bolster air defenses near the war theater with Ukraine, where Russian forces have sustained damaging attacks in recent weeks. Earlier on Monday, the 29th, Russia began a counter offensive campaign. Kyiv officials announced the breakthrough of the Russian defense line near the strategic eastern Ukrainian city of Kherson, which was occupied during the first weeks of the war.
The S-300 battery arrived in Syria in 2018 as a “gift” to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and was declared to be a vital upgrade for Syria’s old, hazardous air defense system. Rather than being transferred to Russia’s naval port in Tartus, the battery was placed inland and served to protect critical Syrian targets. Although it was claimed to be a part of Syria’s air defense system, in recent years, it became clear that Russia retained control of it. However, this recent event shows that Moscow appears to have officially taken its ‘gift’ back from Syria and shipped it off to the war theater.
Ukrainian military intelligence estimates Russia is running low on two of its primary land-attack systems it has used since the war’s commencement, the Kalibr cruise missiles and the Iskander ballistic missiles. Given Russia’s reported missile shortage, the S-300s could be used as guided missiles against Ukrainian ground targets, explaining Russia’s motive to relocate the batteries. Russian air defenses have been notably unsuccessful in particularly stopping Ukrainian attacks from drones in Crimea, in Russia itself, and on the forward battlefield. However, as noted by Ukrainian fighter pilots’ own testimonies, through the use of aircraft, Russia has had a major impact on Ukraine’s ability to push its limited fixed-wing and rotary-wing air combat power toward the front lines.
Russia’s decision to recall the battery components of the S-300 from Syria indicates a desperate need for weaponry in its ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine. For Russia to relocate a high-profile battery and leave Assad and Syria, its allies, vulnerable and exposed shows how the country now places the utmost priority on its increasingly perilous invasion of Ukraine, rather than its involvement in the proxy-war in Syria and its alliance with the Assad regime, which it cannot afford to prioritize at this moment in time. Through satellite images, Israel was able to quickly spot the deliberate purpose for Russia to move the battery to the Ukrainian front and realized the highly symbolic nature of this move: Russia is becoming increasingly desperate and is lacking resources to carry out its unjustified, unwarranted invasion of Ukraine.
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