MOSCOW/BISHKEK (Reuters) - Valery Anisimov and his fellow Russian servicemen were smuggled out of the Black Sea hiding below the decks of their ship, they grew their hair long so they could pass as tourists, then landed at a Syrian port to join up with government military units.
Their trip took place in January 1983, 32 years before Russia’s military again joined a Syrian conflict with its launch last month of air strikes on militant groups opposed to the Damascus government.
As Anisimov’s story shows, even if Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict may have caught Western countries off guard, it is the continuation of a long history of involvement in the Middle East.
That role declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia broke and in chaos, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has now restored what, in the Kremlin’s eyes, is business as usual in the region.
“We moved away from supporting the Arabs,” said Pogos Akopov, a retired diplomat who served as Soviet ambassador to Egypt, Libya and Kuwait. “It was temporary. And it was corrected by whom? By Putin.”
Western governments take a different view, seeing Putin’s intervention as an opportunistic attempt to grab influence and enhance his reputation at home as someone who is ready to thumb his nose at the United States.
For decades before the end of the Cold War, Moscow was an influential player in the Arab world. It financed infrastructure projects like Egypt’s Aswan dam and provided weapons and military training.
Former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, the father of President Bashar al-Assad, studied at a military flying school in the Soviet Union.
These relationships also involved Moscow sending its soldiers to Syria - though for the most part these missions were not publicly acknowledged because the Kremlin did not want to be an official party to the region’s armed conflicts.
Back in 1983, Anisimov was serving as a conscript in the Moscow region with an anti-aircraft unit.
At the time, Israeli troops had invaded Lebanon and taken control of most of its southern half, while Syrian forces had taken control of the north. The Syrians were suffering losses from Israeli aviation, and the Soviet leadership wanted to shore up its Syrian allies.
Anisimov was sent to the Black Sea port of Nikolayev in Ukraine, now known as Mykolaiv. He joined up with about 1,000 other servicemen who were ordered to paint their equipment in desert camouflage colors.
They boarded a cruise line called the Ukraina, and set off. They were not told where they were going, he recalled in an interview. On the day of their departure, a local newspaper reported the ship was taking students who had won a Socialist competition on a cruise of the Mediterranean.
Once on board, they were told to wear civilian clothes and ordered to let their military haircuts grow out. Announcements over the ship tannoy were addressed to “Comrade tourists,” according to Anisimov.
Sailing through the Dardanelles, the narrow sea passage linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the ship had to pass an American warship.
Anisimov said launches approached the Ukraina, with listening devices directed towards the Russian ship. “We were shut up inside our cabins and they forbade us to speak,” he said.
A few days later, they docked at the Syrian port of Tartous, which, three decades later, is now the unloading point for much of the Russian military equipment being deployed in Syria.
“They said to us: ‘You’re in Syria,’ and they handed out our weapons,” Anisimov said. “We didn’t call each other ‘Comrade Major’ or ‘Comrade Colonel.’ We greeted each other by name and patronymic, so no one would know we were Soviet officers.”
Anisimov’s new unit, the 220th anti-aircraft regiment, set up its batteries of S-200 anti-aircraft missiles. Their role was to track Israeli aircraft flying into Syria, and, if necessary, shoot them down.
That order was never given, Anisimov said, but the presence of the Russian missile batteries acted as a deterrent to the Israeli air force, which had found out they were there.
A decade later, even after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian service personnel were again serving on clandestine missions in Syria, though on a smaller scale.
Oleg Popikov, now the 53-year-old chairman of a military plant in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, was a captain in the Soviet military when, in 1990, he was first sent to Syria.
For four years, he served as a military advisor to the Syrian armed forces, based in the city of Deraa, in south-west Syria. He stayed on in the role after the Soviet Union ceased to exist a year after his arrival.
His role, he said, was to train a Syrian missile defense unit equipped with Soviet-made missiles. He said he was decorated with a Syrian military medal, but did not see action. At home, his mission was not publicly acknowledged, but was described as a “special mission.”
“But I don’t begrudge it,” said Popikov, who retired from the military with the rank of colonel. “Besides, my pay was not bad.”
He said ordinary Syrians saw Russia’s military contingent as their protectors from outside threats. “If you went to a bazaar, they would give you fruit and vegetables for free.”
Popikov said he had kept close touch with friends from his time in Deraa, including two he said had been killed this month fighting against Islamist militants.
Akopov, the former diplomat, said the Soviet Union’s doctrine of close cooperation with Arab countries was a response to its Cold War confrontation with the United States.
Moscow was barred from trading with the West, and sought out new trade partners in the Middle East instead. And the Kremlin provided weapons to Arab governments to persuade them not to allow Western countries to set up bases there, he said.
That doctrine was dropped when Boris Yeltsin, Russian’s first post-Communist leader, took power and Moscow believed the era of confrontation with Washington was over.
But Akopov said the doctrine has become relevant again as Cold War tensions have resurfaced and Russia again finds itself isolated internationally.
“Putin understood this. He did not seek confrontation with the West but he believed you have to be strong so that people reckon with you,” said Akopov.
During the fallow period for Russian-Arab relations after the Soviet Union collapsed, Akopov published a newspaper called Bil-Amal, Arabic for “With Hope.” The name, he said, referred to the hope that one day the old ties would be restored.
Now, said Akopov, that hope has been realized, “because we returned.”
Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty and Margarita Popova; Editing by Peter Graff