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Russia's Military Capabilities


We don't participate in Twitter diplomacy. That message came from a Kremlin spokesman - and not on Twitter, we should say. Russia and the United States are in a standoff after a reported chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma. And President Trump, on Twitter this morning, again threatened to retaliate, saying an attack on Syria, quote, "could be very soon or not so soon at all." Now, we should say a Russian official has said that Russia might shoot down U.S. missiles if they are fired into Syria. Let's bring in Pavel Felgenhauer. He is a Russian military analyst, also a columnist for the publication of Novaya Gazeta in Russia. And he joins us this morning from Moscow. Welcome.

PAVEL FELGENHAUER: Well, good morning to you, too.

GREENE: Would Russia actually shoot down U.S. missiles fired at Syria?

FELGENHAUER: Well, of course, they would if they could. I mean, they'd try because that would be rather interesting for our military to actually join live military fire situation to test how our systems - could they and how effective we could shoot - they shoot down American missiles. So yes, of course, they would.

GREENE: You're saying that Russia might want to, but they don't have the capabilities right now in Syria to do this?

FELGENHAUER: Apparently, they do have the capabilities. They believe that. But how many they'll take down, that's another question. I mean, they try - not that the - how effective their Russian systems would be in taking down a Western cruise missile attack, that's an open question that actually the Russian military want to have an answer for.

GREENE: That's not something that Vladimir Putin would want to openly admit - that he might not actually have the capabilities to fire these American missiles, I suppose.

FELGENHAUER: Well, no. I mean, of course, everyone knows that missile defense systems that - of course, cruise missiles are not really kind of - they're not ballistic missiles. They are small jet planes flying very low but not very fast. But taking them down is, of course, also a technical problem, and it's an important problem. And, of course, the Russian military would want to know how effective they are - not in test runs but in real action.

GREENE: You have written about what you call a new Cold War. Are the tensions over Syria that serious at this moment?

FELGENHAUER: Oh, yes, they are. As in the worst crises of the Cold War, we're right now - United States and Russia are facing off. Of course, Syria in itself is maybe not that important. But it can lead to a direct military clash between America and Russia. And that could escalate even further into regional war - maybe even into a global war and become nuclear though, of course, that's - I mean, the possibility of that maybe is not that very big, but it's not zero. It is a possibility.

GREENE: You see a possibility of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia?

FELGENHAUER: Yes, of course. Right now it's very much possible.

GREENE: Well, Vladimir Putin has gotten Russia very involved in Syria - supporting the Syrian regime. We now hear that the Syrian regime has taken over Douma where this chemical attack reportedly happened. And Russian security forces are there helping secure that town. What is Russia's interest in Syria?

FELGENHAUER: Well, the primary interest is to have Syria as a base. And the Assad regime guarantees that's going to happen. Russia now has a military naval base - had a small one before, but now it's being very much enlarged. And Russia also has an air base in - mainly near Latakia on the Syrian coast, which is also very important. We didn't have that before. That means we have air capability and air cover in the eastern Mediterranean for our ships that are in the Mediterranean. But we don't have an aircraft carrier there.

GREENE: We have just a few seconds left. But how are Russians feeling in Moscow? I mean, are they nervous about a conflict with the United States?

FELGENHAUER: I believe yes. I mean, (unintelligible) Moscow, and people are more nervous than they are in Washington or in America in general. Here, the possibility of a war is seen as very real.

GREENE: That was Pavel Felgenhauer. He's a Moscow-based defense analyst, also a columnist for Novaya Gazeta. He joined us on Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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