MOSCOW Military chiefs briefing Vladimir Putin on operations in Syria showed him a map with a reference to a unit in the center of the country that matches a Russian army artillery unit, suggesting the Kremlin's involvement may be deeper than previously thought.
Moscow, which is conducting air strikes in Syria, has repeatedly said Russian troops are not taking part in ground operations. If the unit is part of the Russian military, it would mean Russian forces are operating well outside the zone where Moscow says its troops are present.
The map was shown on Russian state television footage of a briefing at defense ministry headquarters on Tuesday evening, when Putin was being shown how the Kremlin was intensifying its operations against Islamic State.
Spotted by an eagle-eyed Russian military blogger, the map featured a dot near to the settlement of Sadad, between the cities of Homs and Damascus, accompanied by the words: "5 Gabatr 120th ABR 2A65 Msta B, six pieces from 14:00 06.11."
"Gabatr" is an acronym commonly used in the Russian military for "Howitzer Battery." The acronym "ABR" stands for "Artillery Brigade". The designation "2A65 Msta B" describes a type of howitzer in use by the Russian military.
The Russian military has a 120th artillery brigade, based in Siberia armed with 2A65 guns. A duty serviceman contacted by Reuters on Wednesday confirmed the brigade was based in Siberia, but said he did not know whether it was active in Syria.
Siberian TV channel Yenisei-region has in the past broadcast footage from a local firing range where the 120th brigade was test firing the 2A65 guns.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about the map, said: "In Syria there is a technical contingent (of troops) linked with carrying out the Russian air force operation."
"There are no ground forces there and Russian soldiers are not carrying out a ground operation. The president has said that many times."
He said further questions should be addressed to the Defense Ministry and that he was not an expert in military maps.
Two spokesmen from the Russian defense ministry declined to comment. Nor did the ministry immediately respond to written questions on the subject from Reuters.
The map displayed in the defense ministry briefing was entitled: "Activities of the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic in the area of the Mheen settlement."
Islamist militants are encircled by Syrian government forces in Mheen, according to Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian general staff, who was speaking during the briefing.
WITHIN ARTILLERY RANGE
The point where the map showed the artillery is roughly 20 km (12.5 miles) from Mheen, which would put the militants there within range of the Russian artillery.
Russia has up to now said that it has troops on the ground at two locations, at the Tartous port the Russian navy leases from Syria, and at an airstrip near Latakia, in western Syria, from where the Russian air force conducts strikes.
It has also said it has military advisers and instructors working alongside the Syrian armed forces.
If it has an artillery firing point in Syria too, it would mark an upgrading of its presence.
Such an escalation would carry risks for Russia too, because it would increase the possibility of combat casualties, a hugely sensitive issue for the Russian public which still has raw memories of military entanglements in Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Peskov said Russia believed its air strikes alone were not sufficient to defeat Islamic State militants, that a ground operation was necessary and the only force that could conduct that was the Syrian army.
Putin called on his defense chiefs on Tuesday to redouble their campaign against Islamic State, in Syria and elsewhere, after Russian officials confirmed that a bomb had brought down a Russian passenger jet in Egypt this month, killing 224 people.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Richard Balmforth)