Russia is back as a military force. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the Western world in his famous 2007 Munich Security Conference speech that Russia was tired of being lied to and ignored, and if something didn't change it would push back.
Nothing changed. Russia pushed back.
In 2021 Putin sacrificed the prosperity of the noughties to spend every spare kopek on re-equipping the military, a campaign that more or less finished in 2018.
Part of that push-back was to secure the naval base in the Crimea at Sevastopol by annexing the peninsula in 2014. The base is a key installation that gives Russia a base to cover the Black Sea, Bosphorus Straits and the Mediterranean Sea and so protect its broad southern belly. Russia has always had a base there and it plays a central role in the defence of Russia’s southern regions. Having secured the base, Russia has been building up its presence and forces on the peninsula.
“Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is an integral part of its strategy for the wider European theatre, which has long been the principal arena of its foreign policy triumphs and setbacks,” Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky of Russia Strategic Initiative (RSI), a US Department of Defence organisation, said in a paper published by the Carnegie Centre Moscow.
Western NATO allies have looked on with some alarm at Russia’s expansion in the Mediterranean. The other significant development was the expansion of the Russian naval base at Tartus in the eastern Mediterranean in Syria that was expanded as part of Russia’s military campaign in that country at the invitation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“Since Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, alarms have been sounded about the Kremlin’s ambitions and military capabilities in the Mediterranean. These alarms have been unfounded; Russian capabilities in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region are modest, and the Kremlin’s ambitions there are constrained by geography and geopolitics, limited resources, a transactional approach to relationships and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO’s) formidable force posture on its southern flank. As much as Russia may aspire to regional domination, it lacks the means to achieve this goal,” the RSI authors said.
Nevertheless, they go on to say Russia is now a serious “presence to be reckoned with” in the eastern part of the sea and it isn’t going anywhere, as Moscow has invested heavily in building up its ties with the unaligned powers in the region, including Iran as well as Syria.
The authors argue that Russia’s move into the region is not part of a strategy to re-establish itself as a Great Power, but primarily defence and in reaction to the possibility of a conflict with NATO in Europe to protect its flank and southern regions.
“The principal rationale for Russia’s return to the region has been the prospect of a military confrontation in the European theatre and concerns about the vulnerability of its southern flank in a conflict with NATO. While Russia has sought, in fact, to regain its old Cold War footing – and has been skillful and opportunistic in exploiting openings to expand its footprint – it has acted with caution, avoiding undue risks and, most of all, an outright confrontation with the United States,” the authors said. “The Kremlin may aspire to dominate the Mediterranean one day, but for now its aim is to deny this option to NATO.”
Long history of Russia in the region
Russia’s push into the Mediterranean has intensified since its military deployment to Syria in 2015, shortly after the naval base in the Crimea was secured. For most of the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the annexation of Crimea Russia had largely been absent from the Mediterranean – a big change from centuries of playing a large role in the region stretching back to the tenth century when Kievan Rus converted to Christianity in 988 during the reign of Prince Vladimir, who also married the Byzantine emperor’s sister. From the start Russia was always driven towards the Mediterranean due to its lack of warm water ports, despite having one of the longest coastlines in the world. This ambition was finally fulfilled by Catherine the Great, who annexed the Crimea and the surrounding “Novorossiya” lands for the first time in the 18th century in a war with Turkey.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union built up its naval forces but was largely unsuccessful at gaining influence over the region.
“Despite great ambitions and investments, and even occasional successes, the results of the Soviet Union’s pursuit of a sphere of influence in the Mediterranean were modest at best and frequently disappointing. Throughout the Cold War its ambitions were contained by a combination of the country’s geography and East-West competition. What had been an established and constant naval presence came to an end in 1993,” the RSI authors wrote.
The continuing presence of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol, based on a treaty negotiated with Ukraine in 1997, faced an uncertain future considering the latter’s aspirations to join NATO, which eventually led Putin to secure the base by annexing the peninsula after 2008 vague promises by NATO to admit Ukraine and Georgia as members at some unspecified future.
Bulgaria and Romania had joined NATO in 2004 and one former Soviet state after another signed up in the next years. In 2011, Romania agreed to deploy missiles as part of the US-led middle defence system again “rogue” states.
“That commitment held out the possibility that Russia would lose access to Sevastopol, leaving it with only one major port in Novorossiysk and presenting Moscow with the prospect of the Black Sea becoming a NATO lake with grave consequences for its security,” the authors wrote.
“These were important considerations in the Kremlin’s decisions to wage war in 2008 against Georgia and invade Ukraine six years later. Their prospects of NATO membership and until then closer partnership with the alliance promised a major transformation of the Black Sea region, new threats to Russia’s ability to project power into the Mediterranean and defend its position in the Black Sea,” they added. Specifically, Putin highlighted the danger of Crimea and Sevastopol being transformed into missile launch pads for US “defensive” missiles that would directly threaten Russia’s entire productive southern belly.
While from a Western perspective the wars waged against Ukraine and Georgia were designed to keep the countries from joining NATO, from a Russian perspective they have achieved more than their intended purpose. “In the eyes of foreign observers, the conflicts have created two hostile states on Russia’s south-western border. But from Moscow’s perspective they prevented the penetration of a hostile alliance in this critical region,” the authors argue.
Nevertheless, all the problems of being bottled up in the Black Sea that Catherine the Great faced are still there and if anything, after the Georgian and Ukrainian wars, are even more acute than before.
In 2015 Russia deployed its troops abroad for the first time since the Cold War to support Assad. The major motivations for this decision were to extend Russia’s influence in the Middle East, but also to extend its naval power in the Mediterranean beyond the Bosphorus Straits.
“With its military intervention, Russia has re-established itself as a significant military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean with a long-term base agreement with Syria that secures its presence at the Tartus naval facility and Hmeimim air base, both of which are undergoing major expansion in order to accommodate a greater naval and air presence,” RSI said.
One of the immediate consequences of this beefing up of its naval and air power in the east Mediterranean is that Moscow has gained a major source of leverage over Turkey, which has led to several rows as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to flirt with Russia as he attempted to play East off against West.
“This is an important gain for Russia in its standoff with NATO, in which Turkey is potentially the pivotal actor in the context of Europe’s southern flank and of the Mediterranean. Russia has engaged in a balancing act with Turkey in a transparent effort to drive a wedge between it and the rest of NATO,” the authors said.
Russia’s improved presence in the region has also led to better relations with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has “found a partner in Putin.” Egypt and Russia have signed several major arms deals for purchases of Russian fighter jets, helicopters and other weapons systems worth billions of dollars. Russia has not gained access to Egypt’s bases but the militaries have conducted joint exercises and are on friendly terms.
Progress has been made, but the gains, while important, are not game-changers.
“The expansion of Russia’s presence in Syria, while significant, has offered Russia only a relatively modest capability for power projection in the Mediterranean. Elsewhere in the region, persistent attempts to rebuild ties to former clients and secure ties with new partners have proved only moderately successful,” the authors say.
“As in the Soviet era, arms sales have been a useful door-opener, but hardly sufficient to secure the kind of access that diplomats and military leaders have been after in order to establish Russia as a major actor in the geopolitics of the region with diplomatic heft and military capabilities to counter the combined weight of the United States, its NATO allies and the European Union,” they conclude.