During the last years we have witnessed to the return of the Russian Federation within the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. After having abandoned for a while its historical interest toward the so-called “warm seas”, namely the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, Moscow has succeeded in reaffirming itself as a major player within the Mediterranean theatre. Russia has conveniently exploited each opportunity offered by the events unfolding in the region through the employment of its the military means, managing to achieve most of its strategical and security goals in the area, along with the economic and diplomatic ones. This Russian reappearance, almost occurred in the little period of time between 2014 and 2018, has never ceased to represent a major issue for the NATO, which has continued to remotely monitor this process while looking to avoid a direct confrontation with the Kremlin.
The development of the Russian structure
The Russian interest toward its southern flank sea basins has been steady since the time of Peter the Great. Throughout the centuries, the Russian states strived to expand its control over the Black Sea before and then over the Mediterranean one; such a process reached its climax during the Cold War times, when the Soviet Union deployed an entire fleet with the aim of militarily rotting itself within the Mediterranean framework, and especially in the Eastern region of the basin. But after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newborn Russian Federation, deprived of most of the lands facing the Black Sea basin and afflicted by major financial problems, found itself compelled to retire from the Mediterranean Sea.
Almost thirty years later, the situation has changed once again: nowadays, the Russian Federation is internationally recognized as one of the key actors in the Mediterranean theatre. Such a result has not been achieved following a pre-determined strategy, but instead seizing each favorable opportunity that showed up as a consequence of the deep changes happened in this particular area. Even if already in 2013 Moscow has asserted its interests in the East Mediterranean, officially re-establishing the Mediterranean Squadron and executing the biggest naval exercise since 1991 (Zonova 2015), it is with the Ukrainian crisis and the deterioration in the relations with the Western powers that Russia has started to think seriously about a strong comeback in the area. The main reasons behind this choice concerned the security perception of the Russian government: establishing a foothold in the Mediterranean would have not only moved away the new fault line from the Russian heartland southern flank, but it would also have allowed Moscow to stem the NATO supremacy in the sector, undermining the Atlantic security structure while bolstering its own.
The intervention in the Syrian civil war in defense of Bashar Al-Assad and his loyalists has been a milestone in the reinsertion process: beyond the deployment of a strong joint military forces in the waters off the Syrian coast and the reassertion of its figure as a key-player in the international scenario, with such a intervention Moscow has prevented the fall of an historically friendly regime (which would be probably substituted by a pro-western one), defending its right to use the Tartus base (a soviet-time logistical facility aimed at becoming a proper naval hub thank to a 500 million dollars-worthy investment) and gaining the control of the Khmeimim air base (Kasapoglu and Ülgen 2021). These two bases may be defined as the core of the Russian military structure in the Mediterranean Sea.
Another fundamental step has been the decision to support Khalifa Haftar in his effort to achieve the control over the Libyan territories. Like in Syria, Moscow had (and still has) the interest of installing a friendly regime in a quite strategical position (in the middle of the Mediterranean basin and in front of Italy, one of the main NATO members) and to gain the access to local military facilities like the Bangazi port and the Al Jufra air base; the acquisition of such outposts would strongly boost the Russian capability to militarily operate in the region (Figuera 2021).
Yet, the hard military approach it is not the only one available in the Russian toolkit. In its quest for a sunny spot in the Mediterranean, Moscow has also expanded its influence by resorting to its position as an exporter of military equipment and know-how. The case of Sudan is instructive. This African country has been for decades an important client for the Russian armaments market, also thank to the sanctions imposed by the United States against the former Sudanese government. In the December 2020, Khartoum has signed a deal with the Russian diplomatic representatives concerning the opening for 25 years of a Russian ‘logistical support point’ on the Sudanese coast, allowed to host up to four military vessels and 300 military personnel, in exchange for a constant delivering of weapons and equipment to Sudan; even if the Sudanese are now looking for a revision of the terms, a complete withdrawal from the deal from both the parties seems far-fetched (Allegri 2020).
Another example of the Russian capability of penetration may be found in Cyprus, where Russian capital accounts for one third of the total bank reserves. The strong financial position, together with a common cultural heritage that links together the two nations, has been to Moskow an important leverage to work on. As a result, in 2015 the two governments signed an agreement consenting the Russian ships access to Cypriot port infrastructures (Osservatorio Russia 2020).
This extended web represents the foundations on which the Russian Federation has built its military structure in the Eastern Mediterranean. The main component of such a structure is, of course, the naval one. The Russian Mediterranean Squadron has been composed by several surface vessels and submarines ‘lended’ on a rotation basis by the Baltic Fleet, the Northern Fleet and the Black Sea Fleet (even if the majority of the vessels usually comes from the last mentioned). As a result of the State Armament Programme 2011-2020, almost each of the newly launched or overhauled vessel is equipped with Kalibr conventional strategic offensive capabilities; in this way each single vessel of the fleet, submarines included, is potentially able to attack both land or naval enemy targets, without centralizing too much the offensive capabilities of the naval formation (Connolly 2019).
But alongside the offensive component, identifiable in the naval element, the Russian military posture in the Mediterranean Sea dispose also of a defensive element, detectable in the A2/AD capabilities. Through the deployment of latest generation missile weapons such as the land-based Iskander, Bastion or S-400 systems or the air-launched Khinzal, Moscow has shown its willingness to ‘fortify’ its presence in the strategic points of the enlarged Mediterranean exchequer (specifically, the Crimean peninsula and the bases in Syria). These ‘bubbles’, although unable to completely deny to NATO forces the access to the area covered by their range, would still be able to inflict sufficient losses to undermine the proper success of eventual military operations.
What does such a military build-up imply for NATO?
Even if Russia’s current posture in the Mediterranean region does not represent a great risk for the NATO Alliance southern flank integrity, a rapid evolution of the context (such as that which occurred in recent years) could lead to an increase of the level of threat. There is little doubt that Russia can take advantage of politically favorable situations, following the same performance enacted in Syria and Libya; in the long term, such an approach may be exploited to undermine the Alliance integrity itself. Further increases in the Russian military presence within the Mediterranean scenario could seriously question the superiority the Alliance has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War, while at the same time making Moscow’s intimidating use of its military instrument more credible.
Given the above, the Atlantic Alliance may act on two different lines:
- The first one is the military level. A slight increase in the number of assets deployed within the Mediterranean theatre, favoring units specialized in countering the Russian weapon systems in the area, would communicate to Moscow and to the other riparian states a certain determinacy to defend the role of ‘dominus’ of the Mediterranean Sea.
- The second one is diplomatic. Putting the necessary efforts in developing an internal mediation platform aimed at resolving conflicts between members in addressing certain issues might be an important step in strengthening the Alliance integrity. This would allow individual members to act with greater freedom, without risking giving Russia enough space to expand its position within the dynamics of power that characterize this regional system.
Allegri, Riccardo (2020, November 19) “Perché la Russia aprirà una base navale in Sudan”, accessed on September 22, 2021, https://www.osservatoriorussia.com/2020/11/19/perche-la-russia-apre-base-navale-in-sudan/
Connolly, Richard (2019, February) “The Kalibrisation of the Russian Navy: Progress and Prospects”, accessed on September 23, 2021, http://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/blog/2019/2/12/the-kalibrisation-of-the-russian-navy-progress-and-prospects-by-richard-connelly
Figuera, Pietro (2021, April 9) “La Russia è in Libia in cerca di riscatto”, accessed on September 21, 2021, https://www.osservatoriorussia.com/2021/04/09/la-russia-e-in-libia-in-cerca-di-riscatto/
Kasapoglu, Čan, Ülgen, Sinan (2021, June 10) Russia’s Ambitious Military-Geostrategic Posture in the Mediterranean”, accessed on September 21, 2021, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/06/10/russia-s-ambitious-military-geostrategic-posture-in-mediterranean-pub-84695
Osservatorio Russia (2020, June 11) “Cipro-Russia: un rapporto speciale che lega Mosca al Mediterraneo Orientale” accessed on September 22, 2021, https://www.osservatoriorussia.com/2020/06/11/cipro-russia-un-rapporto-speciale-che-lega-mosca-al-mediterraneo-orientale/
Zonova, Tatiana, “Mediterranean trend in the Russia’s foreign policy”, Rivista di Studi Politici Internazionali, Vol.82, N.4, 10-12/2015, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43785687\
Written by Lorenzo Piccioli