Russia’s Posture in the Mediterranean: Implications for NATO and Europe

Written by | Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021

In the past decade, Russia has reinforced its posture in and around the Mediterranean – from the Levant to North Africa and, in multiple ways, vis-à-vis Turkey. Through its recent actions, Russia’s priorities in the region have revolved around four main axes: boosting its presence in the energy sector; deploying a permanent military force in Syria and fighting Islamist extremism; partnering with Turkey for Russia’s wider strategic goals; and making the Russian military presence in the region more efficient through a combination of small bases and military commuting. In these domains, Russia’s stance creates new challenges for NATO and the EU, especially considering the development of permanent bases in Syria, Libya, and Sudan and Russia’s involvement in Turkey’s missile defense. These implications go far beyond the Mediterranean Basin proper and also concern the Black Sea, Western Europe, and Africa.

When assessed against Russia’s prevailing belief that NATO intends to encircle the country, Moscow’s activities in the Mediterranean combine a defensive posture with a renewed ambition to assert its presence on the global stage. NATO and its members should seize the opportunity of a revived transatlantic relationship to respond more robustly in several areas. More concretely, the actions taken by Russia in and around the Mediterranean are the country’s instruments of choice for competing with the EU and NATO on their southern flank. Moscow’s policies benefit from a traditionally strong energy sector and recently revitalized armed forces, but they suffer from a limited financial capacity to intervene outside these two sectors. There are four policy priorities that are emerging from Russian actions: energy politics; a permanent, multipurpose deployment in Syria; relationship with Turkey and economist; and military presence in the Mediterranean.

Firstly, energy politics has long been a central part of Russia’s geopolitical influence in the world. Analysts have long argued that energy is a major driver of Moscow’s policies in the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean has indeed been a major focus of this strategy, alongside other components such as reducing Moscow’s reliance on Ukraine for gas supplies to Western Europe, thwarting the EU’s energy diversification strategy, and creating a new gas corridor toward southeastern Europe via the Turk Stream gas pipeline. Part of Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is to get a foothold in countries where new energy developments are taking place: Egypt, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan, Algeria, Libya and Turkey. This being said, Russia’s use of energy politics for foreign policy purposes has its challenges. The Russian economy relies heavily on energy income, and therefore state resources depend on fluctuations in energy prices. Trade in liquefied natural gas is substantially transforming energy markets worldwide, while the coronavirus-induced recession will result in a lasting drop in energy demand in Western European countries, as will the greening of their economies. And Russia is facing strong competition from Iran and the Gulf kingdoms as major oil and gas producers. All things considered, Russia’s energy politics will likely remain a crucial component of the country’s presence on the world stage, in particular in the Mediterranean. But these policies will have to keep evolving in response to a fast-changing environment in the gas sector and political developments such as the stabilization and reconstruction process in Libya.

Secondly, Syria has long been a military client of Russia and, previously, the Soviet Union, especially during the 1971–2000 presidency of Hafez al-Assad. The relationship took on a new dimension after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the gradual disengagement of the United States from the Middle East. The first of Russia’s military objectives in Syria after its September 2015 intervention was to rescue the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the brink. Russia’s second objective was to establish a forward military base in the Middle East. Its two bases in the country – Hmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility – are here stay and grow, consistent with Moscow’s long-term objectives in the region and vis-à-vis NATO. Russia’s military intervention in Syria served this wider geopolitical objective by demonstrating that Moscow possessed enough military might to respond swiftly to a crisis in accordance with its own interests and independently of other major powers. Russia’s intervention in Syria has also demonstrated Moscow’s substantially enhanced capacity to project power. Well beyond rescuing the Assad regime, Russia’s strategic priority was – and remains to date – to beef up its buffer zone against NATO on the country’s southern flank. Part of the reason for the intervention in Syria was that Russian authorities have long been wary of Islamist terrorism at home, especially in or from Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Muslim enclaves in Russia’s heartland.

Thirdly, in implementing its energy strategy in Europe and its politico-military strategy in Syria, Russia needed to establish close cooperation with Turkey. But the relationship between Moscow and Ankara took on other dimensions, too. The Turk Stream pipeline served to bypass Ukraine and hence keep Moscow’s dominance over gas supplies to Western Europe. In Syria, the Russia-Turkey relationship is more challenging because, in principle, the two countries have opposite political objectives – Moscow aims at restoring the full control of the Assad regime over Syrian territory, while Ankara supports Assad’s ouster. Yet, various diplomatic contacts since 2016 as well as the Astana Process since 2017 and the 2019 Sochi Agreement have led to Moscow’s consent to several Turkish military operations on Syrian territory. Despite the ambiguities in the relationship, it can be argued that, up to a point, Russia relied on Turkey – a NATO member – for its operations in Syria. The coup attempt in Turkey on 2016 coup attempt in Turkey was a turning point for Russia, as it created an opportunity to enhance military and political relations in that the former might encourage Russia to “go for a long-term game-changing move and lure Turkey away from the West as part of a broader geopolitical reconfiguration.” When Russia’s and Turkey’s respective positions on the Libyan conflict, the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, and eastern Ukraine and Crimea are added to the picture, the relationship between the two countries in the Mediterranean and beyond can best be described as an unusual mix of cooperation and managed divergences, sometimes referred to as conflictual connivance.

Fourthly, beyond the energy sector, Russia has a strong economic presence in the Mediterranean, especially in Cyprus, where tourism, banking, and real estate are the main sectors of activity. The Russian Navy makes calls to the Cypriot port of Limassol for replenishment purposes. Russia and Cyprus are both keen to keep a strong political relationship. Russia has long maintained a military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, including bases in Egypt until 1972. Russia is now returning to a more ambitious presence with what one observer has called “a commitment to playing the long game against NATO in the East Mediterranean.” Meanwhile, Moscow’s “steadfast belief in a Western encirclement strategy continues to shape its vision and activities, including the current build-up in the Mediterranean.” This defensive strategy starts in the Black Sea, extends to Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean, and, ultimately, reaches into sub-Saharan Africa and the Red Sea. The Mediterranean is an area of choice for Russia’s naval strategy. Short of being able to pose a global challenge to the U.S. Navy, Moscow opts for a more circumscribed area of competition. Overall, Russia has implemented a very consistent strategy in terms of its defensive posture against NATO. Moscow has now deployed S-400 missile systems in Crimea, Abkhazia, and Syria while presumably keeping a degree of control over the S-400 systems sold to Turkey. This creates a vastly improved buffer zone on Russia’s southern flank, including the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.

And what are the implications of Russian actions beyond the Mediterranean? Russia’s air and sea bases bring additional benefits for its military deployments overseas. Beyond the Mediterranean itself, Moscow’s assertive posture in the region has significant consequences farther afield. These concern not only countries in the wider region, such as Libya and Sudan, but also the NATO alliance as well as Russia’s place on the international stage. The possibility of Russia developing a permanent base at Al Jufrah in Libya and deploying high-end assets there has considerable implications for NATO and the EU. In addition, the use of a forward base in Al Jufrah would enhance Russia’s existing capability to deploy private military contractors (PMCs) in sub-Saharan Africa, such as in the Central African Republic. From a European perspective, a lack of lasting stability in Libya would pose multiple challenges, from the security of energy supplies to irregular migration from sub-Saharan Africa, in addition to a permanent Russian military presence. This makes Libya a European emergency. Similar reasoning applies to forthcoming developments concerning a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast, using the Tartus naval base as a springboard. If fully implemented, this move would clearly enhance the Russian Navy’s capabilities to project forces in the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

NATO and its members keep Russia’s military deployment in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea under close watch. The alliance’s efforts are made easier by the return to a peaceful relationship between the U.S. administration and its European partners, the EU, and NATO. Going forward, these efforts should focus on three main areas. Firstly, the EU and NATO should actively support multilateral conflict prevention. Secondly, NATO needs to reassess its military presence in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Thirdly, the EU and NATO need to reevaluate Turkey-Russia relations, particularly with respect to Russia’s sale of missile defense systems to Turkey that has created a major issue for NATO’s defense architecture. Overall, Russia’s more assertive posture in the Mediterranean calls for a concerted and efficient response from NATO allies, given the multiple effects it could have on transatlantic and European interests in the region at large – as well as in terms of reducing the role of the United Nations system in resolving regional conflicts. Europe’s interests are particularly high in the fields of energy, trade and investment, irregular migration, and security.

‚Russia’s Posture in the Mediterranean: Implications for NATO and Europe‘ – Article by Marc Pierini – Carnegie Europe.
(The Article can be downloaded here:

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