Russia's activities in Syria are less about saving Assad and more about restoring Moscow's place in the key crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean.
- By Keith JohnsonKeith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s acting managing editor for news. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and, contrary to rumors, has absolutely no plans to resume his bullfighting career.
Russian military action in Syria formally began this week, with the purportedly anti-terrorist mission reportedly launching dumb bombs at everybody but terrorists. But President Vladimir Putin’s dispatch of warships and fighter aircraft isn’t ultimately about aiding his embattled ally, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Rather, it’s the latest expression of a geopolitical longing that’s embedded deep in Russia’s DNA: to establish a political and military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean.
Russian intervention is about far more than supporting Assad. It is a way to ensure that Moscow has a place at the table when Syria’s future is ultimately decided. Putin’s focus, in other words, is not on the presidential palace in Damascus, but 100 miles north, at the recently revamped port of Tartus, Russia’s only naval base on foreign soil and one that just happens to lie astride NATO’s southern flank.
“They don’t care whether Assad stays or not. They want to secure their interests, and they want to keep access to the Mediterranean for sure,” said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies.
Russia’s Mediterranean adventure began centuries ago and has doggedly continued through tsars and commissars and wars hot and cold. Peter the Great turned Russia into a maritime nation with the capture of the fortress of Azov in 1696, which opened the Black Sea to Russian ships. But the Black Sea is a stoppered bottle unless it comes with control over the Turkish straits and the eastern Mediterranean. That quest, simple in conception but elusive in practice, explains much of Imperial Russian history in the 18th and 19th centuries, Soviet efforts in the 20th, and post-Soviet Russian gambits in the 21st, including Putin’s seemingly sudden lunge into the Syrian civil war now.
“More and more, there is a focus on the eastern Mediterranean, where Russia has strategic opportunities,” said Jeff Mankoff, acting director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is a perception that the United States is pulling out, and given the preexisting position that Russia has in Syria, it can do more to project power in the region.”
Russia under Putin has plenty of irons in the fire seeking to recapture lost Soviet glories, from a bulked-up presence in the Arctic to the Eurasian Economic Union to a diplomatic pivot to Asia, not to mention the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. But throughout, Putin has made the eastern Mediterranean a focus for modern Russia in much the same way that it became a near-obsession in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s for his Soviet forebears. And while the eastern Mediterranean then was important as a conduit for vast amounts of oil from the Middle East to Europe, the region today stands to become even more important as a source of energy in its own right, with Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt all jockeying to tap massive offshore deposits of natural gas.
Russia’s Syrian adventure and quest for influence in the Mediterranean isn’t so much a way to distract the world from Moscow’s destabilization of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea as the logical consequence of it. With the seizure of Crimea came the return to Russian hands of the port of Sevastopol, long the key base for the Soviet Black Sea Fleet but which for 20 years had been in the hands of an independent Kiev. But naval dominance of the closed Black Sea is a means, not an end. The Black Sea has only one outlet: through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles and into the eastern Mediterranean, making a presence there vital.
Beginning in 2012, Russia reestablished a permanent Mediterranean task force, last seen in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Last week, Russian defense officials announced a big naval exercise to be held in the eastern Mediterranean which will include prestige hulls like the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and the kernel of the new Mediterranean force. Hand-in-hand has come the renovation and expansion of the naval base at Tartus so that it could service and supply large modern warships, like the Moskva or the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. Russia’s desire for staying power in the region was made clear with the dispatch Thursday of a floating naval workshop to Tartus to help service those ships and keep them on station.
And Russia’s outreach hasn’t been limited to Syria, whom it has supplied with weapons for four decades. In recent years, Russia has cozied up to other countries ringing the eastern corner of the Mediterranean, seeking both to peel them away from Western powers and also to secure access for Russian ships and planes.
Putin has actively courted the left-wing leader of Greece, promising billion-dollar energy projects and winning a friend inside NATO and the European Union. Earlier this year, Russia generously rewrote billions of dollars in debt that helped ink a new basing agreement with Cyprus. Late last year, Putin announced a “strategic partnership” with Turkey, with whom Moscow is trying to finalize a major and controversial energy project. Putin has met Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi three times this year already, and last year the two countries signed a $3.5 billion arms deal.
“Some of those efforts are opportunistic, but they recognize that the opportunities are there, and they are trying to take advantage of them in a way that helps Russia’s ability to project power in the region,” Mankoff said.
Russia has even secured warmer ties with Israel, America’s closest ally in the region; Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hashed out operations in Syria in a Moscow meeting late last month. Israeli officials plainly acknowledge Russia’s real interest in the region, which isn’t the survival of Assad but the survival of the warm-water port of Tartus.
Russia’s Black Sea and Mediterranean resurgence has some U.S. observers looking on warily. Naval writers have detailed in recent years Russia’s “rebalancing” to the Mediterranean even as U.S. and NATO forces step back from the area. NATO’s top commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, warned this week that the seizure of Crimea and the dispatch of advanced weaponry to Syria could give Russia the ability to create no-go zones in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Breedlove said Russia’s top priority in Syria is the protection of its warm-water ports. Mankoff noted that the initial aircraft Russia deployed to Syria are suited for air defense against world-class opponents, not ground attacks against terrorists in pickup trucks.
The issue has even raised its head in U.S. Republican presidential primary debates. Asked last month how best to counter Russian muscle-flexing, businesswoman and GOP candidate Carly Fiorina specifically suggested bolstering the already large U.S. 6th Fleet, which has responsibility for the Mediterranean.
Beyond more ships and aircraft, the answer to Russia’s military adventurism may lie in diplomacy. The key to Russia’s ability to reach the Mediterranean lies in Turkey, which, since 1936, has had control over what military ships can pass through the narrow passage of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles that link the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. The Montreux Convention that gave Turkey that power was for decades a thorn in the side of the Soviets; indeed, Moscow’s determination to force open the straits for its warships in the years after World War II pushed Turkey into the arms of the United States and the NATO alliance. Turkey can decide, in times of peace or war, to block foreign warships from the straits, which would effectively seal off the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. (Of course, it’s a two-way strait: Turkey blocked U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.)
To be sure, Russia has sought to control the eastern Mediterranean for centuries and has had only fleeting success. It has been stymied by the Ottoman Empire, later by Turkey, and by British and U.S. naval power throughout. But at a time when the United States is struggling in its second decade of war with terrorist outfits in the Middle East and seeking to pivot the bulk of its military from Europe to the Asia-Pacific, a resurgent Russia in warm waters dredges up some uncomfortable memories with disturbing parallels.
During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, a distracted United States suddenly came face to face with a potent Russian challenge in waters long considered its own, where U.S. warships in the eastern Mediterranean were shadowed and seriously threatened by missile-bristling cruisers of the Soviet 5th Fleet. A decade ago, naval experts Lyle Goldstein and Yuri Zhukov called it the “most severe maritime crisis of the Cold War” and presciently noted eerie similarities with what appears to be unfolding today.
“This standoff witnessed the effective exploitation of American political, strategic, and tactical vulnerabilities by an adversary that ten years prior had had virtually no Mediterranean naval presence whatsoever,” they wrote.
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