Game Over for Russia in the Mediterranean?

Failure to maintain a Russian naval presence in Syria would endanger Moscow’s access to important sea trade routes and leave Russia’s cargo ships exposed.

A Russian serviceman guards a naval vessel in the Syrian port of Tartus. (Russian Defence Ministry/TASS)

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Throughout the 1990s, the Mediterranean was often referred to as a “NATO Lake”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the region largely became a geopolitical playground for the West and its allies. Soviet attempts to reach warm waters by creating corridors of influence in southeast Europe had failed, and the advance of the biggest rival to Western hegemony in the Mediterranean was pushed back to its starting point. There was, however, one remnant of the Soviet Union in the region that was inherited by Russia, the successor to the USSR. That remnant was the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria.

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For decades the security of this naval base was entrusted to the Assad family. The base ensured a permanent location in the Mediterranean where Russian navy vessels could make a pit-stop and repair damages that would occur during long voyages. Without the base, Russia had no secure way of venturing very far beyond the waters around its Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea. And just as the base in Syria gave Russia the confidence to sail its ships as far as the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, its presence also made the West fearful of a Russian resurgence that would see Europe come under a Russian naval siege.

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Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has proved that Europe is justified in reserving such fears. By intervening in the Syrian civil conflict to gain victory for its ally Bashar al Assad against anti-regime forces, Russia saved its Tartus base from falling into the hands of powers that could potentially threaten it. Not only that, but Russia was also able to expand its presence in Syria, which now hosts a Russian military airbase in Latakia. This has strengthened Russia’s hand in the region, and this has been evident in reports that Moscow deployed fighter jets from the Latakia airbase to bolster its ally in Libya, renegade commander Khalifa Haftar. With Russian mercenaries already found in Haftar’s ranks, victory for his forces would potentially leave southern European countries located directly opposite Libya — namely Malta and Italy — exposed to an ever growing Russian threat.

Europe divided

Nonetheless, by presenting itself as the only viable alternative to Turkey’s growing influence in Libya, Russia has succeeded in dividing European opinion, even amongst NATO allies. Malta, Italy and the US have seemingly shown more leniency towards Turkey’s initiatives in Libya, while Greece and France have shown more of an inclination to support the same side as Russia in the conflict over the side backed by their NATO ally.

Russia has particularly taken advantage of simmering tensions between Turkey and Greece over energy exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean to creep into the region, seeking the possibility of another springboard of soft power by which it can challenge NATO’s dominance there. Yet there is one factor that the Russians appear to have overlooked when making their calculations — the possibility of a rapprochement between Athens and Ankara.

Yes, tensions between the two neighbours have arguably been at their highest as of late, especially as both nations issued rival NAVTEX alerts in the same areas of the Mediterranean on the same dates throughout the month of August. These tensions have been exacerbated by the arrival of fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates to the Souda Bay naval base in Crete, as well as the deployment of Greek, French and Italian aircraft for military exercises to the Andreas Papandreou airbase in Paphos, Cyprus. Footage was even released of Turkish F-16 fighter jets warding off Greek warplanes over the Mediterranean, in an area where Turkey was holding its own drills, as they attempted to fly to Cyprus from Crete.

However, while such incidents point to an all-time peak in tensions, developments off the battlefield indicate that Turkey and Greece are actually heading towards a de-escalation.

The first sign of goodwill came earlier in August when Greece and Egypt made a maritime demarcation agreement to recognise one another’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) for hydrocarbon exploration. The deal between Athens and Cairo set out to override a previous agreement between Ankara and the UN-recognised Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, which saw swathes of maritime territory claimed by Greece southeast of Crete divided between Libya and Turkey. That agreement was based on Turkey’s understanding of international law, which Ankara says does not grant nation’s the right to establish EEZs around small islands. Greece meanwhile bases its claims on the understanding that small islands can be used when establishing EEZs, which grants it the right to claim the vast majority of the Aegean and lock Turkey into the Bay of Iskenderun via its easternmost island of Kastellorizo, located just 2 kilometres south of Turkey’s coastal Antalya province. Yet, when agreeing terms with Cairo, Athens left Kastellorizo out of the equation.

The Cairo-Athens agreement left Egypt with the option of one day possibly linking its EEZ with that of Turkey, and even challenge a previous agreement between Greece and Cyprus. Many have considered this a flirtation between Turkey and Egypt, but also a wink from Greece to Turkey that it is willing to talk. Following some German mediation efforts, Greece has said it is ready to de-escalate tensions with Turkey, while Turkey has said it is happy to engage in negotiations with Greece without preconditions.

The softening of tone comes as both sides gradually become acquainted with the limits of how many liberties they can take with one another. Greece has learned the limits of its diplomatic offensive against Turkey’s resolve to use its military to defend its interests in the Mediterranean, having failed to push the EU into implementing sanctions against Turkey at a meeting of foreign ministers in Berlin on August 28.

Meanwhile, Turkey is also coming to understand that it cannot fulfill its objectives through military prowess alone. The approval of the Egyptian parliament to deploy troops into Libya amid an advance of Turkish-backed government forces on the oil-rich city of Sirte served as a reminder to Turkey that it doesn’t have a free rein in the region, while mass protests in Tripoli against the GNA reminded the Turks that their allies lack the political stability necessary for them to support Ankara’s military adventurism. So, it is likely that Turkey and Greece will resort to calming the harsh rhetoric they’ve been using lately, and figure out a way they can both continue cooperating as Western allies.

The arrival of American warship USS Hershel Woody Williams in Crete in late August could possibly be interpreted as Washington finally telling Greece and Turkey that enough is enough and it’s time to end their petty bickering.

The Egyptian wildcard

Reports are also indicating that the US may cut off financial assistance to Ethiopia over the construction of a mega-dam on the Nile that threatens Egypt’s water supply. If true, this might be a sign that the US has coerced Egypt into playing a more stabilising role between Turkey and Greece, hence the question mark over Kastellorizo in Cairo’s maritime deal with Athens.

It may also suggest that Egypt’s intervention in Libya, instead of complimenting Russia’s backing of Khalifa Haftar, could actually become a way to eclipse Russian influence over Libya’s parallel eastern-based government. Egypt could assert itself over Aguileh Saleh, head of the Tobruk-based parliament, whose political will for a ceasefire and talks with the GNA would render Haftar and his Russian mercenaries obsolete.

And while Russia struggles to remain relevant to the Libyan battlefield, it is finding it increasingly difficult to implement its strategy in Syria as well. Somewhat of a proxy conflict is emerging between Russia and Iran over who gets to hold more sway over the Assad regime. In recent months there have been a string of assassinations targeting pro-regime militia leaders with close ties to Russia. Indeed, the US Caesar Act sanctions that target the Assad regime and its affiliates, which came into effect over the summer, has tightened the noose around Assad’s neck. This has narrowed the economic playing field surrounding Assad and thus increased the stakes among his allies, leading to pre-existing rivalries in his ranks growing fiercer by the day. Holding onto Syria is a matter of survival for both Russia and Iran, and whereas there was enough room for both Moscow and Tehran to operate side by side before the sanctions, the world is no longer big enough for the both of them.

Consequently, Russia’s frustrations are beginning to show elsewhere. Its recent airstrikes in the so-called de-escalation zone of Idlib on Syrian opposition forces was a demonstration of anger towards Ankara’s failure to keep its side of the bargain by clearing formerly Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants from the M4 highway on the Idlib-Latakia border. Instead of fighting with HTS directly, Turkey seems to be pressuring HTS to clear groups like Hurras al-Deen, Al Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, from the region.

In response to Russia’s attack, Turkey sent six armoured convoys into Idlib, perhaps as a signal to Moscow that it is not willing to capitulate to intimidation tactics. Unlike in February, when a Russian airstrike killed dozens of Turkish soldiers and sent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately to Putin’s doorstep to reaffirm the ceasefire, this time Ankara knows that Moscow is on the backfoot in Syria, and that the latter’s aggression no longer comes from a place of strength, but from a place of weakness.

Azerbaijan weighs in

Even in Turkey itself, Russia’s hand is weakening. One thing Russia has had going for it in Turkey, as in Europe, was its dominance over gas imports. But as a result of the global quest to diversify imports and other developments in the market, Russia’s monopoly over this arena is starting to break down.

While Turkey’s overall gas imports are decreasing, low gas prices and the increasing competitiveness of liquefied natural gas (LNG) paints a bleak picture for Moscow. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has replaced Russia as the number one exporter of gas to Turkey, and Turkey’s recent discovery of 320 billion cubic metres of natural gas in the uncontested Black Sea, which it says points to an even greater untapped resource, suggest that Ankara is now in the position to start working towards closing its account deficit for imports on the road to becoming self-sufficient. The find will also attract the likes of SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s national energy firm, which may try to link Turkey’s Black Sea deposits with the Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) project.

The project will fit into plans to create a “southern corridor” of gas supplies from Central Asia to Europe, in which Turkey will be the centerpiece. It also rivals Russia’s network of pipelines in Eastern Europe. Russia can therefore only watch on with concern as Baku and Ankara increase their cooperation, especially amid reports that Azerbaijan is considering to grant Turkey a military base in its Nakhchivan enclave, perhaps as a move to counter Russian attempts to sabotage TANAP through attacks on the Tovuz region via its ally Armenia.

What will Russia do?

One can never really predict what Putin’s Russia will do, but many in Moscow consider Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean as absolutely vital to its survival. Despite being the biggest country in the world, its lack of warm water ports renders it dependent on keeping good relations with its powerful neighbours to secure any kind of access to the lucrative sea trade routes that criss-cross the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Without the ability to deploy its navy vessels to ensure the safe passage of its cargo ships through the Suez Canal and Straits of Gibraltar, Russian sea trade will always be exposed and vulnerable. Dependence on other nations to provide that security could amount to giving concessions that would ultimately lead to Russia’s collapse. Therefore, policy-makers in Moscow may be justified in wanting to defend the Tartus base at all costs. There is no limit to what they might decide if they feel that Russia is in a life-or-death situation.

The most obvious answer to the question of what Russia might do is declare an all-out war on Turkey, but with so many fronts to fight on in the region’s multi-layered conflicts, Moscow would probably struggle to find the necessary allies to volunteer as its proxies. To declare war at this stage also runs the risk of strengthening NATO’s bonds with Ankara.

Another option for Russia could be to contribute to the destabilisation of the region without getting involved itself, particularly between Greece and Turkey. This strategy would serve to divide NATO and keep the area in endless conflict so as to prevent any rival structure to its power rising up. However, one would like to believe that Greece has more sense than to go to war with Turkey without the help of powerful backers like France and the US. Even then, no sensible nation would fall for such a plot, especially while Turkey is strong and united.

Armenia, on the other hand, may be coerced into launching more attacks on Azerbaijan, but unless Moscow itself is willing to come to Yerevan’s aid when such behaviour irks joint military reactions from Baku and Ankara, the end result certainly won’t be in Armenia’s favour. Such stirring in the South Caucasus could also be met with similar stirring north of the Caucasus mountains, particularly in Russia’s oil-rich Muslim-majority federal republic of Chechnya, where Turkey holds a considerable amount of influence.

Should Russia give up on its ambitions in the Mediterranean and accept defeat, it could shift its focus to alternative routes to the open seas. The Baltics and Scandinavia in the north of Europe could become a new flashpoint for tensions, while Moscow might also be tempted to create a conflict in the Caspian Sea with the aim of hitting the proposed Southern Gas Corridor from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Nonetheless, Russia is not going down without a fight.

Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed.
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All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.

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