Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean chokehold

As Turkey and the EU bicker over the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia is trapping the region in a triangular web between Azerbaijan, Libya and Sudan.

Under a draft deal signed in November 2020, the Russian Navy will station up to four warships, including those with nuclear capabilities, and up to 300 service members in Port Sudan. (TASS)

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2020 has been an extraordinary year for many reasons, but in the context of Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics, it has been a year of great battles for power and leverage that has culminated in the emergence of a new regional status quo. We entered the year witnessing unprecedentedly bold and decisive moves by Turkey that exposed a number of underlying fault lines in the European Union, and highlighted the conflicting priorities of NATO and the EU. The transatlantic alliance between the US and Europe appeared to be at its weakest since its post-World War II formation, making it an attractive target for Russia.

A year ago, Turkey struck a deal with the internationally-recognised government in Libya. The deal saw Tripoli recognise Ankara’s claim to a vast swathe of maritime territory in the Eastern Mediterranean through the demarcation of their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). At the time however, the official Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) was holding on by a thread in Libya’s besieged capital. The majority of the country had already fallen to renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) forces, which fought on behalf of the rival government in Libya’s eastern city of Tobruk, known as the House of Representatives (HoR). Backed by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, General Haftar was on the verge of victory. Tripoli’s capitulation to Haftar would have no doubt led to the cancellation of its deal with Ankara. So, to ensure that didn’t happen, Turkey sent troops to defend Tripoli from Haftar’s attacks.

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The Turkish deployment escalated tensions, resulting in Haftar’s allies bolstering their support for him in the form of arms and foreign mercenaries. The presence of Turkish troops in Tripoli also alarmed Ankara’s NATO allies in Athens and Paris. Greece outright rejected the Turkish-Libyan deal as illegitimate, as it said their maritime demarcation violated its own EEZ claims. French President Emmanuel Macron also used the opportunity to champion himself as the defender of European rights and values in the Mediterranean, rushing to support Greece in its dispute with Turkey by sending a warship to the region. By default, that put France and Greece on the same side in the Libyan conflict as NATO’s arch rival Russia.

This indicated one thing — that some NATO members had come to see their ally Turkey as posing more of a threat to their interests than that posed by Russia. While this viewpoint was not adopted by all NATO members, President Macron nonetheless began to spearhead a campaign through the European Union to slap Turkey with sanctions. The situation also brought into the spotlight differences between European nations and the US, which during the era of President Donald Trump was seen as often going soft when it comes to dealing with Turkey, at least when compared to the previous administration of Barack Obama.

The West’s indecisiveness and divisions emboldened Russia. While Turkey and its European neighbours bickered over the spoils of the Eastern Mediterranean, Russia got itself to work on surrounding it. Russian Wagner Group mercenaries were quick to arrive in Libya and seize its important oil fields in Sirte on behalf of Khalifa Haftar. There are also reports that Russia is in talks with the Tobruk-based government to set up two Russian bases in Sirte and Al Jufra, which would give Moscow a possible military launch pad just south of Europe. In November, Russia and Sudan additionally agreed to establish a Russian naval facility on the Red Sea, strategically placed at a choke point by which Russia can intimidate vessels entering and exiting the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal in Egypt.

The facility near Port Sudan will be the first Russian military base in Africa. (YouTube)

But how did we get to this point, considering that just a decade ago, during the Arab Spring revolutions that triggered the civil war in Syria, Russia faced the real possibility of being eliminated from the Eastern Mediterranean game all together? Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, huge quantities of natural gas had just been found in the waters between Cyprus and Israel, sending promising signs for those in Europe seeking to decrease the continent’s reliance on Russian energy supplies. The only problem was Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria. This former Soviet base, inherited by the Russian Federation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, had for decades provided the Russians with a gateway to the Mediterranean.

The base was established as part of an agreement between the Soviet Union and Syria’s late leader Hafez al Assad in 1971. It continued to serve its purpose for Russia under his son Bashar al Assad. Both father and son protected the base, ensuring that Russian warships entering the Mediterranean had a permanent pit-stop for refuelling and repairs. The base likewise provided security for Russian cargo ships passing through the Suez Canal, guaranteeing Russia’s sea trade route to the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the base kept Syria within Russia’s geopolitical orbit, whereby the country could be used to sabotage attempts to realise Europe’s Eastern Mediterranean pipe-dream.

The Syrian civil war threatened to turn all of that upside down for Russia, as the Syrian opposition was susceptible to falling under Western command. The closure of the base would have limited Russia’s maritime might to the Black Sea, and would have put its ability to trade over long distances in jeopardy. From there, Russia would have been unravelled, as its loss of leverage in the Mediterranean would have no doubt forced it to make major concessions in the fields of trade and diplomacy elsewhere. Ultimately, without the base, Russia would be left to choose between a quick death and a slow one.

Russian submarines are pictured at the Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus on Sept. 26, 2019. (AFP/Getty)

That’s why, when the Assad regime showed that it was unable to hold the line by itself, Moscow’s military intervention was an absolute must. Just as there was no question of it putting its naval facilities in Sevastopol, Crimea at risk following the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, there was also no question about Russia doing what it had to do to protect its facility in Tartus. President Vladimir Putin caught the reluctant West flat-footed with his sudden deployment of Russian troops to Syria in late 2015, which turned the tides of the conflict in favour of the Assad regime. Russia also seized the opportunity to boost its presence in Syria by building a military airbase in Latakia. After that point, there was very little the West could do but accept that the Russians were there to stay.

No thanksgiving Turkey

Without a united Western resolve to put boots on the ground in Syria and risk going to war with Russia directly, Turkey was seemingly being pushed to do so in its place. Relations between Ankara and Moscow dropped to an all-time low in late 2015 after a Russian warplane that was carrying out airstrikes on Syrian opposition forces along the Turkish-Syrian border was shot down by a Turkish fighter jet. But by that point, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had already grown frustrated by the West’s inability to intervene early in the war on behalf of the Syrian opposition. The prolonged conflict left Turkey in the midst of a major refugee crisis, as civilians seeking shelter from the war fled across the border. Instead of receiving the support it was looking for in handling the crisis, Turkey only received criticism of its Syria strategy as Western media outlets accused the Turks of teaming up with Islamist militants to attack Kurdish and Christian minorities.

At the same time, Erdogan’s government was being vilified for its suppression of nationwide protests in 2013, as well as other issues such as the imprisonment of journalists. When the Gulenist network attempted to overthrow Erdogan in a military coup in July 2016, the West remained relatively silent. To make matters worse, Erdogan’s arrest, trial and sentencing of those responsible for the coup attempt was portrayed in the West as a “purge”, while Western countries also refused to hand over suspected culprits, including the supposed orchestrator of the putsch, US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.

For Turkey, it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario. So, after the coup attempt, Ankara began to take a more unilateral approach, not only in Syria, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite being at opposite sides of the political spectrum in Syria, a sense of mutual respect saw Turkey and Russia come to amicable agreements on how to de-escalate the war. Minus the occasional hiccup, a ceasefire agreed in Sochi for Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib has largely held. This cooperation between the Turks and the Russians set a precedent for further coordination efforts on battlefields elsewhere.

Again, in Libya, Turkey and Russia found each other at loggerheads, but it was a rivalry that bore fruit for them both. Russia used the Turkish troop deployment in Tripoli as an excuse to double down on its influence in Tobruk, which in turn saw the US rally behind Turkey, owing to the fact that the Turkish deployment would act as a barrier blocking Russia from further expansion across North Africa and towards the Atlantic.

Satellite photo shows a Russian MiG-29 fighter jet at the Al Jufrah airbase in Libya in May 2020. (DigitalGlobe)

Most recently, this cooperation was witnessed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The 27-year Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani enclave and the frozen conflict between the two former Soviet republics had grown too troublesome for Ankara and Moscow. Since the Cold War, Russia has maintained its footprint in the South Caucasus by taking on the role of mediator, despite arguably favouring Armenia by a margin, first of all due to its Orthodox Christian ties to Russia, and secondly due to its higher degree of dependence on Moscow. Yet, under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia started to show signs of Western inclination, much like Ukraine did in the lead-up to the 2014 Euromaidan protests in central Kiev, except that Armenia didn’t attract as much interest from the West in return. Either way, Armenia remained a Russian puppet-state, continuing to carry out Moscow’s bidding in the region.

In July, Armenia attacked Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region. According to analysts, these attacks were intended as a message against a number of energy and transport projects that would supply Europe from the Caspian. Tovuz has been earmarked as a junction for pipelines and railroads linking Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and the realisation of these projects would no doubt challenge Russia’s monopoly on the European energy market. These projects would also invite greater Western influence to the South Caucasus. Seeing as the planned structures bypass the economically impoverished Armenian state, Russia feared that Prime Minister Pashinyan would fall victim to the West’s swaying power in order to get Yerevan a piece of the pie. So, as far as Moscow was concerned, he had to go.

Turkish-made drones gave Azerbaijan the upper-hand in the short-lived conflict, which last month ended in Russia and Turkey enforcing a ceasefire in the region. Not only was Pashinyan humiliated for losing so much territory, but Russia was granted the right to place its troops in Nagorno-Karabakh to prevent further skirmishes. Russia couldn’t trust Armenia to continue to threaten the aforementioned projects long-term, so instead Moscow placed its own forces in the region to keep one eye on the ceasefire, and the other eye on other developments. In return for its cooperation, Turkey was granted a land corridor linking it directly to the Caspian Sea. Before the conflict, Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan enclave, which borders Turkey, was cut off from the Azerbaijani mainland. Now, a path cutting straight through Armenia has been cleared to allow trucks travelling from Turkey to drive directly through Nakhchivan and then into Azerbaijan proper without having to pass through a third country.

Eastern Mediterranean surrounded

If we look at the map today, we will see that Russia has trapped the Eastern Mediterranean in a triangular web between Libya, Azerbaijan and Sudan. It has done this either in cooperation or competition with Turkey. One could argue that it has been the West’s treatment of Turkey in regards to its Syria policy that has led to this. The same could be said regarding its handling of Turkey’s maritime disputes with Greece and Cyprus. Western leaders failed to treat Turkey as an equal partner, so Turkey went and found itself someone who did. There is certainly no love lost between Ankara and Moscow, but the Kremlin is very familiar with Turkey’s potential as a rival, and therefore understands the need to negotiate with the Turks fairly. Turkey holds the key that could unlock major disruption in Russia’s oil-rich Caucasus region. Most importantly, Russia cannot be at ease over the safety of its facilities in Syria without somehow satisfying Turkey in some way.

Russia gave Turkey assurances in Idlib in return for assurances in Tartus and Latakia. Likewise, Russia has given Turkey a route to the Caspian in return for an outpost in the South Caucasus. These agreements have been tangible, balanced and relatively easy-to-implement. On the other hand, Turkey’s relationship with the West has been patronising, conditional, and based on a number of unrealistic ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. Despite sharing an overall mutual interest in keeping the Russians at bay, hence Turkey’s belonging to the NATO bloc, the problems between the West and Turkey have resulted in them coming to see one another as a bigger threat than Russia.

In reality, however, Russia is far more dangerous to them both. Russia has the military strength, the economic stability, the international outreach, the domestic unity and the national incentive to inflict great harm on both Europe and Turkey on multiple fronts. Neither Turkey nor Western nations check enough of these boxes for either of them to launch war on the other. Nonetheless, their non-violent confrontation alone has allowed Russia to take up positions whereby Moscow could enforce a naval blockade on the Suez Canal, starve the West of its oil supplies from Saudi Arabia, strike anywhere it wants in southern Europe, and keep both Europe and Turkey dependent on Russian gas. One can only imagine the advantages Russia would gain if Europe and Turkey actually fought it out physically. If newly elected Joe Biden’s term as US president resembles that of his fellow Democrat predecessor Barack Obama, whose administration could be blamed for alienating Turkey and creating this problem in the first place, Russia would be poised to make even more gains in the region.

Russia’s flimsy web

Saying that, the Russian position in Syria remains Moscow’s number one weak spot. Without its base in Tartus, Russia cannot hope to supply its newly acquired facility in Sudan, and without its air base in Latakia, any proposed air base in Libya would most likely be off the cards. Should Russia ever dare to close the Red Sea route to the Suez Canal from Sudan, it can kiss its bases in Syria goodbye, as such a move would certainly unite the international community to break the siege. That would be the type of mistake that could possibly cost the Russians’ 300-year march to warm waters and result in them retreating back to the Slavic heartland from whence they came.

So what now? Well, it looks like the planned southern gas corridor linking Europe to the Caspian via Turkey and Azerbaijan might not be happening after all. Russia is now well-positioned to prevent it from materialising. If it does perchance come to fruition, Russia would have oversight on the project to make sure it can’t drastically take away from its own gas exports to Europe. Armenia may even resolve its differences with Turkey and Azerbaijan, again under Russian supervision, to replace any pro-EU influence that may have crept into the nation during Pashinyan’s era.

The planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, South Caucasus Pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway meet at a junction in Azerbaijan’s Tovuz region.

Turkey will be appeased by the corridor it has gained to the Caspian, and to preserve the win, Ankara may show more willingness to meet Moscow’s demands in Idlib regarding the reigning in of “terrorist” groups. To make this easier for Turkey, Russia may revise its list of “terrorist” groups and ease off on its airstrikes targeting Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, such as Faylaq al-Sham.

As for the West and Turkey, their relationship has to improve whether they like it or not. They must either put the International Law of the Sea and its contrasting interpretations to one side and come to an equitable agreement that satisfies both parties in the Eastern Mediterranean, or they must turn the Eastern Mediterranean into a No Man’s Land (or No Man’s Sea) to ensure its riches don’t distract them from the bigger picture.

But in order for this to happen, the West needs to change its attitude towards Turkey, and resist the temptation to portray Turkey as the Muslim menace lurking on Christian Europe’s doorstep for the sake of winning cheap, populist votes in order to pursue selfish, one-sided geopolitical ambitions. President Macron of France particularly needs to take note of this, but of course his behaviour will largely be determined by the approach US President-elect Joe Biden takes. A repeat of the Obama years would only push Turkey further away from the West and into the waiting claws of the Russian bear.

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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