Even though the Kremlin is taking steps to increase its naval influence in the Mediterranean, the West doesn’t see this stance as a threat or a return to a Cold War-style arms race.
The Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered heavy cruiser on a long range cruise in the Mediterranean. Photo: RIA Novosti
In late February, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades signed an agreement about the presence of Russian vessels in Cypriot ports. Even though this stance could be seen as a warning sign amidst the tensions over Ukraine and debates surrounding a potential new Cold War, Western experts don’t see it as a harbinger of further deterioration in Russia-West relations or as the start of a global arms race.
Russian experts tend to look at the situation from a historical perspective, pointing out Russia’s previous strategic goals and historical experience in the region. Some of them warn that the Russia-Cyprus agreement might have negative implications for the Kremlin’s relations with other players in the Mediterranean, including Turkey.
Two possible reasons for recent Russian moves in the Mediterranean
The ostensible reason why Russia is attempting to increase its presence in the Mediterranean is to contribute to the fighting of piracy and international terrorism, especially terrorism related to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).
The fight against ISIS is gaining momentum and, in the current situation, Moscow is jumping at the opportunity to increase its naval presence in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, argues Vladimir Evseev, director of the Public Policy Research Center. He said that Russia’s activity isn’t confined to Cyprus.
“Moscow’s possible participation in an anti-terror coalition will allow Russian military vessels to enter Egypt’s and Libya’s ports,” he said.
The other alternative reason of the Kremlin’s aspiration to resume its status as a great naval power can be traced back to Russian history during the Russian-Turkish wars in the 19th century when Russia tried to control the Bosporus and Dardanelles. And now the Kremlin doesn’t seem to have given up its appetites, according to some experts.
Dr. Robbin F. Laird, a senior analyst for Gryphon Technologies’ national security program at the U.S. Naval Institute, argues the West should pay close attention to Russian initiatives to “sort out their way forward into the 21st century” and “build naval support capabilities in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean.”
With the incorporation of Crimea, Russia plans to boost its role in the Mediterranean, which, as Evseev notes, “allows Moscow to go beyond the post-Soviet space to defend its national interests in the Middle East and Africa.”
Laird agrees. With activity on both flanks of the Mediterranean, the moves in Crimea come into focus, he argues.
“And whatever the cause of the seizure of Crimea and its inclusion in Russia, the impact on the Russian navy is clear,” he said. “By ending the treaty and taking full control of Sevastopol, the Russians can now focus on the expansion of facilities in the area and preparing for a significant modernization effort."
Does the West downplays recent Russian naval moves?
Given the current tensions between Russia and the West, the Kremlin’s plans to increase its naval influence seem to have raised concerns among Western experts. However, they don’t see Russia’s increasing presence in the Mediterranean as a threat.
“While Mr. Putin said those ships would primarily be engaging in counter-terrorism and counter-piracy missions, one should also see the agreement as part of the Kremlin effort over the past seven-eight years to project Russian military power in key areas,” said Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Brookings Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe.
According to Pifer, the Mediterranean Sea has long been an area of interest for the Soviet and Russian navies. Yet he is not concerned with Russia’s current naval ambitions, even though they become more obvious amidst the talks about a new Cold War.
“The Russian navy’s presence in the Mediterranean now and for the foreseeable future will be a fraction of what the Soviet navy deployed there during the Cold War,” he explains. “NATO navies (also reduced from Cold War days) will undoubtedly monitor the Russian naval presence, but it should not pose a major concern.”
Likewise, his colleague, Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, argues that there is no reason to worry about “too much about a Russian naval presence” despite U.S.-Russia differences and disagreements.
“For all our troubles, I do not see Russia and the United States as direct military adversaries, and further, I recognize Russia as an important power in this part of the world,” he said. “So while I hope that Moscow will desist in Ukraine, and try to play constructive roles elsewhere, the ship itself doesn’t concern me that much.”
“The current state of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean is not first rate, and is populated with many aging assets." Photo: https://denis-tugolukov.livejournal.com/
Vasily Kashin, an expert from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, echoes this view. According to him, today the Kremlin doesn’t need to enter into a naval arms race with West to protect its national interests. Today, even though the Russian navy lags behind the Western fleet and consists of outdated Soviet models, its ships are part of Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal. So, the attack of big players on Russia’s navy is fraught with serious implications; at the same time, smaller ones don’t present problems for Russia’s vessels, which can easily fight back, he explains.
Possible reasons to be concerned about Russian naval ambitions
In contrast, Laird is more concerned with Russian naval ambitions. He sees them as an “indirect strategy in support of Russia’s interests, and above all, energy interests.” According to him, Russia’s moves involve both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Western Mediterranean.
The Eastern Mediterranean involves two key areas. One is the Syrian port of Tartus, a key port for the Russian navy in the area and “an important foothold in the region, notably when combined with other facilities in the region over time.” Another is Egypt which, according to Laird, might become a headache for Washington because “the military has returned to power” in Egypt.
“Arms aid has been truncated, and, not surprisingly, the Russians filled the gap,” he said. “The arms deal side of events seems clearly in motion with the delivery of MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighter jets, air defense missile complexes, Mi-35 helicopters, coastal anti-ship complexes, light weapons and ammunition in process.”
Regarding Russia’s agreement with Cyprus, Laird expresses the same concern and sees it as “the main focus of the Russian effort.”
“The Russians have been working Cyprus as part of their response to the Euro crisis and new openings to expand their influence, as European integration not only falters but goes backwards,” Laird suspects. “The new naval agreement with Cyprus is a step forward in normalizing the relationship.”
At the same time, Russian experts – Kashin and Evseev – look at Moscow’s agreement with Cyprus more broadly. Kashin sees the deal on the Russian presence in foreign ports as the implementation of Russia’s long-term strategy. In the future, the Kremlin plans to sign such agreements throughout the world – from Latin America to Vietnam. He is also skeptical about such deals. He sees them as purely technical.
“The real military impact from such deals is miniscule,” he said. “Technically, they give an opportunity for Russian military vessels and aviation to enter foreign ports for refueling and the rest of their crew.”
At the same time, Evseev is more optimistic. Even though the military agreement between Russia and Cyprus is limited and doesn’t mean that Moscow will create military bases in the Mediterranean, it might be possible in the future.
“It is enough to give the access to key infrastructure and a principal consent on the possibility of creating such bases in the future,” said Evseev.
He points out that today Russian vessels are entering Cypriot ports for different purposes including refueling, replenishing water stores and food as well as repairing.
Alexey Fenenko, an associate professor at Moscow State University, is more skeptical about the agreement with Cyprus.
According to him, it might lead to a political backlash and create problems for the prospects of Russia’s foreign policy. In particular, with regard to Russian-Turkish relations, which seem to have gotten a second wind after Putin’s visit to Ankara in December in 2014.
“I am concerned that these agreements with Cyprus might spoil relations with Turkey very much, because Cyprus is regarded by Ankara as an adversary,” he said. “Strategically, Russia will gain little, yet the implications might be negative for Russia.”
Modernization challenges for the Russian navy
The major challenge for the Russian above-water fleet today is the meager budget. Photo source: Reuters
Today the Kremlin sees its fleet as an effective tool for projecting foreign policy during a time of peace. According to Kashin, “It allows providing political support to allies, demonstrating its presence in the world’s remote regions and playing an important role in resolving international problems.”
“It is important to understand that we are not talking about the creation of military bases in different forms,” Kashin added.
He highlights that now Russia doesn’t currently have military naval bases abroad. According to him, even the well-known Russian naval facility in Tartus, a city port in Syria, cannot be regarded as a military base. He classifies it as a material-technical support point with permanent personnel consisting of several people. There are no sophisticated security and intelligence systems or military departments, which are vital for military bases. And even such points are not in the Russian agenda at the present time, clarifies Kashin.
The major challenge for the Russian above-water fleet today is the meager budget, which has been decreasing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This problem is especially relevant amidst the economic slowdown in Russia and the Ukrainian crisis.
“The ships are obsolete and exploited at wear-and-tear in the current international situation,” said Kashin. “With the fleet decreased for the 1990-2000s, sustaining a permanent presence on the Syrian coast and conducting naval operations along Somalia’s coast is not an easy task.”
In addition, the expert points out to the implications for the Russian navy from the Ukrainian crisis. The construction of the Admiral Gorshkov vessels is likely to be postponed because some of the elements for the ship are produced by a Ukrainian company.
“Yet the import replacement will require two-three years,” said Kashin, implying that the construction will be carried out with a great deal of delay. “That’s why many agreements are likely to come into full force in the 2020s.”
However, Laird looks at the challenge from a different angle. Even though “the current state of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean is not first rate, and is populated with many aging assets,” those experts who highlight this fact miss the bigger point that “the Russians have set in motion a major naval and air modernization effort, and by laying down a solid geographical infrastructure, when capabilities are added, then they have tools to go with the infrastructure to shape regular influence in the region,” he argues.