Connecting the Dots: Russia Shapes a Military Infrastucture for Influence in the Mediterranean


2014-04-14 by Robbin Laird

The Russians are sorting out their way forward into the 21st century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the inclusion of much of the former Warsaw Pact into the European Union and NATO defined the end of the 20th century.

Re-setting the role of Russia in the next decade of the 21st century is a work in progress. 

Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin at the Tsugol military testing site. Credit: Novosti.
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin at the Tsugol military testing site. Credit: Novosti. 

This re-set is clearly based on leveraging the core role which Russian energy plays globally, and an effort to expand Arctic presence and exploitation to enhance that role even more.  To date, the ability to leverage the commodity capabilities of Russia into a modern economy have been marked by less than success.

But leveraging those capabilities to expand global presence clearly is part of the plan going forward.

And the rebuilding of the Russian military is part of the effort as well. 

The reform of the military has been designed to ensure local military superiority, which has been demonstrated in the Crimea.  And ensuring a viable tactical and strategic nuclear arsenal underwriting the protection of the homeland is also part of the effort.  And shaping a way ahead to enhance relevant power projection is crucial as well.There are three key trajectories to shaping future power projection capabilities.

The Defense of the Russian Far East

The first is the defense of the Russian Far East against Chinese encroachments. 

To do so, the Russians have exercised their ability to move forces from West to East, but this is a huge challenge, given the immensity of the Russian land mass.

In July 2013, major exercises were held in the Russian Far East.  According to an AP story published on July 16, 2013:

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday watched Russia’s biggest military maneuvers since Soviet times, involving 160,000 troops and about 5,000 tanks across Siberia and the far eastern region in a massive show of the nation’s resurgent military might.

Despite close economic ties and military cooperation, many in Russia have felt increasingly uneasy about the growing might of its giant eastern neighbor.

Some fear that Russia’s continuing population decline and a relative weakness of its conventional forces compared to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could one day tempt China to grab some territory.

Russia and China had territorial disputes for centuries. Relations between Communist China and the Soviet Union ruptured in the 1960s, and the two giants fought a brief border conflict in 1969.

Moscow and Beijing signed a new border treaty in 2004, which saw Russia yielding control over several islands in the Amur River. Some in Russia’s sparsely populated far east feared that the concessions could tease China’s appetite.

Alexander Khramchikhin, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, said that the massive exercise held in the areas along the border with China was aimed at Beijing.

The maneuvers are part of recent efforts to boost the military’s mobility and combat readiness after years of post-Soviet decline, but they have far exceeded previous drills in both numbers and territorial scope.

As part of the war games held across several time zones, some army units deployed to areas thousands of kilometers away from their bases.

Recently, President Obama characterized the Russians as a regional power.

But which region did he have in mind?

Shaping A Naval Infrastructure in the Mediterranean

The second is building naval support capabilities in both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean. 

It is often noted that the current state of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean is not first rate, and is populated with many aging assets.

This is largely true, but misses the 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.

With regard to the Eastern Mediterranean, two key areas are involved.

The first is Syria. 

The port of Tartus provides a key port for the Russian navy in the area. It is a relatively small facility for repairs and support for operations, but is an important foothold in the region, notably when combined with other facilities in the region over time.

According to one report the port at Tartus is of significance to Russia and its role in the region.

Even a semi permanent base at Tartus allows the Russian Navy to expand its presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s largest and most important military base in a foreign country is the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

To deploy beyond the Black Sea, Russian warships based at Sevastopol must pass through the Bosporus Strait, which has been militarized by NATO-member Turkey.

Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, the Bosporus was deemed an international shipping lane with military restrictions. Under a 1982 amendment, Turkey now retains the right to close the Strait at its discretion in peacetime as well as during wartime.

As Russia’s only Mediterranean base, that makes Tartus a vital strategic asset beyond the Bosporus. As a deep water port, it can dock nuclear submarines. Moscow is reportedly planning to expand the facilities so it can accommodate the Russian Navy’s flagship — the “Admiral Kuznetsov” aircraft carrier — after 2012.

The second key area in the Eastern Mediterranean is Egypt. 

The Arab Spring has seen the Russians as the main beneficiary.  Although Western leaders have talked up the Arab Spring, the reality is less a thousand flowers blooming than a bumpy ride to the next phase of Arab history in the region.

With regard to Egypt, the military has returned to power and with it has brought concern from Washington with regard to this development.  Arms aide has been truncated, and, not surprisingly, the Russians filled the gap.

The arms deal side of events seems clearly in motion.

According to a Russian February 14, 2014 report:

Egypt’s defense minister and likely new president Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi negotiated the agreement, aimed at replacing decreased assistance from Washington, during talks in Moscow on Thursday between Russian and Egyptian foreign and defense ministers. The military leader was warmly received by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his first trip abroad following his seizure of power in a coup last year.

Vedomosti cited Russian defense sources as saying that at the meeting the sides initialed or signed contracts for the delivery of MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighter jets, air defense missile complexes, Mi-35 helicopters, coastal anti-ship complexes, light weapons and ammunition.

The arms deal was originally proposed during a November visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Cairo. Various media reports have indicated the value of the deal could be several billion dollars.

The deal is reportedly to be funded mainly by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The naval side of the relationship is a work in progress. 

The Russians would clearly like regular access to Alexandria, but this is more aspirational than real for the moment. A Russian warship did dock at Alexandria in November 2013 as part of preparation for the visit of a Russian official to negotiate with the Egyptian government.  This was the first port visit to Egypt by a Russian warship since 1992.

With regard to the Western Mediterranean, Cyprus is the key target of the Russian effort. 

Cyprus hosted multiple visits by Russians warships in 2013. For example, last May, three Russian navy warships, which were part of a flotilla sailing in the Mediterranean Sea, docked at the new port of Limassol. The ships included the destroyer “Admiral Panteleyev,” the salvage/rescue tug Fotiy Krylov and the tanker Pechenga.

And more broadly, 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.

As Dr. Harald Malmgren argued in early 2013:

As for the angry Russian response to the Troika-Cyprus accord, it should be kept in mind that many influential Russians, possibly including some officials in the present government, have had significant interests in Cyprus. Moreover, Russia is at risk of losing its influence in Syria, and potentially with it the use of a Russian naval base in that country.

Most likely Russian leadership would have preferred a Cyprus exit from the Euro, in which case Russia would have likely stood ready to assist Cyprus and its own Russian interests, including its interests in gas exploration in neighboring waters, and the potential for an alternative naval base in Cyprus which is so close to Syria.

If Cyprus continues to falter and the deposit base weakens, economic and financial implosion may ultimately result in exit from the Euro.

In that event, Russia would likely step in to “acquire” Cyprus.

The concurrency of the Euro and Syrian crisis has provided the Russians with the opportunity to expand influence in Cyprus. 

A web posting outlined what the analyst to be the case at the end of August 2013:

Yesterday afternoon, Russia agreed to restructure Cyprus’ EUR 2.5 billion loan terms to a much more affordable 2.5% semi-annual coupon through 2016 and a principal re-payment over the following four years.

While probably still out of reach for the desparate economy, it was a positive step. Of course, this ‘offer’ by Russia has its quid pro quo.

This morning, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides has stated that Cyprus territory will not be used to launch military strikes against Syria, as “Cyprus wants to live up to its responsibility as a shelter if needed for nationals of friendly countries who evacuate from Middle East”. It would appear Obama’s influence is fading everywhere…

Cyprus is located ~183 nautical miles west of Syria and is the EU member nearest to Syria.

The Russian government has endorsed restructuring of the terms of the Russian loan to Cyprus, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told reporters Friday.

“The restructuring was endorsed at the last meeting of the Cabinet,” he said

Cyprus is to repay a EUR 2.5bn loan to Russia in eight semiannual installments starting in 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak told reporters today, citing a revision of repayment terms approved at the latest cabinet meeting. The interest rate was lowered to 2.5% from 4.5%.

Russia makes a deal with Egypt for arms. Credit Photo: Novosti
Russia makes a deal with Egypt for arms. Credit Photo: Novosti

Russia extended the loan in 2011 for 4.5 years. Cyprus UK Bases (via Bloomberg)

The U.K. has 2 sovereign bases on Cyprus; and despite its vote against a strike, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said today 6 RAF Typhoon interceptor fast jets deploying to British base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as precautionary measure “to protect British bases on island” Cyprus Refugee Camp (via Bloomberg).

Cyprus Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides says his country is prepared for any influx of foreign nationals in the event of military action against Syria, in comments to reporters in Nicosia today. Cyprus can accept up to 10,000 people daily on basis they remain for 48 hours before repatriation (Cyprus received more than 40,000 evacuees from Lebanon after 2 weeks fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in 2006).

Cyprus Refuses To Allow Strikes From Its Territory against Syria (via Bloomberg).

Cyprus assured its territory won’t be used to launch military strikes against Syria, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said, according to a transcript of his comments posted on govt’s press-office website

Kasoulides commented that “Cyprus wants to live up to its responsibility as a shelter if needed for nationals of friendly countries who evacuate from Middle East”

An official statement by the government of Cyprus makes it clear that there is a territorial use opt out in place:

The Government of Cyprus has repeatedly expressed its grave concern about the use of chemical weapons against the friendly people of Syria, including innocent civilians and even against women and children. Our reaction becomes even stronger when this happens in such proximity to our country. The loss of 1429 lives, including 426 children in the last attack in Damascus, constitutes a crime against humanity. It is unreservedly condemned. Such a heinous act, cannot be without consequences.

Undoubtedly, use of chemical weapons has occurred. The designation of the responsible side does not fall under the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission. Nonetheless, the Syrian regime is accountable for the fact that it is producing, stockpiling, and it is in a position to mixture chemical weapons, in violation of customary international and humanitarian law, including the Chemical Weapons Convention. If the Syrian regime had proceeded to destroy such weapons, in the presence of observers of the relevant international organizations, it would not have to prove that is not responsible of their recent massive use.

Whatever happens, the Geneva II Process must be safeguarded, in order to seek a political solution to the wider problem.

Cyprus, as a country of stability, peace and security in the region, stands ready to live up to its responsibility as a shelter, in case needed, in order to evacuate nationals of friendly countries from the Middle East. Cyprus would like to safeguard this capacity; to that end, we have received assurances that the territory of Cyprus will not be used for military strikes.

And Russia clearly has used their political and financial clout in Cyprus to expand their ability to use naval and air facilities.

According to a report in January 10, 2014 published in the Cyprus Mail:

The Council of Ministers has approved a draft proposal by the Defence Ministry to offer certain facilities to the Russian air force at the Andreas Papandreou military airbase in Paphos.

Ministry sources yesterday confirmed that the cabinet gave the green light for the defence ministry to enter into negotiations with Russia on signing an agreement setting out the terms of use of the airbase.

According to a report in Politis, a request for use of the airbase was raised last year during the separate visits of Defence Minister Fotis Fotiou and Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides to Moscow.

Russian military vessels sit at anchor at a navy base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The Crimea can serve as a hub of military power projection into the region for the Russians.  Reuters
Russian military vessels sit at anchor at a navy base in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The Crimea can serve as a hub of military power projection into the region for the Russians. Reuters

The newspaper reported that during its latest meeting, the cabinet approved a proposal by the defence ministry, reached in agreement with the foreign ministry, to offer certain services to the Russian air force at the Paphos military air base.

These include allowing the landing and stationing of military aircraft for humanitarian reasons and in emergency situations.

A defense ministry source refused to enter into details but told the Cyprus Mail that the proposed agreement is not something substantial or different to what is already being offered to Russia in terms of facilities at the airbase from time to time.

The agreement, if and when it is signed between the two countries, will simply put the situation on a more ‘official’ footing.

In other words, there appears to be an agreement in place which not only allows specified uses of its main air base but also sanctions use of the main port at Limassol according to discussions with Cypriot government officials as well.

And from the perspective of Russian naval officials, Cyprus will not provide a permanent base but a rotational one as part of a permanent fleet of five or six combat ships to the Mediterranean Sea, with frigates and cruisers making up the core of the fleet. Although, a growing number of diesel submarines will be part of the fleet as well.

According to one European observer:

Russia has been docking on and off at Limassol for a while and not only at Limassol. Russian warships have docked in Malta, Greece and for the first time ever (in May), in Israel.

However, regarding Cyprus, the current system means that Russia has to ask permission in advance.

With an official agreement this would no longer be necessary.

Still, this deal would set a precedent as currently no EU member state allows Russia to use its military bases or ports for logistical or other reasons.

The key here is to understand that the Russian fleet is part of an expanded engagement effort in the region to advance Russian interests. The atrophied presence is to be replaced by an expanded infrastructure of support and a modernized fleet.

The Seizure of Crimea

With activity on both flanks of the Mediterranean, the moves in Crimea come into focus.

Whatever the cause of the seizure of Crimea and its inclusion in Russia, the impact on the Russian navy is clear.  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.

Russians sources throughout 2013 made it clear that they viewed the Ukrainians as putting obstacles in front of the desired modernization of the Black Sea fleet.  Obviously, this obstacle is removed.

In a piece published on March 12, 2014, prior to annexation, one analyst underscored the situation as follows with regard to Sevastapol:

Construction of a new base for the Fleet has been underway in Novorossiysk in the meantime, as there is no guarantee that Viktor Yanukovych’s successor would reiterate the agreements signed by him. The unrest in Ukraine in the winter of 2013-14 and the coming to power of the “Maidan government” have only bolstered those concerns.

At the same time, looking at the developments in Crimea proper, the Black Sea Fleet’s positions there can be expected to become stronger. That would be an extremely fortunate solution because, for a number of reasons, from weather to geography, Novorossiysk cannot serve as the Navy’s main base.

As the main base, Sevastopol is today the best port on the Black Sea coast, if not in the entire Black and Mediterranean Sea basin, not only because of the advantages it offers as such but also thanks to its location virtually “above” the Black Sea’s geographical center. This convenient location enables a Sevastopol-based fleet to carry out missions of practically any kind.

Without a doubt, not only Moscow is aware of this, so the disputes over Crimea and the Fleet’s base are going to continue.”

The Russian navy has underscored over the past few years, they wish to see significant modernization of the fleet with frigates and diesel subs as the main assets.

But the addition of new amphibious ships – of the Mistral class – can be used in the region as well as the navy perhaps re-shapes its course to provide for an insertion and influence force in the broader region able to operate from rotational deployments in the region.

The second Mistral class ship is to be called ironically Sevastopol. The Mistral-class Vladivostok helicoper carrier ordered by Russia leaves its French shipyard for its first trial on March 5. (AFP/Getty Images)
The second Mistral class ship is to be called ironically Sevastopol. The Mistral-class Vladivostok helicopter carrier ordered by Russia leaves its French shipyard for its first trial on March 5. (AFP/Getty Images)

As one analyst put it with regard to the military consequences of ending Ukrainian ownership of Sevastopol:

Crimea’s acquisition significantly increases the operational capabilities and potential of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russia will have full freedom in terms of its size and distribution (including new bases), modernization and expansion throughout the peninsula. So far, it had been limited by the Russian-Ukrainian agreement of 1997, which regulated the stationing of units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine.

The Black Sea Fleet could only carry out repairs on ships without Ukrainian consent, and its land component could not exceed 2000 (at present there are 22,000 soldiers in Crimea). In the near future, the takeover of the remaining Ukrainian military infrastructure and equipment in Crimea (mainly ships) will make the Black Sea Fleet the undisputed principal military power in the Black Sea.

The Russian Ministry of Defense will save on leasing fees. So far, Moscow had been paying Ukraine $97 million a year for stationing the Black Sea Fleet on the peninsula (from 2017 this amount was to have risen to $100 million). The newly released funds will allow Russia to maintain an increased military presence. and will most likely be used for this purpose.

Clearly, Russian naval and air power is returning but not in the guise of a Soviet-American confrontation.

Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).
Russian tanks and soldiers storm a Ukrainian air force base in Belbek near the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 22, 2014. (Viktor Drachev / AFP/Getty Images).

The Crimea also includes air bases, which put the Russians in closer proximity for Mediterranean operations as well.

One can conceive of Crimea and the Black Sea ports and adjacent air facilities as the hub of a hub and spoke operation to cover the Mediterranean as the Russians modernize their air and sea assets and capabilities over the decade ahead.

It is part of an effort to expand Russian influence and to be able to support “friends” and “partners” and to not only show the flag but affect outcomes.  The Russians are putting in play their own approach to coalition building for 21st century operations and reality.

It is not the Warsaw Pact way; but indirect strategy in support of Russia’s interests, and above all energy interests.