Beyond Crimean Annexation: The Russians Look to the Wider Mediterranean


2015-03-09 By Stephen Blank

One year after the Russian occupation of Crimea we are beginning to see the see some of the consequences of the militarization of Russian policy.

It is not an aberration but part of a larger policy.[i]

The most recent examples of an expanded policy into the Mediterranean are the recent announcements of a Russo-Cypriot military agreement giving Moscow rights of entry to  the ports of Cyprus and the discussion of using  an air base  in Cyprus for so called humanitarian interventions.”[iii]

Since Moscow has defined its wars against Georgia and Ukraine as constituting humanitarian interventions and has asked Serbia for a base at Nish for the same purpose the implications of this agreement and the ongoing discussions concerning the air base at Paphos immediately become apparent.

In remarks to Russian news agency Tass, the Cypriot leader (l) voiced "deep gratitude" to Russia for its economic help (Photo:
In remarks to Russian news agency Tass, the Cypriot leader (l) voiced “deep gratitude” to Russia for its economic help (Photo:

This deal also has political implications in demonstrating that Moscow can make the most consequential agreements with EU members and suggesting its ability to break the EU’s tenuous united stand against Russian aggression in Ukraine.[iv]

Beyond Cyprus Russia has announced that it will sign a military cooperation agreement with Egypt to define “the long-term vector of our collaboration in the military field.”

Thus this document sums up the arms sales agreement reached earlier with Egypt and an agenda for future expansion of bilateral military ties.[v]

According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu Moscow has in mind specific contents of this agenda pertaining to the  fight against terrorism.[vi]

Russia has been using this rubric of cooperation in the anti-terrorist struggle to promote and signal its deepening military interventions and presence in Central Asia and it is likely that in regard to Egypt and other Middle Eastern states where this slogan is being promoted it will mean a substantially enhanced Russian military presence.[vii]

One form of such a presence is a planned Russo-Egyptian naval drill in the Mediterranean and a joint rapid-reaction forces drill ostensibly against terrorists later this year.[viii]

Another such manifestation is the arms agreement between Rusia and Egypt whereby Egypt will receive $3.5 Billion worth of MiG-29 fighters, anti-tank systems, air defense systems and attack helicopters.[ix]

Moscow evidently wants a renewed presence in Alexandria and even Montenegro to have permanent bases on the Mediterranean on top of the base at Taurus in Syria and the new agreements with Cyprus.

Indeed, the new Egyptian government has said they were ready to franchise Russia to build a military base either in the Red Sea or the Mediterranean.[x]

Since “power projection activities are an input into the world order,” Russian force deployments into the greater Middle East and economic-political actions to gain access, influence and power there represent competitive and profound, attempts at engendering a long-term restructuring of the regional strategic order.[xi]

Although the agreement with Cyprus does not technically constitute a base it amounts to much the same thing, another regional  port of entry for purposes of sustaining  Russian power projection missions throughout the Levant.

The existing agreements with Cyprus and with Egypt clearly mark major steps towards the realization of Russia’s pre-established objectives for its permanent Mediterranean  Squadron (Eskadra).

Specifically, this Squadron’s “presence will allow Russia “to secure shipping access to the Suez Canal and extend its influence in the Middle East.”.[xii]

The accord with Cyprus also presents interesting potential problems to Turkey.

What remains unclear is how Turkey – a major Russian economic partner and a NATO member – will react if Greek Cyprus becomes a key logistical node for the Russian  navy in the Mediterranean.

Ultimately, however, Moscow doesn’t need much from Turkey beyond its treaty-based access to the Mediterranean; Ankara,  by contrast, genuinely needs Russian natural gas and Turkey’s role in NATO imposes sharp limits on its ties to Russia anyway, as does Cyprus’ EU membership.[xiii]

This material strengthening of Russian capabilities in the Black and Mediterranean Seas is, however, part of a larger global strategy that has gradually taken shape concurrently with the occupation of Crimea and of other parts of Ukraine. l 

At the same time as Moscow was first occupying Crimea, Shoigu proclaimed on February 26, 2014, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced progress in talks with eight governments to establish a global network of air bases to extend the reach of Russia’s long-range maritime and strategic aviation assets and thus increase Russia’s global military presence.[xiv] ”

Shoigu stated, “We are working actively with the Seychelles, Singapore, Algeria, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and even in some other countries. We are in talks and close to a result.”

Shoigu cited Russia’s need for refueling bases near the equator and that “It is imperative that our navy has the opportunities for replenishment.”[xv]

And in May 2014, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov announced that Russia is negotiating to establish support facilities in unspecified Middle Eastern countries, although we can guess that Syria, Cyprus, and Egypt are the most likely ones.

These moves show why Russia’s domination of the Black Sea is critical for power projection into the Mediterranean and Middle East.[xvi]

Thus Russia’s activities in and around the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean comprise parts of a larger, even global anti-American and anti-NATO ambition where naval forces and contingencies play a significant role.

In a recent speech the CINC of the Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov referred to the Navy’s “ocean strategy” and the large-scale procurement  campaign underway to realize this vision.[xvii]

According to Chirkov, the aim of this strategy is “to ensure the state’s interests and he security of its maritime economic activity in the various regions of the seven seas.”[xviii]

Clearly the aspiration is for a global ocean-going naval capability.

While the first mission might be homeland defense, naval task obviously will far transcend that requirement which is all the Russian  navy could effectively do after 1991.

And along with the invocation of this strategy Chirkov outlined a program to build the  capabilities and infrastructure necessary to sustain it: a new carrier, nuclear powered destroyer,  frigates and corvettes, and air capabilities.

Russia will  supposedly deliver 50 or more ships to the  Navy this year, including submarines as well as multipurpose corvettes and frigates.

Meanwhile the  Russian air force and Navy will get over 200 airplanes and helicopters in 2015 as well.[xix]

According to Chirkov the  carrier is not only to  provide a platform for airplanes or aerial vehicles of all  kinds but also to fight as a part of a combined arms approach if necessary.[xx]

Adm. Viktor Chirkov. /RIA/Novositi The defense minister has ordered us to form a task force that will operate in the Mediterranean Sea on a permanent basis."
Adm. Viktor Chirkov. /RIA/Novositi “The defense minister has ordered us to form a task force that will
operate in the Mediterranean Sea on a permanent basis.”

But here it is necessary for us also to look at the Russian UAV program which has clearly been spurred on by our extensive use of UAVs.

Russian analysts grasp that UAVs have become one of he most important categories of weapons for use in  naval contingencies for ships of the main classes, even,  if possible for  carriers just as we are doing.[xxi]

One possibility is to deploy UAVs on board ships that need to use their weapons to provide air support and thus make them independent of support from coastal aircraft..

In anticipation of anti-ship; activities all the way  up to attacks on carriers and carrier battle groups using long and medium anti-ship missiles based on surface ships, submarines, naval aviation aircraft,  and perhaps coastal batteries the UAV is essential to provide  accurate target detection and conduct reconnaissance while evading the enemy’s anti-air assets..

Similarly UAVs are essential to provide reconnaissance support for combating enemy light forces operating in littoral areas or conducting landing operations.

Third the UAV can detect enemy aviation groups at distances beginning at 600-700KM and help integrate the combined arms  anti-air  operation.[xxii]

In other words, Russian naval planning does not restrict itself to areas around the Russian littoral (including Crimea) but is thinking as well beyond the confines of anti-terrorist operations to include large-scale combined  arms  operations against NATO and the US at  sea.

Moscow’s new position in the Black and Mediterranean Seas facilitates the acquisition of the flexibility Moscow and its navy need to conduct or prepare for a wide range of contingencies from small-scale operations and  noncombatant evacuations all the way up to large-scale combined arms  missions.

Accordingly as a result of Moscow’s Ukrainian campaign NATO must step up its naval and air capabilities as well as ground and air   capabilities.

We cannot let the Black Sea become a closed Russian lake or permit the Mediterranean to become, as it was during the heyday of the Cold War, the cockpit of strategic rivalry between NATO and Russia,  both armed with nuclear weapons.

But it is a mark of our strategic neglect that only now has awakened to the threat implicit in Russia’s Ukrainian campaign.


[i] Stephen Blank, “The Black Sea and Beyond: Naval and Strategic Consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Forthcoming

[ii] Matthew Bodner, “Crimea Annexation Boosts Russia’s Deep Space Capabilities,”  Moscow times Online, March 5, 2015

[iii] Sami Kohen, “Russian Influence in East Mediterranean, “Istanbul, Milliyet  Online,  in Turkish, February 28, 2015, Open source Center, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia, February 28, 2015

[iv] Paul J. Saunders, “Cyprus Port Deal Gives Russian Navy Alternative to Tartus,”,  Al-Monitor,, March 3, 2015

[v] Moocow,  TASS,  in Russian, March 3, 2015,  FBIS SOV, March 3, 2015

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Stephen Blank, “Russian Military Policy in Central Asia,” Paper Presented to the  Conference Assessing the Capabilities of  Central Asian Armies, Central Asia Program,  George Washington University, Washington, D.C., January 12, 2015

[viii] Moscow, Interfax, in English, March 3, 2015,  FBIS SOV, March 3, 2015

[ix] “Russia,  Egypt to Hold joint Naval Drill in Mediterranean,” RT, March 3, 2015,

[x] “Egypt Turns to Russia to Buy $4 billion Weapons Supplies,” Middle East Monitor, November 9, 2013,; Theodore Karasik, “Arms to Egypt, From Russia With Love,” Al-Arabiya, November 20, 2013,; “Government refuses Russia’s request to set up a military base in Montenegro,” Independent Balkan News Agency,  December 20, 2013,

[xi] Henk Houweling and Mehdi Parvizi Amineh, “Introduction,” Mehdi Parvizi Amineh and Henk Houweling, Eds., Central Eurasia in Global Politics: Conflict, Security, and Development, International Studies in Sociology and Social Anthropology, Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2004, p. 15.

[xii] Saunders

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Bruce Jones. “Russia searches for strategic airbase partner” HIS Jane’s Defense Weekly. March 4, 2014

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Moscow, Interfax, in English, May 20, 2014, FBIS SOV, May 20, 2014; Stephen Blank, “Russian Strategy and Policy in the Middle East,” Israel Journal of Foreign Relations, VIII, NO. 2, May 2014, pp. 9-25

[xvii] Moscow, Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, in Russian, March 2, 2015,  FBIS SOV, March 2, 2015

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid; Moscow,  Interfax-AVN Online,  in Russian,  February 3, 2015,  FBIS SOV,  February 3, 2015

[xx] FBIS SOV, March 2, 2015

[xxi] Konstantin Sivkov, “The Russian Navy’s Drones: What Kind of Unmanned A3rial Vehicles  Does the Domestic Navy Primarily need,?” Moscow,  VPK Voyenno-Promyshlennyi Kuryer Online,  in Russian, October 30, 2013,  FBIS SOV, November 3, 2013

[xxii] Ibid.

Another aspect of the seizure of Crimea of note is upon deep space capbilities.

Another factor in this enhancement of Russian capabilities that is not commonly understood is that by occupying Crimea Moscow has also substantially enhanced its capability to monitor deep space strengthening its capability to maintain communications and  keep track of the International  Space Station but also other vehicles traversing deep space,  including satellites.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's space program lost control over the Crimean deep space communications station to Ukraine. Credit: Wikipedia
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s space program lost control over the Crimean deep space communications station to Ukraine. Credit: Wikipedia

Moscow has already announced its intentions to upgrade these facilities beginning in 2016.[ii]

Historically Russia’s occupation of the Crimea and of Ukraine has permitted a vast enlargement of Russian capabilities and ambitions towards the entire Eastern Mediterranean basin comprising both the Balkans and the Middle East and current events beyond the ongoing buildup in the Black Sea show that Russia is re-enacting this history.

Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow American Foreign Policy Council

For another discussion of the issues raised in this article see the following: