NATO and Russia: a New “Reset” in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Part of an alarming Cold War reboot, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is expected to bear a far-reaching impact on international affairs, one that may still turn out to be a positive one: if Russia and the West manage to de- escalate tensions in the Eurasian land mass, a new beginning for NATO-Russian relations could lie in the maritime domain. Can the warm Mediterranean waters provide a much needed “reset”?
At first glance, nothing could “satisfy” an archetypical land power such as Russia other than restoring dominance in its surrounding land mass. This is to an extent true. Land powers do not regard ruling the seas as an essential component of their security; by definition, after all, land powers possess the requisite geographical depth that enables them to deter potential aggressors. Incidentally, in both Georgia and Crimea, Russia’s two most recent military forays, the country’s navy took a backseat, merely ensuring that troops on the ground were in a position to accomplish their tasks without any “disturbances”.
However, to the extent that maritime routes can adversely impact the security outlook of a land power, (through blocking a vital trade or energy route for example), naval power projection may become a priority. Ancient Sparta, Germany during the first half of the 20th century, and more recently China, all felt compelled to bolster their naval capabilities upon realizing that more “boots on the ground” could do little to counter the strategic impasse brought about by competing powers possessing a robust navy.
The Mediterranean could therefore be Russia’s new Achilles’ heel. The fact the Turkish straits, labelled “Russia’s Rubicon” by Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty during the Crimean War (1853- 1856), are effectively under NATO control, exacerbates Russian fears. The Kremlin predicts, in short, that a stronger presence of NATO forces in the Mediterranean may be used to “stifle” the Russian navy by restraining it from accessing its Mediterranean allies as well as the Middle East flashpoints through the Suez Canal. It is no coincidence then that in early 2013, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu emphasised that the Mediterranean is at the core of all essential challenges to Russian national interests.
As a result, Russia, a traditional land power, is now on the brink of a major naval expansion, triggered by what Moscow perceives to be a western encroachment into its sphere of influence. Until 2020, Russia will be devoting 132 billion USD to upgrade its naval capabilities, which amounts to almost a quarter of total projected defence outlays for the entire period. In addition to featuring Russia’s sole aircraft carrier at times, Russia’s Mediterranean task force has grown to include more than ten combat ships on a permanent basis. Within the next 24 months alone, the Russian navy will take hold of at least twenty new vessels, including state of the art surface combatants, frigates and all new submarines.
But how could these developments ever lead to a breakthrough in Russian relations with NATO? If anything, they appear to be additional worrying signs of growing east-west tensions. Even more alarmingly, disagreements between Russia and Turkey over the Montreux treaty that regulates passage through the straits could resurface, exacerbating a tense security balance along the Black Sea coastline.
Nevertheless, Russia’s re-emergence in the Mediterranean waters may prove to be compatible with a new equilibrium in the Eurasian geopolitical space, as long as the ongoing standoff in Central and Eastern Europe concludes within a mutually accepted framework. In other words, it may be in Russia’s best interest to come to an understanding with western powers. This would enable Moscow to play a new, constructive role in the currently volatile Mediterranean security arrangements. And this new role could actually prove to be in perfect harmony with NATO and European Union interests in the region.
The rationale is multifaceted, yet simple: The Mediterranean faces a series of contemporary challenges that threaten to compromise the security of both Russia and the west. Illegal migration, the spread of extremism and other asymmetrical threats are combined with multiple discoveries of hydrocarbon reserves that reanimate dormant regional antagonisms. When we factor in the region’s endemic political instability, the cooperation of Mediterranean maritime powers is clearly defined as a pressing necessity.
A potential Russian contribution would not duplicate NATO efforts. The drastic reduction of European defence spending and the commitment of NATO assets away from the Mediterranean (NATO ships take part in the Ocean Shield operation in the Indian Ocean for instance) have created a hard to ignore security vacuum. Moreover, the ongoing American “pivot to Asia” primarily concerns the transfer of US naval assets, as the nature of threats in the Asia Pacific (flashpoints in the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Malacca Straits) places the maritime component at the heart of the new American grand strategy.
And neither a renewed Cold War nor the fight against ISIL can alter the US maritime strategy of gradual disengagement from the Mediterranean. From the first Gulf War in 1990-91 to the War on Terror a decade later, the US has been steadily adjusting its perception of the Mediterranean; from a confrontation stage against the Soviet Union, the region is becoming a forward launch pad, or even a transit point, towards the Gulf States and the Indian Ocean, where significant American interests lie.
Russia could thus have an opportunity to acquire sustainable gains by working with NATO member states in order to face existing and emerging threats in the Mediterranean. Not only would Moscow be putting an end to a critically escalating confrontation in Europe, but it would also pave the way for a highly stabilizing cooperation in one of the most strategically crucial, yet volatile, areas in world affairs.
Vassilis Kappis, ERPIC Fellow. Vassilis is an international security analyst and an advanced PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney, with his research focused on decision-making during tense militarized crises. Currently based in Cyprus, he is an expert in Eastern Mediterranean security and geopolitics and is affiliated with think tanks and consultancies in Europe and the United States. The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.