Russia's Eastern Mediterranean gambit and NATO's maritime challenge

nato navy 2Mainstream analysis of the geopolitical contention between NATO and Russia has tended to center geographically on the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and to a lesser extent, Central Asia. In recent years, new challenges and issues have emerged for NATO, mostly related to threats to security that either did not exist or were not considerable factors. Now, however, NATO is facing a mix of security challenges combining the old and the new in a new theater – the Eastern Mediterranean.


Of course, the Eastern Mediterranean has always been a factor in NATO's operations since the organisation's inception in 1949 and the inclusion of Greece and Turkey in the alliance's structure. The Atlantic Alliance's expansion over the past 25 years has, however, considerably changed its security mandate. In particular, the Eastern Mediterranean has become an area of greater importance and responsibility for the alliance. While NATO now has the strategic advantage of an enhanced presence in the Mediterranean's eastern regions, it must also respond to the rising difficulties that a Russia more directly engaged in the area presents as well.


Current Russian foreign policy has created a dilemma for NATO whereby the organisation must contend with potential challenges from a single country, but in separate areas of operation. Indeed, Russia's engagements in the Middle East have distracted some observers from Russian policy in Eastern Europe, and NATO will have to contend with a multi-prong approach to its relations with Russia and its handling of regional security. Thus while NATO and the West obviously should not ignore Russia's activities in Eastern Europe, the reality is that given Russia's vast geographic reach, it will inevitably present NATO with a series of challenges in many regions and sub-regions in the vicinity of both NATO member states and Russia.


The challenge that NATO currently faces vis-à-vis Russia's new presence in the Eastern Mediterranean presents not only the need for new geographic considerations. It also necessitates a renewed NATO focus on an old war fighting capability. NATO military preparedness has, of late, had to contend with both conventional land-based threats, as per Russian actions in Ukraine and potential such activities in the Baltics. Additionally, however, it has also had to learn to contend with the emerging concept of "hybrid warfare", in addition to developing its capabilities and policy with regards to cyber attacks. One of the most important implications of Russia's engagement with Syria, however, is the ability of both NATO and Russia to utilise an oft-overlooked aspect of warfare: the navy.


A large amount of naval analysis tends to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific region. This is especially true of rising tensions and security threats in places such as the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, where the protection of trade routes is of the utmost importance. Yet Russia's naval power, which is growing in all areas of Russian interest, including the Asia-Pacific and the Arctic, has the potential to change NATO's security calculations drastically, leading to increased contention for this geo-strategically vital part of the world.


While Russia has been traditionally regarded as a land-based power, naval considerations have historically been a strong part of the Russian calculus. One need look no further than its wars with Sweden and Japan in the early 18th and 20th centuries, respectively, to see that Russia has always valued access to the high seas. Russia's full-blown seizure of Crimea almost two years ago has removed a major hurdle toward unfettered Russian access to the Mediterranean. Although Russia had agreed with Ukraine to extend its lease on the naval base at Sevastopol, Russia scrapped the agreement after it annexed Crimea, as direct Russian command over Crimea removed any risk of the agreement falling apart because of actions taken by Ukraine.


Naval warfare has never been an insignificant part of NATO or Russia's strategy. Yet in light of Russia's occupation of Ukraine, the lion's share of analysis regarding NATO's preparedness and ability to respond to Russia has tended to focus on conventional land combat. Now, however, Russia's growing and revitalising maritime poweris poised once again to induce NATO to augment its own collective naval defences.


According to a report in The National Interest, Russia regards itself as a major naval power, as stated in its most recent naval doctrine. Its intervention in Syria is based in part on securing warm water ports for its naval and aerial defense forces in response to NATO expansion. Indeed, as powerful as the Russian navy is, logistical considerations are an important part of Russia's ability to project power, hence the reason why Russia wants to secure friendly and accessible ports from which it can spread its power and presence.


The majority of Russia's engagement with Syria has focused on air strikes. Yet even here, in today's defense realities aerial and naval warfare are becoming increasingly integrated. Thus not only will Russia's naval revival present a new set of challenges for NATO in the blue and green water sense, but NATO will also need to respond to how Russia's naval standing will affect that country's ability to project air power as well.


The United State's own relative lack of strategic naval presence in may also present a problem, both for the US alone and within the broader NATO community, as demonstrated by the fact that the US 6th Fleet currently has a reduced presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the Russian navy's presence is increasing. Additionally, Russia has already made several breakthroughs in its ability to serve the logistical needs of its navy in the Eastern Mediterranean and in other areas of NATO responsibility. Russia recently gained permission to service its ships' logistical needs in Cyprus. Furthermore, Russia has already managed to convince some NATO members to grant assistance to its military, as exemplified by Spain's grating permission to a Russian naval vessel to refuel at the Spanish island of Ceuta near Morocco.


There can be little doubt that Russian activities abroad have given NATO a new (or rather revived) raison d'etre after languishing for several years without a clear mandate (not considering the organisation's presence in Afghanistan). Several important lessons and implications can be garnered from the challenge that Russia poses to NATO. First, NATO will face the task of managing emerging and non-traditional types of security threats without losing sight of the fact that traditional, hard military security is still very much an important factor. Second, while NATO has definitely expanded its operability to outside of the European theatre, it will have to be prepared to consider the Mediterranean as a new area of operations and interest.


Anthony Rinna is a foreign affairs analyst associated with the Center for World Conflict and Peace.