Russian Naval Presence in the Eastern Mediterranean
and the Problem of Projected Naval Basing
The Syrian crisis as a catalyst for naval presence
The idea of designating Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean as a standing naval task force (squadron) emerged in 2012. It was triggered by growing Russian naval activity in the region, in connection with the civil war in Syria, with Russian warships entering the Mediterranean on a much more regular basis.
One of the reasons the secular regime in Syria has been able to survive the conflict thus far is that the country has a reliable supply and provisioning system in place. According to Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jalil, Syria receives about $500 million worth of fuel every month. It also receives large deliveries of food, medicines, various equipment, and of course, weapons and ammunition. China appears to be providing much of the financing for all such assistance, as Beijing has extended a large credit line to Damascus. The Russian Navy, however, has played a key role in making sure that all these supplies can actually reach Syria.
Most of the Syrian supply lines rely on ships being able to enter Syrian ports. The constant presence of the Russian Navy in the area ensures that the countries pursuing regime change in Damascus cannot blockade the shipping lanes or interdict ships heading for Syria. That presence also neutralizes possible attacks on merchant shipping by forces masquerading as “non-state actors”, or falling victim to “navigation errors” and “incorrect target designation” by the navies and air forces of the nations that are hostile to the Bashar Assad government.
Finally, according to unofficial claims by the Russian military, sensitive military cargo has been brought to Syria by the Russian Navy’s amphibious landing ships. Russia had to resort to such measures after the Alaed freighter, carrying Syrian Mi-25 helicopters heading back for Syria after repairs in Russia, was stopped in the North Sea by British forces, in violation of international shipping norms.
Russian warships were also involved in providing security during the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.
This sharp rise in Russian naval activity in the region has predictably led to certain organizational measures and efforts to set up an appropriate system of logistics.
The Russian defense minister’s order to set up a standing naval task force in the Mediterranean officially entered into force on May 31, 2013. Capt 1st Rank Yuriy Zemskiy, deputy chief of the Black Sea Fleet’s General Staff, was appointed commander of that task force.1 It was also announced that the MoD would rely on the experience of the 5th Operational Task Force, which the Soviet Navy maintained in the Mediterranean from 1967-1992.2
Unlike the navies of the United States or other NATO countries, during that period the Soviet Navy did not have a single facility in the Mediterranean that would qualify as a proper naval base. A genuine naval base should have dockage facilities, accommodation and recreation facilities for naval personnel, a hospital, and access to an airfield (or even a proper airbase). The Soviet Union had a chance to set up such a base in the Mediterranean only once, when construction work began in the 1950s in Albania. But that project was soon shut down after an ideological split emerged between Moscow and Tirana.3 The 5th Operational Task Force therefore had to make do with naval supply stations, which offered mooring spaces and some other facilities. The first such station operated in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in 1967-1972. Syria then allowed the Soviet Union to set up a supply station in Tartus in 1974.
The Russian Navy is not really making the fullest possible use of the Tartus facility, which in actually is fairly small. The explanation is simple: stepping up the Russian naval presence in a war-torn country would carry unacceptably high foreign-policy and political-military risks. Still, Moscow is unlikely to evacuate and abandon the Tartus naval station either. It will maintain its presence in order to show support for the Syrian government. Evacuation will not be considered so long as the Assad government remains sufficiently in control of the situation and there is no imminent threat of U.S. or Western intervention. Nevertheless, for political if no other reasons, making greater use of the Tartus naval station to support the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean will not be feasible while the Syrian crisis rages on. Yet it is this very crisis that has forced Russia to set up the standing naval task force to begin with.
All of these considerations give credence to rumors that Russia is looking to set up some kind of naval facilities at other Mediterranean ports. NATO countries and Israel can obviously be ruled out as potential candidates for hosting such facilities, and the same applies to Libya, which remains very unstable in the wake of a bitter civil war and the ensuing Western intervention. The same goes for Malta, with its firmly pro-Western orientation. That leaves only three potential candidates: Egypt, Montenegro, and Cyprus, although some form of cooperation may also be expected from Greece, with its history of close relations with Russia. There have already been rumors that Russia may be seeking to establish a naval facility in one of these three countries. It is clear, however, that the facility Moscow has in mind would not qualify as a proper naval base, with all the capabilities such a definition implies.
On December 19, 2013 the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti reported that the country’s government had rejected a Russian request to host a “military base” in the town of Bar. The newspaper speculated that Russia needs a new naval facility in the Mediterranean because it is uncertain of being able to maintain its presence in Tartus. The article also claimed that Montenegrin Defense Minister Milica Pejanović-Đurišić opposed the Russian request, citing concerns that, if her country were to agree to host a Russian base, it would complicate NATO accession talks. That is why, the newspaper said, the Montenegrin government denied Russia in early December.
When the paper asked the MoD for comments, the ministry said that Montenegro had not received any requests to host a naval base from any country. It further added that the ministry and the government as a whole were led in their decisions by the country’s constitution and the priority of Euro-Atlantic integration. The day after the Vijesti article was published, the Montenegrin defense minister reiterated that her country had not received any requests from Russia to host a naval base.
The situation has since been clarified by the Russian ambassador to Montenegro, Andrey Nesterenko. “We had no intention whatsoever of setting up a military base here,” the ambassador said. “We merely asked the [Montenegrin] Defense Ministry to meet a Russian delegation in order to discuss the terms of allowing Russian ships temporary moorage at the ports of Bara and Kotor for refueling, maintenance, and other necessities. We asked them to meet us, but the Defense Ministry said they had no interest whatsoever in discussing such things.”5
It does not follow from the ambassador’s remarks that Russian ships won’t be allowed to enter Montenegrin ports. It is clear, however, that the country’s government would rather prefer the issue to disappear from the bilateral agenda, hopefully without attracting much notice among the pro-Russian sections of the Montenegrin public. After all, only 38 per cent of Montenegrins support accession to NATO, and 45 per cent oppose it.
Cyprus and Greece
Russia has long been rumored to be in discussions with Cyprus about setting up a naval base. Those rumors became even more persistent after the Cypriot banking crisis in March 2013, when the government in Nicosia tried to secure Russian financial assistance. The subject, however, was never raised during the (fruitless) talks with the Russian Finance Ministry, although Moscow did seek compensation for the assets lost by Russian depositors, including by way of participation in developing Cypriot offshore gas reserves.
Nevertheless, it is known for a fact that Russia has expressed interest in using Cypriot ports for the needs of its Navy. In June 2013 the Cypriot foreign minister, Ioannis Kasoulides, said that Moscow had requested Nicosia’s permission for Russian warships to enter the Cypriot naval base in Limassol and for using the Andreas Papandreou airbase in Paphos.6 The issue was discussed at several ministerial-level talks between Russia and Cyprus. On January 9, 2014 the Cypriot government allowed Russian military transport planes to land at the Paphos airbase in emergency situations, but withheld permission to use the warehouse facilities at the base.7 Cypriot Defense Minister Photis Photiou emphasized that the issue of setting up a Russian naval base in the country was never raised. Nevertheless, Russian warships entered the port of Limassol on several occasions in 2012 and 2013 to refuel and allow the sailors to spend some time ashore. The flagship of the Russian task force in the Mediterranean, The Peter the Great nuclear cruiser, has entered Limassol twice since October 2013, when it began its latest mission in the Mediterranean.
Planes operated by the Russian Emergencies Ministry and the Military Transport Aviation service of the Russian Air Force have already landed at the Paphos airfield on several occasions. The permission to land in emergency situations obtained by Moscow is probably necessary for such purposes as medical evacuation of personnel, and possibly bringing in new personnel for rotation, as well as airlifting small cargo for Russian ships entering Limassol.
In December 2013 Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu visited Greece, where he discussed the possibility of Russian warships entering Greek ports and undergoing dockside repairs in that country. “We believe that the time has come for more energetic actions as part of our military and technical cooperation,” the minister said. “In particular, we would like to have a greater presence of the Russian Navy here. More specifically, we would like our ships to be able to use Greek port facilities for service and maintenance.” There have been no reports of any specific agreements concerning this intitiative.
Ahead of the first meeting between the Russian and Egyptian foreign and defense ministers in the 2+2 format on November 13, 2013, the Israeli website Debka (which has a reputation for sensationalism and not-always-accurate reporting) made several interesting claims. It reported, in particular, that Russian and Egyptian officials discussed the possibility of setting up a Russian naval station in Egypt during a visit to Cairo by a Russian military delegation led by the chief of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), Vyacheslav Kondrashov. Debka analysts speculated that four Egyptian ports appear to be suitable candidates:
Alexandria The docking and mooring facilities, as well as numerous warehouse facilities in this large port can quickly be refitted for military purposes. That is exactly how the Russian naval station was set up in Tartus decades ago.
Damietta This port is situated in the eastern part of the Nile delta, 15 km from the Mediterranean coast and 70 km from Port Said.
Port Said This port is situated at the northern mouth of the Suez Canal, a strategically important location.
Rosetta The port is situated in the Nile delta 65km east of Alexandria.8
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry representative denied these claims even before the meeting in Cairo took place, and said that allowing foreign countries to set up military bases on Egyptian soil would undermine Egypt’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Russian Navy’s Varyag cruiser entered the port of Alexandria during the ministerial meeting, for the first time in many years.9 It cannot be ruled out that, as Russian-Egyptian military relations gradually improve, such calls will become a more regular occurrence.
Business ties as foreign-policy leverage
It appears that Moscow’s discreet efforts to secure access to naval bases in the eastern Mediterranean have relied on a more modern and sophisticated toolset than the fairly blunt instruments used in the past. In particular, Russia has made energetic use of economic leverage to influence the relevant governments. That leverage includes bilateral trade, the banking sector, and tourism, as well as the presence of Russian companies in the countries involved.
For example, Russia’s special political relations with Cyprus rely to a great extent on the large numbers of Russian tourists visiting the island, and on massive Russian investment in Cypriot property. Reports suggest that last year Cyprus received more visitors from Russia than from Britain. According to Cypriot sources, Russian tourists and Russian property holdings on the island have been instrumental in ameliorating the devastating effects of the Cypriot banking crisis that broke out in March 2013. Obviously, these considerations make the government in Nicosia more inclined to listen to Russian requests for permission to use the ports of Limassol and Larnaca, as well as the Paphos airfield.
Russian-Egyptian relations are inevitably dominated by political factors at the moment, but here too, commercial mechanisms can come into play. It is believed that large batches of weapons being bought by the Egyptians are paid for by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. But if Russia and Egypt start to pursue closer military and technical cooperation, Moscow could supply weapons in return for permission to use the Egyptian port infrastructure. In view of its financial difficulties, Cairo might well be interested in such an arrangement.
Russia also seems to be trying to use economic leverage, in the form of Russian tourists and businesses, in order to secure a naval presence in Montenegro and Croatia. For example, reliable reports claim that Russia did not use direct government-to-government channels to communicate its wish to have Montenegrin ports available for use by the Russian Navy forces in the Mediterranean. The request was relayed instead via corporate channels controlled by the Russian magnate Oleg Deripaska. Among other things, this has given both sides plausible deniability. After Montenegro refused even to discuss the issue, Russia was able to save face by claiming that the request was never made.
Finally, Russia also has some leverage in Croatia, where the Russian businessman Konstantin Zemskov is the manager of the Northern port in the town of Split. Previously, two Russian businessmen, Viktor Zenchenko and Dmitry Zheleznyak, owned a 32-per-cent stake in that port. They were also actively involved in the local community, organizing concerts and sponsoring the local football club. Also, Croatia has become a popular house hunting destination for Russian oligarchs. For example, Viktor Vekselberg, whose $10.1bn fortune makes him one of the richest men in Russia, has bought a villa in Dubrovnik. Theoretically, this provides Russia with a versatile “soft power” arsenal to influence the Croatian government.
Following the establishment of the standing naval task force in the Mediterranean in 2013, there is little doubt that Russia is looking for regional partners that would allow Russian ships to use their ports for refueling, resupply, service and maintenance, etc. It is entirely unlikely, however, that Russia is actually seeking to establish a proper naval base in one of the Mediterranean ports. In fact, we don’t believe that it is even asking for permission to set up a mere supply station such as the one it now has in Tartus. The only known result of these diplomatic efforts so far is the permission of the Cypriot government to use the Paphos airfield to provide support to Russian Navy ships in emergency situations. Meanwhile, the United States and the West have ample political instruments to stymie any Russian attempts to set up even a small naval supply station in almost every single county of the Mediterranean, with the exception of Syria.
1. A TV report showing the map of the task force’s operations: http://tv-novosti.ru/news/2013-06-06/rossiya/512
2. Gorbachev S.P. ed. At the edge of the global confrontation. The 5th Mediterranean Squadron of the Soviet Navy protecting the country during the Cold War. Sebastopol, 2012
3. Enver Hoxha. The Khrushchevites. Memoirs. 8th Nentory, Tirana, 1980, P. 401/ http://www.enverhoxha.ru/Archive_of_books/enver_hoxha_the_khrushchevites_rus.pdf