Geostrategy and military competition in the Mediterranean Sea

Russia naval forces (Credits: Colby Drake, U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report Volume 12 Issue 3
Author: Riccardo Rossi

The geostrategic importance that the Mediterranean Sea has assumed in recent years can be traced back to the political-strategic priorities defined by Russia, the United States and some of its allies (Italy, Spain, France), identifiable as the states most militarily active within some regions of this geo-maritime space.

On the whole, the political priorities identified by Moscow, Washington for the Mediterranean have led to a progressive process of militarisation, focused on obtaining the control of certain areas of the Mediterranean considered to be of significant interest.

Within the Mediterranean Sea, Russia, the United States, and some of its allies (Italy, Spain, France) consider strategically important the geo-maritime space of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the North African quadrant, the Middle Eastern territory distinguished by the presence of the artificial Suez Canal.

With the 2011 outbreak of the Arab Springs, the Russian Federation has taken an active posture within this geo-maritime space to oppose the constant increase of the U.S. military presence and its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Libya and Syria.

In the case of the Libyan revolution, Moscow decided to hinder the interventionist will of Western countries, acting within the U.N. Security Council, abstaining from the vote on resolution 1973 in March 2011 that authorized the establishment of a no-fly zone.

Moscow immediately recognized the beginning of the civil war in Syria, unlike the Libyan crisis, as the main threat to the geopolitical balance of the Eastern Mediterranean, leading it to intervene in aid of its ally Assad to protect three major political-strategic priorities.

The first priority was the necessity to protect Assad’s Government due to Syria’s important position in the heart of the Middle East. Therefore, the Kremlin evaluated fundamental the protection of Assad’s military installations from possible maritime power projection operations conducted by the United States and its NATO partners.

The second priority refers to the need to counter the threat of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Syria, many of which are in contact with groups of Islamic fighters present in the Russian Caucasus territory. In this context, Moscow elaborated a strategy based on constant drills and air-naval patrol operations in Syrian waters, the lines of maritime communication and its main junctions identified in the Suez Canal.

Finally, the last of the three political-strategic priorities recognized by the Kremlin in Syria contemplates the tactical-strategic enhancement of its military bases in Hmeimim and Tarsu for two main reasons.

Those mentioned above three geostrategic priorities required the Kremlin to develop a particular military strategy that combined the dispatch of Intelligence and special forces operators to support Assad’s troops and increase its military assets in the Khmeimim Air Base and Russian naval facility in Tartus. In this regard, in 2015, Tupolev Tu-22 nuclear bombers, fighter jets and attack helicopters arrived in Hmeimim, while Tartus saw a convergence of part of the Black Sea Fleet and the construction of S-300/ 400 short-range missile emplacements.

Moscow decided to deploy its military forces in Syria to implement its sea control in the waters around Damascus in order to remove the threat posed by the U.S. to the Syrian bases and cities along the coastline. In addition, the mastery of Syrian waters would guarantee the Kremlin the possibility of carrying out operations to interdict the maritime trade routes that pass through and towards the artificial Suez Canal, an eventuality to which the U.S. is opposed.

During the Obama administration and the subsequent Trump presidency, the Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean was identified as the primary security threat, leading Washington to elaborate a strategic-military theory for the region.

This doctrine, aimed at containing Moscow’s assertiveness, requires the maintenance of a constant military superiority, while at the same time protecting the main lines of maritime communication and the main junction of access and exit from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea threatened by the Russian presence, such as the Suez Canal.

The adoption of this U.S. strategic-military theory can be considered articulated in two points. The first is represented by the need to enhance, in a tactical-strategic key, the U.S. Navy and Airforce bases present in the Mediterranean Sea, paying particular attention to those present in Italy, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus. The second is the maintenance of close military cooperation between the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army and the armed forces of NATO countries.

The continuance of this cohesive relationship between U.S. and NATO forces required the approval of the Readiness Action Plan at the 2014 summit of the Atlantic alliance in Wales, which provided for a set of measures aimed at increasing the number of NATO training operations and patrols in the Mediterranean. Therefore, Frace, Italy, and Spain played vital roles in the U.S. strategy in the Mediterranean Sea because Washington considered these countries indispensable partners to contain the Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The constant French, Italian and Spanish military presence in Mediterranean waters is limited to participating in NATO military drills and aimed at protecting their respective political and strategic priorities.

In 2016, as the White Paper for international security and defence highlighted, the Italian Government led by Matteo Renzi recognized the growing instability of the Mediterranean Sea and considered this area of great geostrategic interest. In his paper Recent Developments in Italy’s Security and Defence Policy, the Italian General Vincenzo Camporini stressed that Italy needed to “redirect Italy’s military engagement abroad toward the Mediterranean region”.

The Italian Government and the French and the Spanish recognized the geostrategic value of the Mediterranean Sea in their respective national security documents generating dialogue and discussion among these three countries focused on starting military cooperation. Consequently, the European Council and the European Commission launched several European military operations intending to establish a sea control localized to the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean near the coastline of the North African quadrant.

An example of these types of E.U. operations can be considered the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean mission started in July 2015 to counter illegal drug and migrant trafficking.

On the whole, the United States considered E.U. military missions in the Mediterranean Sea as an essential military contribution by European countries to maintain Mediterranean security. In addition, the European engagement in the Mediterranean Sea security has allowed the United States to reduce their attention to this geo-maritime space to concentrate a more significant number of resources in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is possible to highlight that the Mediterranean Sea is a strategically non-homogeneous geo-maritime space since only some maritime areas have a military and strategic value. This non-homogeneous characteristic depends on Moscow and Washington’s doctrines on the Mediterranean Sea: in fact, both Russia and the United States consider only some specific areas strategically important.

The issue of the non-homogeneous strategic nature of the Mediterranean is reflected both in the definition of the political-strategic priorities theorized by the two countries and in the identification of their strategic-military doctrines, which include military forces and their geographical dislocation.

In this context, we might identify the Eastern Mediterranean Sea as the geo-maritime space where Moscow and Washington focus their respective political-strategic priorities. This statement is confirmed by observing a progressive process of militarisation involving the military assets of the two States in the eastern side of the Mediterranean, particularly near the Syrian coastline and in the proximity of the Suez Canal.

The reasons that define the centrality of this area in a strategic-military key can therefore be observed in the concentration of equipment aimed at supporting and protecting the opposing interests of the two Eastern Mediterranean competitors Russia and the United States.

For Moscow, the implementation of its sea control in the waters near the Syrian coastline would remove the threat posed by the U.S. to its military bases and those of its ally Assad. In addition, the mastery of Syrian waters would allow Russia to guard the waters near the Syrian coast and carry out operations of interdiction of maritime trade routes that pass to and from the Suez Canal, an eventuality to which the U.S. are opposed.

In turn, the United States, in order to contain the Russian military presence in Syria, have developed a military doctrine that combines the tactical-strategic enhancement of their bases in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Jordan and Cyprus, the increase in the number of NATO exercises to improve the level of air-naval patrols in the Eastern Mediterranean and delegating part of the maintenance of Mediterranean security to the most militarily equipped countries in the region, Italy, France and Spain.