Monday, 13 May 2013

Russia's Mediterranean focus

Russia has let it be known that more of its warships are headed into the Mediterranean, this time from east of Suez. Ships of Russia's Pacific fleet are expected to transit the Suez canal today, according to state media outlet RIA Novosti.

Udaloy class destroyer Admiral Pantaleyev
The vessels will take their turn in Russia's new Mediterranean Task Force, relieving other warships sent into the Med earlier this year from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, its Baltic Fleet, and its Northern Fleet.

The five ships took the long trip from Russia's Vladivostok naval base in the northern Pacific.

The warships reinforce Moscow's commitment to keeping a naval presence forward deployed in the Mediterranean, rather than idly rusting in its Arctic, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific ports.

The RIA Novosti report reads:
A group of warships from Russia’s Pacific Fleet is about to deploy to the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in decades, fleet spokesman Roman Martov said on Monday.
The group has entered the Red Sea and is preparing to transit the Suez Canal, and should reach the Mediterranean by mid-May, he said.
The group, including the destroyer Admiral Panteleyev, the amphibious warfare ships Peresvet and Admiral Nevelsky, the tanker Pechenga and the salvage/rescue tug Fotiy Krylov left the port of Vladivostok on March 19 to join Russia’s Mediterranean task force.
The task force currently includes the large anti-submarine ship Severomorsk, the frigate Yaroslav Mudry, the salvage/rescue tugs Altai and SB-921 and the tanker Lena from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, as well as the Ropucha-II Class landing ship Azov from the Black Sea Fleet.
The task force may be enlarged to include nuclear submarines, Navy Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov said on Sunday.
Pulling these forces out of the Pacific represents a major concentration of Russia's available naval forces. The deployment is all the more marked because it continues the Med-bound focus, with other vessels already concentrated on the area from Russia's Arctic, Baltic and Black Sea fleets.

The assumption is that in order to maintain its constant Mediterranean presence, few or none of these ships can return to their original fleets, and must instead flit back and forth between the Med and Russia's leased Black Sea base at Sevastopol.

Russia is keen to flex muscle in the Med to influence the situation in Syria by deterring any Nato intervention there against its besieged ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to maintain its Syrian naval base at Tartus, which ever side might win the civil war going on in the crumbling country.

Russia wants to raise Western perceptions of its strength in the Mediterranean more generally, in reply to the strong Western deployment of force around the Middle East, upped by present tensions with Iran, and the oil-rich region's general propensity for long-term instability.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has long been seen, by France in particular, as well as the EU and UK, as a strategic backyard, and will remain so, demonstrated by France and Britain's Libyan operation in 2011, and (further south) by France's Mali intervention this year.

The Russian attempt to increase regional influence is opportunistic,  relative to the economic weakness of EU members, such as Greece and Cyprus. Russia's move comes amid the EU's continuing sovereign debt crisis, potentially allowing Moscow to build influence among Mediterranean countries to undermine the fringes of the EU alliance, and thence the old rival, Nato.

At the end of April, Russian and British Royal Navy warships were both docked in Malta. Russian warships have also docked in Greek ports. Such meetings, echoes of the Cold War era, look to become more frequent in years to come.

Russia's means are limited, demonstrated by its need to send ships from the other side of the globe, weakening its resources available elsewhere. The effect, however, will be to ramp up tensions in the Mediterranean: more fish swimming in the same goldfish bowl.

Ropucha-class amphibious landing ship
The types of warships deployed by Russia are also designed to register on Europe's political decision-makers. Nuclear subs add scare factor. Tankers imply permanence.   And a growing list of amphibious landing ships (Ropucha-class) in the Med gives Russia, at least on paper, options for limited intervention, whether in Syria or elsewhere.

For example, if Russia needs to send troops ashore to secure its Tartus base, or to evacuate it, should the coastal town fall to the rebel forces, the ships give Moscow options.

As the US continues with its strategic pivot to the Pacific, to counter China's growing power in Asia, it seems that Russia has decided it should shift its resources to compete with the EU and the West to lever additional influence in Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

1 comment:

  1. Greece and Cyprus, despite the Russians refusing to bail the latter out so long as it remains in the euro subject to more EU bank wipeouts, are nonetheless sliding into the Ru-sphere. Israel may not be terribly far behind should the U.S. lose its military projection capabilities due to a severe economic collapse.