War & Conflict

Russia's emerging naval presence in the Mediterranean

Russians know that access to the Mediterranean means access to the world.

A Russian sailor stands guard on the deck of a Russian nuclear-powered missile cruiser docked in the Cypriot port of Limassol [AFP]

The centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement this month has focused attention on the division of the Middle East into French and British zones of influence after World War I.

Less well known, however, is the Constantinople Agreement made a year before the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Under this, the UK and France agreed to give Russia control of the Turkish Straits as well as Constantinople, then capital of the Ottoman Empire, in the event of a Triple Entente victory in World War I.

Unfettered access to the Mediterranean Sea was crucial for Russia. In 1914, the first year of the Great War, 50 percent of all Russian exports and 90 percent of its agriculture exports passed through the Turkish Straits.

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The 1917 revolution in Russia took the country out of the war, which meant that the Constantinople Agreement was never realised.

Unhindered access

Even today, Russians know that access to the Mediterranean means access to the world.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union's 5th Operational Squadron patrolled the Mediterranean to keep an eye on what the United States and NATO were doing in the region.

READ MORE: The West needs to keep NATO's door open to new members

After the fall of the Berlin Wall this fleet was disbanded and, until recently, Russia's maritime presence in the Mediterranean remained limited.

Russia's emerging naval presence in the Mediterranean is made possible by US disengagement from the region following the so-called 'pivot' or rebalance to Asia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to bring Russia back to its imperial ways and has made the Mediterranean Sea a priority for the Russian Navy.

Earlier this year during a visit to Russian-occupied Crimea, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu said that the "Mediterranean region was the core of all essential dangers to Russia's national interests".

He also announced that a new Russian naval task force for the Mediterranean would be established, probably based on the 5th Operational Squadron which operated during the Cold War.

Russia's emerging naval presence in the Mediterranean is made possible by US disengagement from the region following the so-called "pivot" or rebalance to Asia.

Putin, always eager to advance his grand strategy for Russia, saw this as an opportunity for the Russian Navy to try to fill the void left by the US Navy.

From the Levant to Gibraltar

In order to operate in the Mediterranean, Moscow has secured access to a chain of ports for refuelling and resupplying the Russian Navy from the Levant to the Strait of Gibraltar - many of which, astoundingly, are located in NATO and the EU countries.

The bombing site at a bus station in the coastal city of Tartus, Syria [EPA]

This is a particular concern because NATO has broken off relations with Russia and the European Union has imposed economic sanctions against Moscow.

Russia maintains an important naval base in the Alawite-dominated region of Tartus in Syria and Vladimir Putin wants to maintain this base at all costs. This is why Putin is so eager to see Syrian President Bashir al-Assad remain in power.

Assad in Damascus guarantees Russian ships in Tartus and a naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea.

It's not just Syria.

Since Russia seized Crimea, the Russian warship Vice Admiral Kulakov visited Malta in July 2014 and the Yaroslav Mudry visited in February 2015. Although Malta is not a member of NATO, it is a member of the EU.

READ MORE: Why the West must embrace Turkey, not push it away

In June 2015, the Russian navy landing ship Korolev 130 visited Greece - a member of both NATO and the EU.

Rumours abound that Moscow is seeking basing right in Cyprus - another EU member state.

Rumours abound that Moscow is seeking basing rights in Cyprus - another EU member state.

Spanish hospitality

Of all the NATO and EU members hosting the Russian Navy, Spain is the worst. In 2011, Moscow started to regularly use the port facilities at Ceuta - a Spanish enclave in North Africa.

Ceuta is legally part of Spain and is one of only two EU cities  - the other being the Spanish enclave of Melilla - located in mainland Africa. It is also part of the Schengen Agreement and the eurozone. 

Since 2011, at least 58 Russian Navy ships have called into the Spanish port, including destroyers, frigates, amphibious assault ships and even an attack submarine.

In total, at least 21 Russian naval vessels have visited Spain to refuel and resupply since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March 2014 and the EU began economic sanctions against Moscow.

Disunited for Ukraine

It is irresponsible for European countries to allow Russian warships - especially some of Russia’s most advanced submarines - to use their ports, especially ports located a short distance from important NATO naval bases.

It is also unacceptable that NATO and EU members offer support to the Russian Navy at a time when Moscow is actively attempting to dismember Ukraine and economic sanctions are in place.

By getting access to naval bases in EU and NATO countries, Putin is able to kill two birds with one stone. On one hand, access to these ports makes it easier for the Russian Navy to operate in the Mediterranean Sea to the determent of NATO. On the other hand, Putin shows how divided Europe really is over its policy towards Russia

Once again, Putin is running circles around the West.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera