Why Russia is Projecting into the Mediterranean

And what Italy should do about it.

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By Lucio Caracciolo

In order to find the Ukraine campaign’s place within the context of Russian strategy, we must look beyond the Donbas and its environs and contemplate the Mediterranean, especially the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Red Sea. These waters have to be studied in relation to the surrounding lands, along the arc from the Balkans to the Caucasus, from Anatolia to the Levant, from the Asian and African coasts facing the Red Sea to North Africa and the Sahel.

This is the outline of the project to reconquer the Russian Empire. It rests on the historical lines of the Russian-Soviet penetration that had lay dormant in the early post-USSR years, and which Putin has rediscovered and hammered with method and uninhibited use of force for at least the last fifteen years. To be precise, from 10 February 2007, when he delivered the provocative Munich speech (a warning of the anti-West turn), to 24 February 2022, when he unleashed his troops in the failed blitz on Kiev.

Like almost all “flashes of lightning”, these were signs of conflict that would take a long and unpredictable course. The aggression against Ukraine is a “kinetic” phase (a euphemism for opening fire) of a geopolitical strategy that employs all the projectiles, visible or not – be they surface or submarine – that Russia has at its disposal in the classical domains (land, sea, air) and in those that have only recently become fashionable (cyber-warfare, space, and deep underwater). It’s an all-out effort, because Putin is gambling it all.

The ultimate goal is to force America to accept a peace that grants Russia equal status. China has the same objective – which explains the otherwise mindless Sino-Russian alignment that matured following the defeat of the Muscovites in Ukraine in February 2014 and Putin’s refusal/impossibility to accept it.

Equality of status – though, no doubt, not equality of forces – implies the widest possible sphere of influence for Russia. The strategic premise is that possible invaders have to be kept at a safe distance from the Red Square. Hence the land bearings that in nineteenth- and twentieth-century representations were obtained by drawing lines on the continental “Bloodlands” between Germany and Russia.

But how many and which buffer states or territories can be placed between NATO and the Russian Federation today? The space is lacking, especially after Sweden and Finland requested admission to the Atlantic family, a declaration that has – quite inexplicably – been less publicised (even in the West) than the modest Russian advances in East and South Ukraine. This is a double error of perspective, as it underestimates the closure of the Baltic to Russia and, above all, the Atlantic powers’ moving into the Arctic, challenging Russian claims on the northern route between China/Japan and America. On the other hand, it neglects the Russian hold on the northern Black Sea, which thanks to the inland waterways of the Five Seas (Black-Azov-Caspian-Baltic-White) establishes maritime and naval continuity between the North and South of the Federation, thus enabling the sealing off of European Russia.

The naval blockade around the Ukrainian coast and the seizure of Mariupol’ allow Putin to complete his domination of the Sea of Azov, disenclave Sevastopol and Crimea by anchoring them to the heart of Russia, and prevent the nightmare of having the US Sixth Fleet in Odessa. It also prevents Georgia, already made smaller by loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, from joining NATO.

Seen through Russian eyes, this is a prelude to the de facto partition of the Pontic region with Turkey. Such a scenario disquiets people in Washington, where Erdoğan is perceived as unreliable if left to his own devices and thus as a player with whom one has to constantly negotiate – someone who is far from being an ally. The Turkish Atlantic deficit that needs to be offset by the strengthening of the Romanian outpost on the Black Sea centred on the Mihail Kogălniceanu base.

Control of the northern and central Black Sea, in non-explicit, always revocable agreement with Turkey – based on the Libya model, even if no barriers can be dug in the water – is the pillar of Russia’s maritime strategy. And it is consistent with the continental paradigm. It is an example of an aquatic version of the now impracticable “buffer zone” on land, unless one considers Belarus, which appears to be re-annexed to Moscow, as one such buffer.

Russia’s security no longer depends so much on its distance from the Atlantic states in Middle Europe, the classic Zwischeneuropa that re-emerged as a contested space after the Iron Curtain was torn down. It depends more on its ability to bypass them by sea, by drawing an arc that follows Mediterranean chokepoints: from the Dardanelles– hence the permanent souk Putin set up with Erdoğan, an inventive interpreter of the Montreux Convention that regulates the Straits regime – towards Suez and Bab-el Mandeb, or towards Algeria’s Mers-el-Kébir along the route that leads to the inaccessible Gibraltar.
As a good judoka, Putin knows he cannot challenge America’s dominance in continental Europe. Neither does he seek confrontation with NATO fleets in the Mediterranean. Instead, he leverages America’s military might to destabilise it. He hopes to split the Euro-Atlantic front, upset as it is by a war for which it was not prepared, and to incentivise Washington’s disengagement from the Euro-Mediterranean.

The manoeuvre seems to be working in the eastern and southern quadrants of the Mediterranean. Moscow is counting on its sale of trusted second-hand equipment to recompose link after link the chain of Soviet bases between the Levant, the Middle East, the Mashreq, and the Maghreb, without leaving out the Horn of Africa in order to access the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden.

In the golden age of the Soviet Navy’s Fifth Squadron, at the height of the Cold War, some seventy of its ships cruised the Mediterranean. The red flag flew until 1961 at Pasha Liman near Vlore, an Albanian outpost on the Otranto Channel now in Turkish hands. Then it flew at Tivat and Split in the Yugoslav Adriatic, and much further afield, at the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Marsa Matruh, the Libyan ports of Tripoli and Tobruk, the Tunisian ports of Sfax and Bizerte, and even at the appendices in the Red Sea (Hudeida). The only Russian base remaining today facing the Mediterranean is Tartus, a Syrian pivot also of Soviet descent, reactivated when saving the Asad regime in 2015. Upcoming acquisitions or rediscoveries could concern Port Sudan and Berbera (Somaliland) on the Red Sea-India route.

Regaining part of this projection will be a very long haul, even though Russia’s Mediterranean fleet was reinforced on the eve of the invasion. It now numbers a good thirty vessels, including Kilo-class attack submarines armed with deadly Kalibr missiles.

Moscow’s Mediterranean tactic is the other facet of its land geopolitics in the Euro-Mediterranean and in the Asian and African regions that lie between Russia and NATO. It draws upon the Soviet principle of the single network, both in terms of the link between the six dimensions of war and the nexus between maritime nodes and continental outposts. The fleet’s Mediterranean raids complement the incursions of soldiers or mercenaries that allow Putin to count on special relations with almost all the Levantine and North African countries between Turkey and Algeria, including Israel, as well as with the main Arab petromonarchies.

Washington appears to take long to grasp, and weak and erratic when reacting. One is reminded of the prophecy of Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian statesman and father of Europeanism, who as NATO Secretary General warned on 2 September 1958: “”Is it sufficient […] to construct a solid military barrier along the Elbe [the Iron Curtain], on the eastern frontier of the free world, if the free world is to be outflanked politically, militarily and economically in the Middle East and Africa?”.

Russia’s infiltration of the Middle East exploits the Atlantic drift to the north-east, pushed to paroxysm by the war in Ukraine. Scandinavians, Poles and the (former Soviet) Baltics – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – want to close the game with Russia once and for all. In the meantime, the North-East front is blocked by the steel curtain under construction. It is also a physical structure: last June, Warsaw announced that it had completed the steel wall with barbed wire on top closing the border with (Bela)Rus. NATO and Russia in the Baltic are looking directly at each other, as much as even mental separation barriers allow. There is literally no room to move, neither by land nor by sea, given that the Alliance’s northern fleets are able to impose a total blockade of the Neva Bay, the bay outside St. Petersburg.

Since 24 February, Italy has had a self-declared enemy: for the Russian Federation, Italy is a “hostile country”. It is scrutinised with rancour, given that ever since unification Italy established truly special relations with Tsarist, Red, or post-Soviet Russia. It has done it under whichever regime or government, in every field, to the point of depending on its gas.

Even today, the Russians find it difficult to hate us with the intensity a true enemy deserves. The military-espionage activity that goes on in parallel with the “special military operation” is punctuated by underground messages under the banner of “Let’s talk to each other – we understand each other”. Italian agencies usually respond with prudent silence.

The point, however, is that Italy and Russia are at war. Italians are often (self-)described as brava gente, “good people”. Even if it were true, this perception has given way to a more concrete tendency of the Italians towards irresponsibility. It is a perception based on the denial of reality. Those who are unaware of the environment in which they live become victims when things heat up. In the expanding context of war, seen from the sea, the Belpaese, as Italy is affectionately known, becomes a big, tasty, available morsel.

Let’s consider a small exercise meant for those who keep on pretending that nothing is happening.

Question: where on the Euro-Mediterranean map would an ambitious maritime power like to be it?
Answer: In Italy – goes without saying!

Question: What is this power?
Answer until yesterday: America, since 1945.

Answer from today: America, if it wants to stay that way. Otherwise, its adversaries. Outside and inside the Atlantic Alliance. Perhaps even in cohabitation.

No one is obliged to ask the Italians for their opinion on what they want. But the Italians are obliged to give it, first and foremost to themselves. Now is the time to strike a blow.
Precisely because it is focused on the strategic challenge with China, America needs everyone in the Euro-Mediterranean, including the Italians. And since Italy’s security depends on Washington, the Italians should earn the right to be heard, once we know what we want. The Italian sea is the space in which Italians can help themselves by helping the dimming American star and the disoriented Euro-Western planets with which they share vital interests – France and Germany above all.

There are three reasons for this. First, for Washington, Paris, and Berlin, Italy is the central logistical platform of the more or less enlarged Mediterranean. Second, enemies number one and two of Italy’s protector classify our peninsula as the soft underbelly of the Atlantic deployment, also because we find it hard to consider them enemies. Before February 24, the Italians cultivated active and even friendly relations with both of them. Finally and above all, in the event of war, the threat will come from the domestic sea, not from the passes in the Alps. In the Mediterranean lies the Italians’ best bet to rise in the ranks of the Atlantic constellation.

(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)