Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean strategy explained - analysis

For its decisive military support to Assad, Russia has been rewarded with military facilities in Syria that are crucial for logistics and from which it can project power into the Middle East.

An U.S. Navy picture shows what appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in this picture taken April 12, 2016 and released April 13, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An U.S. Navy picture shows what appears to be a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft flying over the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea in this picture taken April 12, 2016 and released April 13, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia is taking advantage of the power vacuum created by America’s desire to disengage from the Middle East. As president, Barack Obama launched the policy of “pivoting” away from the region, and President Donald Trump is carrying that policy forward. As a result, Russia is emerging as a dominant military and political force in the region.
For its decisive military support to Assad, Russia has been rewarded with military facilities in Syria – the Tartus naval facilty and the Khmeimim Air Base – that are crucial for logistics and from which it can project power into the Middle East, the Balkans and farther west along the Mediterranean. In conflict, Russia is positioned to execute an area-denial strategy against the United States.
In Syria, Russia’s military decisively affected the civil war and also tested and demonstrated capabilities that showed off Russian boldness, lethality, flexibility and reach. Its attacks included the first combat use of various types of Russian precision-guided munitions.
Russia is also using Syria as testing ground for its electronic warfare capabilities. In April 2018, the US Special Operations Command chief commented, “Right now in Syria we are operating in the most aggressive EW [electronic warfare] environment on the planet.” Our adversaries, he added, “are testing us every day, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, et cetera.”
Russia attacked Syrian rebel targets from the Caspian Sea and Eastern Mediterranean using Kilo submarine-launched and surface-ship-launched cruise missiles. It struck Raqqa in Syria from a submarine in the Mediterranean. It sent a private contractor military force – referred to in press reports as “paid Russian mercenaries” or “little green men” – to fight for the Assad regime. Its manned aircraft bombed Syria from a base in Iran. During the summer of 2018, to support Assad’s attack on Syria’s last major rebel base, Russia deployed a substantial naval force into the Mediterranean, including a Kuznetzov-class aircraft carrier.
Through maritime operations, Russia has extended the range of its military influence. The Russian presence creates new “rules of the game” throughout the Middle East, affecting the US and Israel’s ability to operate freely.
Russia’s basing arrangements in the Levant will allow it to stage, repair and operate autonomous underwater systems. It already has advanced surveillance, reconnaissance and operational capabilities for interdicting undersea communications cables. Its Syria-based submarines in the Mediterranean not only can launch cruise missiles at land targets, but also threaten undersea infrastructure. Britain’s chief of defense warned in December 2017, “There is a new risk to our way of life that is the vulnerability of the cables that crisscross the seabed. Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our media and economy, as well as other ways of living?”
RUSSIA HAS multiple reasons to intervene in the Eastern Mediterranean: to aid Syrian regime allies of longstanding, to bolster its new alliance with Turkey and Iran, and otherwise to gain leverage against the United States. Among its main interests, however is increasing world energy prices. As has been true for decades, the Russian economy is largely the business of exporting oil and gas. Russia and President Vladimir Putin depend for their existence on high prices for energy. It is surprising how many articles are written about Russia’s Middle East policies or its other foreign policies that fail to mention this point.
A key to understanding what Russia is doing in the Eastern Mediterranean region is to recognize that it wants to have the power to influence the energy-related decisions of Saudi Arabia and other important producing states. This helps explain why it is wrong to assume that Russia shares US interests in Middle East stability. On the contrary, Russia often favors instability precisely because it contributes to upward pressure on energy prices.
Russia also has a major interest in arms sales. Because Russia’s business interests receive too little attention, they warrant emphasis, though Russia’s policies are not driven solely by such considerations.
When Russia helped save the Assad regime, it ensured the success of Iran’s pro-Assad investment and effectively aligned itself with the Shi’ite axis of the Iranian regime, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah. This gives it leverage both with the axis and with the opponents of that axis: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-run states, as well as Israel.
In Israel’s intensifying clash with Iran in Syria, Russia occupies a strategic position. Israel has used its aircraft in Syria to keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli border. Russia, however, is the dominant military power in Syria, so Israel needs its cooperation, or at least its acquiescence, in the campaign to keep Iran at bay.
Accordingly, from the head-of-government level on down, Israel has cultivated close communication with Russia regarding Syria. Russia is not actively restraining Iran, but neither is it preventing Israeli strikes against Iranian forces in Syria. Russia appears to want to avoid any confrontation between its own forces and Israel. Israeli and Russian military commanders have arranged to de-conflict their operations. Russia is improving Syria’s air defenses. It has delivered S-300 air defense missile batteries and is training the Syrians to use them. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers are presumably manning these batteries. The S-300 could threaten Israeli aircraft and, if upgraded to the longer-range S-400, the danger would increase. Putin has said he wants all foreign troops to leave Syria. This seems to apply to Iranian and Turkish but not Russian troops.
US OFFICIALS worry about Russia’s increasing military power in the Eastern Mediterranean, though Trump has not demanded that Russia remove its forces from Syria. It would serve US interests if Russia were successfully pressured into leaving Syria now that ISIS is largely gone.
Some US officials, though not publicly, have suggested that Israel should apply such pressure. Their implication is that Israel should focus less on cooperating with Russia in Syria and more on making it uncomfortable for Russian forces to entrench there. 
Criticism along these lines is not US policy, but it creates an irritant in the US-Israeli relationship. Each country would benefit from a clearer understanding of the other’s strategic concerns.
Israeli officials say they are not in a position to treat Russia as an enemy. A major dispute with Russia would make it harder, if not impossible, for Israel to strike Iranian forces in Syria – and that is Israel’s main interest there, an interest that the United States shares (whether or not publicly stated). The Israelis do not want Russia defending Iranian forces in Syria. They do not want Israeli forces fighting Russian forces, nor do they want Russia deploying its most advanced air defenses in Syria.
During the Cold War, when Israel worked with the United States in direct opposition to the Soviets and their clients, the strategic environment was different. Unlike now, the Middle East was a high US priority. The United States maintained a strong military posture there, dominated the Mediterranean Sea and actively worked to contain Soviet influence.
After the Cold War and especially since the George W. Bush administration, US policy toward the region changed. The bywords for US strategy became “pivot” and “disengagement.” Trump shares his predecessor’s desire to disengage from the Middle East and keep American involvement in Syria to a minimum. The United States has no plans to restore its Cold War-era military strength in the Mediterranean. US officials are not pressing Russia to withdraw its forces from Syria. Under the circumstances, it is not realistic to expect Israel do so.
IT WOULD be a mistake, however, to fail to recognize that many US officials view Russia with intense and well-grounded concern. That Russia for its own reasons gives Israel a free hand against Iran in Syria should not blind anyone to the disturbing essence of President Putin’s aggressive activities.
Examples abound. They include Russia’s seizures of territory in Georgia and Ukraine and brazen assassinations of anti-Putin critics – journalists and politicians – perpetrated at home and abroad. Russia directs cyber operations against the United States and exerts itself to influence US elections. Putin has invested heavily in modernizing Russia’s nuclear forces, strategic and tactical. His government is producing nuclear-capable missiles prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which is why the US government withdrew from the treaty in August 2019.
Russia is also conducting explosive nuclear testing in violation of its promise to adhere to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban. Russian military aircraft “buzz” – that is, challenge in close encounters – US ships and aircraft. These tactics were commonplace during the Cold War and both sides agreed to formal measures intended to limit the risks of such behavior. Russia has announced that it has successfully tested hypersonic weapons that can defeat current US missile defenses. Having invaded Ukraine to seize the Crimean Peninsula, Russian naval forces blocked the Sea of Azov.
Israeli officials can pursue necessary cooperation with Russia in Syria while still reassuring the United States that they take Russian provocations seriously. And they can reassure their American friends that Israel values its ties to the United States above its other international relationships. Pragmatic, unsentimental Israeli officials may not be accustomed to ritualistic pledges of friendship and loyalty of this kind, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their importance.
Strategic alliances are not self-perpetuating. It takes conscious effort by alliance supporters to preserve trust between the partners at the official level and, in democratic countries, to preserve crucial popular support. It can be fatal to take these matters for granted. If the alliance is not explained, reaffirmed and put into action over and over again across the years, it will lose support in the government or in the population in general. New officials and legislators come into office continually and have no knowledge of how the alliance proved itself mutually valuable in the past. Senior officials – longtime veterans of close allied cooperation – often assume that the alliance’s premises are so well and widely known that they go without saying. That is a dangerous mistake, however. If its principles and benefits are not continually restated and celebrated, an alliance can easily become vulnerable to domestic attack, with allies disparaged for free riding, weakness or lack of loyalty.
A senior US statesman once likened maintaining a strategic relationship to fighting weeds in a garden – constant attention is required to keep the irritants from taking over. The high value to both parties of the US-Israeli defense partnership amply justifies the garden-tending work.
Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, served as US undersecretary of defense for policy. Adm. Shaul Chorev, head of the Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy at the University of Haifa, served as deputy chief of the Israeli Navy and as head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. This article is excerpted and adapted from a recent report on maritime security by the University of Haifa-Hudson Institute Consortium on the Eastern Mediterranean.