With the Kremlin seeking to boost its presence in the Mediterranean, does this stance mean a revival of Cold War thinking?

Warships of the Russian fleet in Sevastopol Bay. Photo: RIA Novosti

The rearmament of the Russian Navy and the ever-present rumors in Western media circles of new Russian military bases left, right and center are reviving the atmosphere of the Cold War. Recent news of a deal to simplify Russian access to ports in Cyprus prompted references to the days of the 5th Mediterranean Squadron of the Soviet Navy, which patrolled the “seafront” of the Cold War. But is it really true? And why is Russia so drawn to the Mediterranean?

Russia’s Mediterranean ambitions date back centuries

When discussing geopolitics, the “projection of power” and other commonly heard buzzwords, one should not forget the history behind the issue. It is no exaggeration to say that much stems from the emergence of Christianity in ancient Rus in the 10th century A.D., when the country’s role model and focal point was the Byzantine Empire, whence it adopted its Orthodox Christian sensibility.

In the wake of the Ottoman expansion and the conquest of Constantinople, Muscovy was quick to assume the latter’s mantle. Henceforth, Moscow was known as the “Third Rome” and the rightful heir of the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire.

The drive to protect Russia’s southern frontiers from raids, and the concept of extending patronage over the Orthodox peoples of the Balkans, led to Peter the Great’s attempts to secure a foothold on the perimeter of the Black Sea. This in turn opened up trade and sparked the hope of gaining access to the Mediterranean — the nexus of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, for which Russia was keen to act as a bridge to and from Asia.

Lying in the way of this ambition was the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The question of who should rule these straits came to a head after the successful wars against Turkey in the second half of the 18th century, during which Russia annexed the northern Black Sea and Little Russia [most of modern Ukraine], and regained control of Crimea.

Catherine the Great’s "Eastern" and "Greek" projects and desire to restore the cross above the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were in fact more about protecting the interests of her empire. St. Petersburg was but a small “window to Europe” in the north, but what Russia really sought was a wide open door to the south.

The “problem of the straits” dominated relations between Russia and Europe, which, at the instigation of Britain, pursued a policy of containment of Russia. It caused a whole series of wars between Russia and Turkey, influenced policy during the Napoleonic Wars, and ultimately led to the Crimean War, when, having taken Sevastopol, France and Britain had no prospects on land, while Russia was overpowered at sea.

But in 1878, as a result of the latest of many clashes with Turkey, Russian troops entered the straits, whereupon Britain dispatched a squadron to the Dardanelles. Russia at that moment could have taken Constantinople without too much ado, which made the British position more pliable. The great powers reached a compromise, and the British took the opportunity to occupy Cyprus.

From then until 1917 Russia maintained a permanent fleet in the Mediterranean. The ships performed operational readiness drills and conducted research, but control of the straits remained in the hands of Turkey (read Britain).

Russia in the Mediterranean in the twentieth century

In the two world wars that shook the 20th century, Russia fought on the same side as Britain and its maritime successor (the United States) both times, for which reason the Mediterranean line of advance became secondary. As such, only the Russian cruiser Askold took part in the Mediterranean theater of the First World War, successfully landing troops during the Dardanelles operation of 1915.

But the Tsarist government fueled hopes of gaining control of the straits. The Russian fleet even prepared to seize the outlets to the Mediterranean, but the plan never got off the drawing board. The archaic and technologically backward economy of Tsarist Russia could not withstand the global tide of confrontation, and the Tsarist government surrendered its positions without a fight.

The Bolsheviks, having briefly flirted with the idea of ​​world revolution, understood the kind of world in which they would survive. This became clear after the intervention of the Entente countries, which sought entry to Russia precisely through the Black Sea and northern ports. But the fledgling state stood firm and soon began to consider the need for continuity in foreign policy.

In 1936, after years of difficult negotiations, the Montreux Convention on the status of the straits from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean was signed in Switzerland by the Soviet Union, Turkey and other countries of Europe. This convention defined the freedom of passage through the straits in peacetime for all warships of the Black Sea countries, which opened the Mediterranean to the Soviet Union. In 1945, at the Potsdam Conference, the Soviet Union tried to revise the Montreux Convention without success.

The 5th Squadron against the 6th Fleet

During the Cold War, the U.S. “replaced” the British in the Mediterranean. U.S. naval forces did not pull out of the region post-World War Two, and were instead converted into the 6th Fleet. Its task was to keep control of the oil-rich Middle East and prevent the Soviet Union from “breaking through” to the Black Sea. Then Secretary of the Navy and the first U.S. Secretary of Defense James Forrestal stated: “We are dealing not only with Russia as a national identity, but with the expansionist power of Russia from the times of Peter the Great...”

While Forrestal’s idea should not be completely rejected, it is worth noting that the Soviet Union was more on the defensive, including on its southern borders, where it had to strengthen its fleet in response to NATO’s naval presence. If the trade routes in the direction of Africa, the Suez Canal or Gibraltar were threatened, the Soviet Navy, inferior to NATO forces, would remain locked in the Black Sea.

Therefore, the decision was taken in the 1950s to maintain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean.

The first base for Soviet submarines was the Albanian port of Vlore. The outbreak of the Six Day War in summer 1967 prompted the establishment of the 5th Mediterranean Squadron of warships, which became a significant counterweight to NATO only in the following decade.

The Soviet Union developed the Moskva and Leningrad antisubmarine cruisers under Project 1123 and even Kiev-class non-nuclear (due to the denuclearized status of the Black Sea) aircraft carriers especially for operations in southern waters. The Soviet Air Force supported the fleet, operating from airfields in Egypt and Syria.

In total, the basin of the Mediterranean Sea was home to 70-80 pennons of the 5th Squadron and 30-40 of the U.S. 6th Fleet, whose sizable advantage came from the presence of 1-2 aircraft carriers. Despite the apparent danger, the two forces created a certain balance in the region that only now has become visible by its absence as the entire Middle East and a substantial part of North Africa descend into bloody strife.

The capacity of Russia’s current naval presence is exaggerated

The 5th Squadron briefly outlived the Soviet Union only to be disbanded in 1992. In the 1990s Russia’s forays into the Mediterranean were sporadic. The country had lost not only almost all its bases in the region, but also its fleet too. Having numbered around 835 ships and vessels in Soviet times, by the end of 2012 the Black Sea Fleet counted just 244 mostly obsolete craft.

It is in this condition that Russia has encountered a new phase of confrontation with the West. Today, as after the defeat in the Crimean War or post-1917 or in the early days of the Cold War, Russia is once again trying to define its interests in the Mediterranean.

However, one cannot avoid a significant “but.” In terms of potential, today’s Russia is a far cry from the Tsarist Empire, and in global politics cannot hold a candle to the Soviet Union. That is why statements about “Russian expansion” are made only by those unconcerned by basic facts about the size and operational capabilities of Russia and NATO’s respective fleets in the region.

It is not even a contest between David and Goliath, but between an elephant and a pug. Russia’s permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean, announced in March last year, will consist of 5-6 ships — a tenth of the size of the Soviet Union’s 5th Squadron, which was still inferior to its opponent.

All that Russia has done so far is to annex Crimea and consolidate control over the northern stretch of the Black Sea. Its plans to re-establish itself in the Mediterranean are hardly likely to cow the United States, since they are directed less at open confrontation with the U.S. Navy than at simply maintaining a presence in the region.

That much is suggested by the scale of the task force and its present capacity to project power. To date, Russia operates just one repair base at the Syrian port city of Tartus and has hazy prospects in Cyprus, where Russian ships have traditionally docked for refueling and supplies. Much will depend on the Navy’s rearmament and on whether Russia is able, as the Soviet Union was in the 1960s, to find allies in the region.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.