Russian naval task force in the Mediterranean
Immediately before its 24 February invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government assembled an unusually large naval force in the Mediterranean, using the cover of an exercise to match a precautionary buildup by the United States and allied nations. Over the past six months, Russian forces have shadowed NATO warships across the Mediterranean, gathering intelligence and shielding the war effort in the Black Sea from unwanted external interference.
But Russia’s naval buildup in the Mediterranean didn’t start from scratch. The Mediterranean Task Force, a naval unit with 10–15 vessels was already operating in the area, as the result of a methodical, multi-year expansion of Russia’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean, reflecting its rising political and economic significance in world affairs.
By 2011, the Arab Spring had reached Libya and the US Sixth Fleet, with its home port in Naples, was able to play an important role in the civil war as part of a UN operation. Russia had only a sporadic naval presence in the Mediterranean and found itself unable to influence what was happening in oil-rich Libya. That realisation led Russia to invest heavily in stationing a naval unit in the Mediterranean. It was not unlike the Soviet Union’s 5th Mediterranean Squadron, which existed from 1967 to 1992, but it had a different task.
“The Soviet naval force was primarily intended to balance the US Sixth Fleet, a game of cat and mouse that lasted until the end of the Cold War. Today, prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s presence has primarily been about safeguarding Russian interests in the region, such as supporting the Assad regime in Syria and the Haftar-led rebels in Libya, and strengthening friendships with such countries as Algeria and Egypt,” says FOI researcher Jonas Kjellén, who with co-author Aron Lund wrote the report From Tartous to Tobruk: The Return of Russian Sea Power in the Eastern Mediterranean.
New roles in the eastern Mediterranean
The eastern Mediterranean is a region that has suffered decades of conflict and maritime boundary disputes (see fact box), and it is now undergoing rapid change. Conditions long taken for granted no longer apply. Countries such as Syria and Libya have almost collapsed, while other nations now fight there via proxies.
“We’ve seen several countries repositioning themselves. Turkey’s position has been strengthened militarily and countries such as Lebanon have been weakened. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is no longer so central. There are also disputes over who is entitled to the natural gas under the seabed, including off Cyprus. And when the security policy patterns are not givens, there will be more to argue about,” says Aron Lund.
The role the Russian navy can play in the Mediterranean can be illustrated by its involvement in the Syrian crisis.
“It acted first as a supplier of materiel and later as part of the Russian intervention in 2015. Today, it serves among other things as an escort for oil tankers en route from Iran to Syria, and the Tartous port sustains Russia’s naval force in the Mediterranean. In the future, the Russian navy can act in a similar way in other crises,” says Jonas Kjellén.
There are also two important shipping lanes to monitor: the Turkish Straits out of the Black Sea and the Suez Canal.
“The Suez Canal is extremely important for global trade and thus also for Russia. The Turkish Straits are also vitally important, not least to the grain trade, as we have seen in recent months. They are in fact especially critical for Russia, as its sole route for commercial and naval access from the Black Sea. In the Ukraine War, we’ve seen Turkey close the Straits to naval traffic in accordance with the 1936 Montreux Convention, effectively trapping Russian warships in the Black Sea and complicating reinforcement and resupply of the naval force in the Mediterranean,” says Aron Lund
Last but not least, there is growing attention to the eastern Mediterranean’s natural gas assets, with valuable fields discovered off Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. The EU seeks to promote eastern Mediterranean gas export as a way to reduce its own energy dependence on Russia, and these efforts have intensified since February. But disputes over contested maritime boundaries and pipeline projects have made these plans a sensitive issue that, if mismanged, could easily trigger new conflicts.
Helping the Pacific Fleet
Another purpose of the Russian Mediterranean Task Force, which is organisationally part of the Black Sea Fleet, is to support the Russian Pacific Fleet in the Indian Ocean.
“Russia’s Pacific Fleet has a huge remit, from the Arctic waters north of the Bering Strait to Suez. At the same time, Russia has major interests in the Middle East, and we have already seen the vessels that are part of the Mediterranean Task Force assume increasing responsibility even south of Suez,” says Jonas Kjellén.
In relation to the war in Ukraine, the Mediterranean Task Force served as “a latent naval capability in the eastern Mediterranean,” facilitating a rapid scaling-up of Russia’s presence as the invasion approached.
The report discusses the period before the Ukraine War, but FOI may now conduct further studies of the role that Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean region has played during the conflict.
The eastern Mediterranean is a region in transition, where states are regrouping in new constellations. Four countries play an important role in the region’s development:
Turkey is a major player in the eastern Mediterranean, which seeks to become a leading regional power and has behaved increasingly confrontationally under President Erdogan’s rule. It has occupied northern Cyprus for several decades and has in recent years intervened in the conflicts in Syria and Libya, while also feuding with Greece over Cyprus, borders, and economic zones. The Ukraine conflict has seen Turkey’s leverage grow, as both sides court Erdogan and seek his support, but at the same time, Turkey’s domestic and economic situation is increasingly precarious.
Egypt experienced political and economic turbulence during the Arab Spring. Since President Sisi seized power in 2013, great energy has been put into the fight against the Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood. Israel, Cyprus and Greece now cooperate with Egypt on gas issues, and they have formed a common front to balance Turkey. Egypt supports the pro-Haftar side in eastern Libya and has drawn closer to Israel in recent years, positioning itself as an export channel for Egyptian and Israeli gas toward the EU.
Israel’s security situation has improved over the past decade, even as it continues to occupy Palestine. Syria is no longer a threat, and relations have improved with countries such as Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and the United Arab Emirates. Following the discovery of significant gas deposits in Israeli waters, the maritime sphere has become increasingly important to Israel, which has begun to refurbish its fleet. Israel and Lebanon are currently involved in high-risk negotiations on maritime boundaries, aiming to unlock additional gas resources.
Greece is under pressure from Turkey on the Cyprus issue and in maritime boundary disputes. It expects no help from NATO, of which both Turkey and Greece are members, or from the EU, which wants to remain on good terms with Turkey on the migration issue. In recent years, Greece has forged ties with Israel and Egypt to balance Turkish pressure, while also spending on its military and cultivating closer security links to the United States and France.