A Dream of Warm Seas

The classics of geopolitics are ruthless for Russia. Geography is the enemy of Russia: Russia is a typical “closed” landlocked state that owns a lot of “empty” and uninhabited territory, with no good opportunities to open up …

The classics of geopolitics are ruthless for Russia. Geography is the enemy of Russia: Russia is a typical “closed” landlocked state that owns a lot of “empty” and uninhabited territory, with no good opportunities to open up to the world. So attempts of Tsar Peter attempt to “knock” the window to Europe, leading Russia to the Baltic Sea and further towards the Atlantic is wrapped in legends. We got to see the consequences of these legends firsthand. Another set of legends, by the way, even older, speaks of the desire of the Slavic state (whichever name is used for naming it) to reach the so-called warm southern seas, perhaps even the Indian Ocean. That would be a much better opening than the war with the Europeans over the Atlantic coast.
The so-called southern dimension comes not from nowhere. The building of a Russian (then still Russian) state began with a look to the south. Baptism of Russia at the end of the 10th century and all that Christianity came to Russian lands from Constantinople, so apparently the dream world for the Russians of that time was somewhere in the South. Historians agree that for many centuries the region in question was a remote province of the Roman influence. The situation changed when the Duchy of Moscow convinced itself that it was the Third Rome with a magnificent geopolitical mission. Then the dreams of “windows” to Europe and the “South Seas” and geographical expansion became a geopolitical reality.
The expansion has been going on for more than three centuries. There was success, but it was erratic. After “crossing” the Caucasus, the Russians were “stuck” in northern Persia. Russians reached the Sea of Azov in the early 18th century after they “took back” the first ports from the Ottomans. The wars over the Black Sea marked several Ottoman defeats, but there were also “strikes back” – the so-called Crimean war was shamefully lost.
Probably the greatest achievements were reached after the end of the World War II. Soviet troops marched (albeit, temporarily) to Iran, and the Soviet Union and its satellites occupied most of the Black Sea coast. Strategies of Joseph Stalin did not hide their hopes of controlling the Bosporus and direct access to the Mediterranean through Yugoslavia and Greece. Turkey and Greece were weak and torn by internal conflicts, and Yugoslavia claimed to become almost a “brotherly republic”.
Still, hopes of Moscow did not come true at the time. The Western world has realized that this cannot be allowed. The Greeks and Turks were immediately included in NATO (without any lengthy deliberations on human rights and any NATO “standards”), Yugoslavia remained relatively independent, not without the efforts of the West. Turkey and Greece simply succeeded of being a part of NATO here and now. International navigation through the Bosporus is still regulated by the so-called Montreux Convention of 1936, which restricts navigation of warships and the transport of military equipment.
Thus, during the Cold War, the USSR undoubtedly sought to be in the Mediterranean. However, you can’t sail alone without friendly ports. There was deficit of them. Until 1961, the USSR had a naval base in Vlorë, Albania, however had to abandon it after a quarrel with Tirana. In the 1970s, the President of Egypt Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat who was friendly to Moscow until then, changed his “orientation”, became an ally of the United States, and expelled the Russians from his country. The Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi bought Soviet weapons and allowed access to Libyan ports according to the contract, however only in case of the conflict. Postcolonial Africa initially showed friendliness to the USSR, but it did not last as long as Moscow would like. So the Mediterranean coast was not hospitable enough. Russian vessels felt squeezed between the NATO nations of the Mediterranean Sea, because the Sixth U.S. Fleet was actually running there.
It is not hard to imagine that collapse of the USSR was a painful challenge in the region. In 1993, due to funding and political motivation, the constant patrolling of the former USSR fleet in Mediterranean waters was stopped. Russia has disappeared as a political player.
Things are bad with the Black Sea also – part of the Black Sea Fleet formally went to Ukraine. Romania and Bulgaria became members of NATO, and that changed the situation in its own way. All Moscow “needed” is just Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO, and then the entire Black Sea would become NATO Sea. Only Abkhazia would then remain on the Russian side, which would be very bad. So it became a strategic task for Russia not to let that happen. Even a look of the unskilled person at the map will make it possible to understand why Russia is extending its coastline, creating a puppet regime in Abkhazia and, most importantly, annexing Crimea. As long as Crimea is Ukraine, it is Ukraine that is a maritime state, when Crimea belongs to Russia, Russia becomes a maritime state. So the war for Crimea is a war on who is really a maritime state in this region. After Ukraine became independent, negotiations on the warships of the former USSR standing in Sevastopol port took a long time. Negotiations ended with annexation of all ships. Ukraine itself must be either Russia or it is a serious obstacle on the way to those “southern seas. It is right to think that Russia is just a duchy without Ukraine.
Military exercises in the Black Sea, the recent incident between Russian and British ships show that the situation is really serious. The issue of Crimea may not only be a matter of recognition and colouring of maps.
Why is it important for Russia to be in Syria and Libya? Active participation in the Middle East in political process is not a desire for peace in Russia. Rather, it is a step towards the status of a great state and a step towards the South Seas.
In Syria, Russia wants (and still can!) to become the most important player it has become in Nagorno-Karabakh. To tell the truth, resources are limited, smaller than imagined by both friends and enemies, but even limited resources are supported by the Russians in their physical presence, which, in fact (perhaps even because of laziness), Western countries avoid to do. After the Arab Spring, the West did not understand what kind of region they wanted, but the Russians do not need to understand when they can just be. Russia is not a democracy and does not seek any democracy at all to pursue its interests. The “project” of Syria is the first obvious attempt to operate abroad after the collapse of the USSR.
Syria was the last post-USSR ‘client” of Russia in the region. Other countries found new allies or “older brothers” faster than the Bashar al-Assad regime. Now Russia’s return itself is a victory. The Russian military base set in the port of Tartu is not large but strategically significant. It is undergoing rapid modernization. There is just one step from there to Lebanon and Cyprus. Of course, 10-15 units of the fleet is nothing compared to the US VI fleet and NATO forces. However, it is already a “branch” of Crimea, and Crimea is not just “our” here. It is officially said that there are about 4,000 Russian soldiers in Syria, but the forces in Syria are rotating intensively, it is estimated that almost 100,000 soldiers and military specialists have already been in Syria; almost 50,000 plane flights have been recorded. The logistical network is being developed, because they need their guarantees – the military power transmission chain. It’s a really good base for exercises.
However, Syria is a complicated country, not only because of its internal conflicts, but also because of Turkey’s interests. So, no matter how Moscow dislikes it, Turkey needs to be respected. There is, of course, a desire to remedy or change relations with other countries in the region: to ‘bury the hatchet’ with Egypt, to ‘set foot’ in Libya, which would be a good bridgehead for a long-term stay in the Mediterranean Sean. To tell the truth, the fleet has always been the “weak point” of the armament of Russia and the USSR, but now we can see a desire to modernize it, it’s just obvious.
Effort and achievements of Russia so far can be assessed as average.
There is more trade with those countries that are members of the EU and NATO, so there is no potential military or geopolitical benefit. Construction of a nuclear power plant was planned already in 2015 in Egypt, however it appears to be starting only now (according to unconfirmed data). Libya does not guarantee anything to the Russians at the moment, and here, too, an agreement needs to be reached with the Turks, who have their own desires. Things in the Northern Africa are also complicated. The main export raw materials of Russia – oil and gas – are not as required here as in Western Europe. Weapons are the best product here. Supply of weapons is far better export than of raw materials. The Israeli factor is last but not least here. Relations between Russia and Israel are very confusing. And this is certainly not a continuation of USSR policy.
The summary is very simple – Russia is pursuing a geopolitical transformation, the main engine of which is almost the same as it was a thousand years ago – the dream of warm seas.
Egidijus Vareikis

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Autorius: Voras Online