Mediterranean Maelstrom: Navigating the Tides of Power in a Sea of Geopolitical Rivalries

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The Mediterranean Sea, often referred to as the cradle of naval history, has been a pivotal element in shaping the course of human civilization. This ancient sea witnessed the birth of the first warship, the Phoenicians’ trireme, and the establishment of the first permanent fleet by the Athenians. Its historical significance extends beyond mere maritime advancements; it served as a crucial axis for the Roman Empire’s expansion, underlining its enduring geopolitical relevance.

Geographically, the Mediterranean is bifurcated into eastern and western halves, a division that has profoundly influenced historical events in the region. The longstanding East-West dichotomy, epitomized by the millennium-spanning confrontation between Islam and Christianity, has been a defining feature of Mediterranean history. However, the North-South division, often overshadowed, is equally critical for understanding the region’s dynamics.

Historically, sailors favored northern routes due to the perilous nature and inadequate port infrastructure of southern journeys, although there were notable exceptions. Today, this ‘horizontal’ division persists, demarcating a more developed, Christian-dominated north from a less developed, predominantly Muslim south.

The Mediterranean’s geophysical traits – small tides and a generally calm nature – make it highly navigable. Its location, straddling approximately 30-45º North and 0-30º East, blesses the region with warm climates and fertile soils, greatly benefiting the coastal inhabitants. The sea’s horizontality allows these favorable conditions to be replicated across the basin and surrounding lands.

Access to the Mediterranean is limited to three narrow passages: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles Strait, and the Suez Canal. Adjacent to it are two geopolitically significant seas: the Black Sea, serving as Russia’s primary maritime outlet, and the Red Sea, a crucial juncture for Middle Eastern oil routes and commerce. These converging interests from the North and East meet those of the indigenous nations, creating a complex tapestry of geopolitical interplay. This interplay is further complicated by the presence of global powers like the United States and the emerging influence of China.

The Mediterranean’s strategic islands and points have significantly influenced historical events. The struggle for Sicily sparked the First Punic War, Malta served as a base for Allied Naval Forces during World War II, and Cyprus remains a contentious issue between Greece and Turkey. In 2019, the United Kingdom leveraged Gibraltar’s strategic position to intercept an Iranian oil ship, highlighting ongoing geopolitical maneuvers in the region. Turkey’s maritime claims near Cyprus further underscore the enduring strategic importance of these waters.

The interplay between land and naval power in the Mediterranean is unique. The defeat of maritime power Carthage by land-focused Rome in the First Punic War and the inability of Italian cities to maintain sustained maritime control in the Middle Ages, despite their trading prowess, demonstrate how terrestrial factors can influence naval dominance. Historically, terrestrial powers like Rome and the Ottomans have managed to assert their influence over the Mediterranean, challenging traditional maritime powers.

The necessity for coastal land control has driven external powers seeking a Mediterranean presence to first secure territorial footholds. Britain’s historical efforts to control Tangiers, Gibraltar, Minorca, and Malta in the 17th and 18th centuries exemplify this strategy. The current U.S. naval predominance in the Mediterranean, although different in approach, still adheres to this geo-historical imperative, as evidenced by NATO and U.S. bases across the region.

Coalitions and alliances have been instrumental in shaping Mediterranean politics. The formation of Pan-Hellenic, Christian, and Muslim coalitions significantly altered the balance of power. The British Empire’s naval diplomacy in the 19th century, characterized by its ability to form varying alliances with Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and France, underlines the importance of flexible and strategic partnerships in maintaining regional dominance.

Mediterranean Geopolitics and Maritime Strategies in the 21st Century

At the heart of contemporary geopolitical dynamics, the Mediterranean Sea continues to hold strategic importance, particularly in light of the evolving roles of global and regional powers. The United States, despite its waning influence in the Middle East, remains a dominant force in the Mediterranean. With the establishment of the Mediterranean Squadron in 2013 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia has significantly bolstered its presence in the region. China, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach, focusing on aggressive investment policies and rapidly enhancing its naval capabilities, although it has not yet shown a strong military deployment in the Mediterranean.

Three Current Hotspots: Immigration, Energy Resources, and Armed Conflicts

  • Irregular Immigration: This remains a major challenge, with a significant influx of migrants arriving in countries like Turkey, Spain, Italy, and Greece. The European Union’s struggle to manage this issue effectively through cooperation is evident.
  • Fight for Energetic Resources: The competition for energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean has led to the formation of two opposing blocs. The EastMed alliance, comprising Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Italy, France, and the United States, stands against Turkey and its allies, including the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the Libyan Government of National Accord.
  • Armed Conflicts: The ‘axis of conflict’ has shifted from the Balkans to the Middle East and Northern Africa, with the Libyan and Syrian civil wars as current focal points. Conflicts have been widespread across the MENA region in the past decade and a half.

Analysis of Major Mediterranean Players

  • Turkey: Turkey’s potential as a dominant Mediterranean actor is considerable, given its military power, demographic capacity, and strategic location. However, internal conflicts like the Syrian war and the Kurdish issue, along with its revisionist foreign policy, are hindering its regional dominance. Turkey’s naval strategy is expansive, extending its interests beyond the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean. The recent military involvement in Libya and disputes over energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean have strained its relations with neighboring countries and the EU.
  • France: As a major player, France combines military capabilities with a powerful diplomatic approach. Its naval exercises and presence in conflict zones like Syria and Libya underscore its regional influence. France’s call for greater European security autonomy, while maintaining its role within NATO, reflects its strategic balancing act in the Mediterranean.
  • Italy: Traditionally aligned with the U.S. within NATO, Italy’s focus in the Mediterranean has shifted from the Balkans to issues of immigration and energy security. Its stance on irregular immigration has hardened, and it actively participates in the EastMed alliance. Italy’s involvement in Libya, both in terms of energy interests and conflict mediation, highlights its significant role in regional dynamics.
  • Spain: Spain’s Mediterranean strategy is closely tied to NATO and EU initiatives. Key concerns include addressing irregular immigration and responding to regional tensions, such as those with Morocco over maritime claims. Spain’s reliance on U.S. security and its comparatively limited focus on Mediterranean affairs may necessitate a reevaluation of its strategic priorities.

The Way Forward: Challenges and Opportunities

This analysis underscores the complex interplay of various factors shaping Mediterranean geopolitics. The roles of major indigenous players, coupled with the influence of global powers like the U.S., Russia, and China, create a dynamic and often volatile environment. The challenges of irregular immigration, energy resource disputes, and ongoing armed conflicts demand nuanced and collaborative approaches. Understanding the historical context and current dynamics is crucial for developing effective strategies and policies that address both immediate and long-term regional stability and security concerns in the Mediterranean.

As we delve deeper into the 21st century, the Mediterranean Sea remains a critical nexus of geopolitical interests and maritime strategies. The evolving dynamics in the region are shaped not only by the actions of traditional powers but also by emerging trends and strategic shifts.

Evolving Dynamics and Strategic Shifts

  • China’s Growing Influence: China’s approach to the Mediterranean is characterized by economic investments rather than direct military presence. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has led to significant Chinese investments in Mediterranean port infrastructures. This economic foothold could potentially translate into greater geopolitical influence, altering the traditional power dynamics in the region.
  • Russia’s Mediterranean Ambitions: Russia’s enhanced presence in the Mediterranean, particularly through its naval base in Tartus, Syria, and its role in the Syrian conflict, reflects its desire to reassert its power in the region. This resurgence challenges the traditional Western dominance and could lead to a reconfiguration of regional alliances and strategies.
  • EU’s Role and Challenges: The European Union faces several challenges in the Mediterranean, including managing irregular immigration, balancing energy needs, and navigating complex relationships with Turkey and other regional actors. The EU’s effectiveness in dealing with these issues will significantly impact its influence and role in the region.
  • The Energy Equation: The discovery of significant gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean has sparked new geopolitical competition. The delineation of maritime boundaries, exploration rights, and the potential construction of pipelines like the EastMed pipeline are contentious issues that could escalate regional tensions.
  • Regional Conflicts and Power Vacuums: Ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya, along with instability in other parts of the MENA region, create power vacuums that external powers can exploit. These conflicts also have broader implications for migration, terrorism, and regional stability.

Strategic Implications and Future Scenarios

  • Balancing Traditional Alliances and Emerging Powers: Countries in the Mediterranean will need to navigate a complex web of alliances and interests. Balancing traditional alliances with NATO and the EU against the growing influence of Russia and China will be a key strategic challenge.
  • Maritime Security and Naval Presence: Ensuring maritime security in the face of irregular immigration, piracy, and potential conflicts will require enhanced naval presence and cooperation among Mediterranean countries and their allies.
  • Economic and Energy Security: The competition for energy resources will continue to shape regional dynamics. Ensuring energy security and diversifying energy sources will be critical for countries in the region.
  • Environmental Considerations: The Mediterranean region faces significant environmental challenges, including pollution and the impacts of climate change. Addressing these issues will require regional cooperation and sustainable policies.
  • Cultural and Historical Ties: The rich cultural and historical ties among Mediterranean nations provide a unique foundation for cooperation. Leveraging these shared histories and cultures could foster better understanding and collaboration in addressing common challenges.

Analyzing Other Important Actors in the Mediterranean Geopolitics

The Mediterranean region, a complex geopolitical chessboard, involves various key players beyond the dominant forces of the United States, Russia, and China. Nations such as Algeria, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Libya, Morocco, and Syria play pivotal roles in shaping the regional dynamics.

Algeria and Morocco: Regional Rivals Building Military Capabilities Algeria is investing heavily in Russian military technology, signaling its intent to become a significant regional power. The procurement of advanced equipment like Su-57 jets and Kilo-class submarines is a clear indication of Algeria’s ambitions. Conversely, Morocco, Algeria’s regional rival, aligns closely with the United States, evident from its large-scale procurement of American military equipment. The modernization of military capabilities by both nations, though not an arms race yet, requires close monitoring due to the potential for increased regional tensions.

Egypt: A Growing Influence Beyond Libya Egypt’s role in the Libyan conflict is significant, particularly in its support for General Haftar. Its discovery of gas fields has poised it to become a key trading and export center for natural gas. Egypt’s military enhancements and defense agreements, especially in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, demonstrate its commitment to securing its interests against potential threats. Furthermore, Egypt’s ability to maintain friendly relations with a range of powerful nations, including the U.S., Russia, and Israel, accentuates its strategic diplomacy.

Greece: Military Resurgence and Alignment with EastMed Greece, a crucial EastMed partner, has recently reignited its military spending, evident in its naval deployments and defense agreements with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Greece’s strong position against Turkey’s maritime policies and its increasing military capabilities indicate a strategic shift, aiming to bolster its influence in the Mediterranean.

Israel: A Quiet Yet Resolute Actor Israel, traditionally active in regional politics, has maintained a relatively low profile recently, despite ongoing military actions in Gaza and Syria. Its primary focus appears to be garnering international support for Jerusalem as its capital. Israel’s strategic partnerships with the U.S. and Russia, along with its armament exports, underscore its enduring role as a significant regional player.

Syria and Libya: Geostrategic Points of Conflict Syria and Libya are currently crucial geostrategic locations, primarily due to their ongoing civil wars. Syria’s recent joint naval exercises with Russia and the resumption of conflict in Idlib highlight its volatile situation. Libya, on the other hand, continues to be a battleground for foreign interests, defying the UN arms embargo. The European Union’s military mission to prevent arms entry into Libya marks a significant step, potentially setting a precedent for European strategic autonomy.

United States: A Resurgent Focus on the Mediterranean The U.S. maintains its dominant role in the Mediterranean, with the 6th Fleet based in Naples serving as a key element of its power projection. Recent developments, such as Turkey’s assertiveness and Russia’s growing influence, have prompted the U.S. to shift its focus from engagement to deterrence and defense. The increased military presence and diplomatic actions, like lifting the economic embargo on Cyprus, reflect a renewed American commitment to the region.

Russia: Dreaming of Mediterranean Access Russia’s historical ambition for Mediterranean access is evident in its strategic naval deployments and alliances. Its focus on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean as key areas for naval projection, despite economic and geographic constraints, highlights its determination to maintain a presence in the region. Russia’s reliance on alliances, particularly with Syria, and its tactical focus on A2AD operations, are central to its Mediterranean strategy.

China: Economic Power Projection China’s influence in the Mediterranean is primarily economic, characterized by significant investments in port infrastructures across the region. The Belt and Road Initiative’s extension to Mediterranean ports signals China’s growing interest. China’s only military base in Djibouti, close to the Mediterranean region, along with its joint military exercises with Russia, suggest a potential for future military presence in the Mediterranean.

Iran: A Strategic Focus Beyond the Mediterranean Iran’s involvement in the region is mainly through its support for allies in Lebanon and Syria. While its naval focus remains on the Persian Gulf and the Indic Ocean, Iran’s proposed new shipping line to Eastern Mediterranean ports could enhance its economic influence. However,

Iran’s ability to emerge as a significant power in the Mediterranean is constrained by its economic and military limitations, as well as the competing interests of regional powers like Turkey and Russia. Iran’s influence in the Mediterranean is more indirect, emanating from its activities in the Middle East, particularly in Lebanon and Syria. Its support for Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria extends its strategic reach to the Mediterranean, although it has not yet fully exploited these connections for direct influence in the sea.

In 2022-2023, the composition of the Russian naval grouping in the Mediterranean Sea has undergone dramatic changes

In early 2022, Russia’s naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea was at an unprecedented level, reflecting its strategic intentions and military capabilities. The first decade of February 2022 saw a formidable assembly, termed the “Mediterranean squadron,” comprising 29 ships and boats from all four of its fleets. This fleet included a diverse array of vessels: 11 missile ships, 6 large amphibious assault ships (LST), a patrol corvette, 2 minesweepers, an anti-submarine warfare boat, 2 reconnaissance ships, 4 auxiliary supply vessels, and 2 tugs.

This show of force, however, was short-lived. The geopolitical landscape shifted dramatically with Turkey’s decision on February 27, 2022, to prohibit the passage of Russian warships through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. This move effectively trapped the Russian squadron in the Mediterranean, stripping it of strategic mobility and utility, barring the symbolic gesture of flag demonstration.

Further complications arose with the onset of the conflict in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Russian warships were denied access to repair facilities in EU states’ Mediterranean ports. Concurrently, plans to relocate a floating dock from the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) to Tartus in 2022 were thwarted. The Tartus facility, a floating naval shipyard, was limited in its capacity to service the fleet, particularly the larger vessels that were predominantly of Soviet-era construction and in need of frequent maintenance.

By late summer 2022, a strategic shift became evident as Russia initiated the gradual withdrawal of its primary warships from the Mediterranean. By October 15, 2023, the Russian Mediterranean grouping had diminished significantly – a reduction of approximately 80%, from 29 ships and boats to a mere 6. The remaining fleet comprised 2 missile corvettes, an anti-submarine warfare boat, a reconnaissance ship, a supply tanker, and a floating shipyard, notably lacking any tugs.

This downsizing indicates a strategic recalibration by Russia. The prospect of navigating through the Turkish Straits has become unrealistic, leading to a reevaluation of the group’s role in the northern and northwestern parts of the Black Sea. Instead, the focus seems to have shifted to the protection of their bases, the capability to launch missile strikes against Ukraine, and the conduct of reconnaissance activities in the southwestern Black Sea.

This change in the composition and deployment of the Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean mirrors broader geopolitical dynamics and strategic realignments. It underscores the impact of regional alliances, the efficacy of diplomatic maneuvers like Turkey’s straits closure, and the ongoing challenges Russia faces in maintaining a formidable naval presence in an increasingly complex and contested maritime domain.

Evolution of the Russian Naval Grouping in the Mediterranean: 2022-2023

In the years 2022-2023, the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea witnessed significant transformations, primarily influenced by geopolitical developments, especially the conflict in Ukraine.

Formation of the “Mediterranean Squadron” in Early 2022

Prior to the escalation of the Ukraine conflict on February 24, 2022, Russia had assembled an impressive naval force in the Mediterranean Sea, comprising warships from all four of its fleets.

This formidable group, known as the “Mediterranean squadron,” consisted of 29 ships and vessels. It included 11 missile ships, 6 large amphibious assault ships (LST), a patrol corvette, 2 minesweepers, an anti-submarine warfare boat, 2 reconnaissance ships, 4 auxiliary supply vessels, and 2 tugs.

Strategic Objectives

The formation of this group served multiple purposes:

  • Replacement of BSF Ships: It replaced Russian BSF ships that had returned to the Black Sea prior to February 24, 2022.
  • Potential Black Sea Conflict Participation: The group was potentially geared to participate in a war against Ukraine in the Black Sea.
  • Counterbalance to NATO: It acted as a demonstrative counterweight to NATO naval groups in the Mediterranean.

The primary objective was to utilize most of these ships in the Black Sea theater, directly in the war against Ukraine.

Operational Goals

The naval group was tasked with several key operational objectives:

  • Supporting the Russian ground offensive.
  • Launching missile strikes against crucial civilian and military infrastructure.
  • Destroying the Ukrainian Navy’s potential.
  • Blocking maritime communications around Ukraine.
  • Preventing NATO ships from entering areas of Russian interest.
  • Disrupting NATO intelligence activities.
  • Participating in amphibious operations in southern Ukraine.
  • Maintaining control over oil and gas infrastructure in the Black Sea.
  • Securing logistics for Russia’s military contingent in Syria.

Impact of Turkey’s Straits Closure

Turkey’s closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits on February 28, 2022, under the Montreux Convention, drastically altered Russia’s strategic calculus. This decision, influenced by Ukrainian diplomatic pressure, hindered the movement of Russian warships and effectively thwarted Russia’s plans to assert control over the Black Sea region. It led to significant logistical challenges, particularly in supplying Russian military bases in Syria.

Gradual Withdrawal and Restructuring

By late summer 2022, Russia began reducing its naval presence in the Mediterranean. This involved the withdrawal of several key warships, including missile cruisers and destroyers. To maintain a presence, Russia rotated other ships into the region, but the overall strength of the squadron diminished considerably.

As of October 15, 2023, the Russian naval force in the Mediterranean had reduced fivefold, from 29 to just 6 vessels. The current composition includes a missile corvette, an anti-submarine boat, a reconnaissance ship, a tanker, and a floating ship, signaling a scaled-back operational scope.

Current Status and Implications

The downsizing of the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean reflects a strategic shift. Russia appears to have abandoned plans for active operations in the northern and northwestern parts of the Black Sea. However, the remaining forces are deemed sufficient for base protection, missile strikes against Ukraine, and reconnaissance in the southwestern Black Sea.

This evolution of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean reflects a recalibration of their strategic priorities in the region. While the reduced fleet signifies a diminished capability for large-scale operations in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, it nonetheless maintains a sufficient presence to fulfill specific strategic objectives. This shift underscores the impact of regional geopolitical dynamics, particularly the influence of diplomatic maneuvers and military confrontations, on naval operations and strategic deployments.

In-Depth Analysis of the Russian Naval Grouping in the Mediterranean Sea (2022-2023)

Initial Formation and Strategic Intent (Early 2022)

In early 2022, Russia’s naval build-up in the Mediterranean, termed the “Mediterranean squadron,” was a formidable assembly reflecting a broad strategic design. This move was not merely about projecting power but was deeply intertwined with the unfolding geopolitical narrative in the region, particularly concerning Ukraine.

  • Composition and Capability: The squadron’s composition was diverse and potent: 11 missile ships, 6 large amphibious assault ships, various support vessels, and reconnaissance ships. This mix provided a balanced offensive and defensive maritime capability.
  • Strategic Flexibility: The squadron’s formation provided Russia with strategic flexibility to respond to NATO’s naval presence and to support potential operations in the Black Sea, particularly against Ukraine.

Dynamics of Naval Operations Post-February 2022

Following the onset of the conflict in Ukraine and Turkey’s closure of the straits, the dynamics of Russian naval operations in the region shifted significantly.

  • Blockade and Logistical Challenges: The closure of the Turkish Straits under the Montreux Convention was a strategic blow to Russia’s naval logistics and mobility. It led to a blockade of maritime communications and a significant reduction in Russia’s ability to project power in the Black Sea and beyond.
  • Operational Restructuring: The Russian naval group faced constraints in executing planned operations, including amphibious operations in Ukraine’s southern regions and maintaining control over critical maritime infrastructure.

Evolving Naval Posture and Withdrawal Patterns (Late 2022-2023)

Throughout 2022, the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean underwent a series of withdrawals and redeployments, signaling a strategic recalibration.

  • Withdrawal of Key Assets: The gradual withdrawal of major warships like missile cruisers Varyag and Marshal Ustinov, and the repositioning of vessels such as Soobrazitelnyy and Stoikiy, indicated a scaling back of the Russian naval posture in the Mediterranean.
  • Focus on Key Objectives: Despite the reduction in numbers, the remaining fleet, though smaller, was considered adequate for specific objectives like base protection, reconnaissance, and limited offensive capabilities against Ukraine.

The Role of International Diplomacy and Geopolitical Pressures

The evolution of Russia’s naval strategy in the Mediterranean cannot be viewed in isolation from the broader geopolitical context.

  • Diplomatic Maneuvers: Actions by countries like Turkey, influenced by Ukraine’s diplomatic efforts, played a significant role in altering the strategic maritime landscape in the region.
  • Impact of Geopolitical Tensions: The heightened state of military alertness and the potential for confrontations, as evidenced by incidents with NATO vessels, underscored the volatile nature of geopolitical tensions in the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas.
  • Shift in Naval Doctrine: The changing circumstances led to a shift in Russia’s naval doctrine in the region, adapting to the new reality of restricted movement and increased NATO presence. This was evidenced by the reliance on smaller, more versatile vessels and a focus on missions compatible with the reduced fleet size.

Recent Developments and Current Status (2023)

As of the latest updates in 2023, the Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean has been characterized by increased activity but with a notably smaller and differently composed fleet.

  • Current Composition: The Russian squadron in the Mediterranean, as of late 2023, includes a missile corvette, an anti-submarine boat, a reconnaissance ship, a tanker, and a floating ship, among others. This composition represents a strategic shift from a large, diverse fleet to a more compact and focused group.
  • Operational Focus: The current fleet’s operational focus seems to be on ensuring the security of Russian interests in the region, including logistics support for military operations in Syria and maintaining a minimal but strategic presence in the Mediterranean.

Significant Losses of the Russian Navy in the Ukraine Conflict: A Detailed Account of Warship Casualties

Since the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine, the Russian Navy has lost several warships of various classes. The list of notable losses includes:

  • Saratov (Alligator-class landing ship): This ship caught fire and was scuttled in March 2022 after being hit by a ballistic missile in Berdiansk, Ukraine.
  • Moskva (Slava-class cruiser): In April 2022, the Moskva was reportedly hit by Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship missiles and subsequently sunk while being towed to port.
  • BK-16 (high-speed assault boat): A Ukrainian drone struck and sank this vessel near Snake Island in early May 2022.
  • Serna-class landing craft: In May 2022, a Ukrainian drone also hit and sank a Serna-class landing craft on Snake Island.
  • Veliky Ustyug (Buyan-M-class corvette): Suffered damage in June 2022 and was towed in a damaged state.
  • Vasily Bekh (rescue tug): In June 2022, Ukraine claimed to have sunk this vessel with Harpoon missiles.
  • Ivan Golubets (Natya-class minesweeper): Reported to have suffered slight damage from an Unmanned Aerial and Submarine Vehicle attack in October 2022.
  • Yury Ivanov-class intelligence ship Ivan Khurs: Possibly damaged by Ukrainian sea drones in May 2023.
  • Olenegorsky Gornyak (Ropucha-class landing ship): Seriously damaged in August 2023 by a possible sea drone attack in the Port of Novorossiysk.
  • Rostov-on-Don (submarine) and Minsk (landing ship): Attacked by Ukrainian Su-24s armed with Storm Shadow missiles in September 2023. The Minsk was visibly destroyed, and the Rostov-on-Don was severely damaged.
  • Askold (Karakurt-class corvette): Struck by a cruise missile in November 2023 in the Zalyv Shipbuilding yard, Kerch, Crimea.
  • Novocherkassk (major Russian landing ship): Struck and likely destroyed by cruise missiles in December 2023 while docked in Feodosia, southern Crimea.

These losses represent a significant impact on the Russian Navy’s operational capabilities in the Black Sea region. The incidents reflect the intensity of the maritime component of the conflict and highlight the effective use of anti-ship missiles and drones by Ukrainian forces


Appendix 1. Full list of ships and boats of the «Mediterranean squadron» of the Russian Navy in February 2022 before the start of a large-scale attack on Ukraine.

Abbreviations:
PF 
– Russian Pacific Fleet, NF – Russian Northern Fleet, BSF – Russian Black Sea Fleet, BF – Russian Baltic Fleet.
The names of ships and boats, as well as their classification, are given in NATO terminology. The names of ships are preceded by their tactical numbers.

Guided Missile Cruiser – Ракетний крейсер

  • 011 Varyag (PF)
  • 055 Marshal Ustinov (NF)

Guided Missile Frigate / destroyers – Ракетний фрегат / есмінець

  • 494 Admiral Grigorovich (BSF)
  • 564 Admiral Tributs (PF)
  • 626 Vice-Admiral Kulakov, (NF)
  • 431 Admiral Kasatonov, (NF)

Guided Missile Corvette – Ракетний корвет

  • 609 V. Volocheck (BSF)
  • 626 Orekhovo Zuevo (BSF)

Conventional cruise missile submarine – Ракетний підводний човен

  • 237 Rostov na Donu (BSF)
  • 261 Novorossiysk (BSF)
  • 265 Krasnodar (BSF)

Patrol Corvette – Патрульний корвет

  • 375 Dmitriy Rogachev (BSF)

Landing Ship – Великий десантний корабель

  • 130 Korolev (BF)
  • 102 Kaliningrad (BF)
  • 127 Minsk (BF)
  • 117 Petr Morgunov (NF)
  • 012 Olenegorskiy Gornyak (NF)
  • 016 Georgiy Pobedonosets (NF)

Minesweeper – Мінний тральщик

  • 908 Vice-Admiral Zakharin (BSF)
  • 659 (new #466) Vladimir Emelyanov (BSF)

Anti-Saboteur Boat – Протидиверсійний катер

  • 840 Kadet (BSF)

Intelligence ship – Розвідувальний корабель

  • Kildin (BSF)
  • Vasiliy Tatishchev (BF)

Auxiliary ship – Допоміжне судно

  • Epron (BSF)
  • Vice Admiral Paromov (BSF)
  • Boris Butoma (PF)
  • Vyazma (NF)

Tugboat – Буксир

  • MB 304 (BSF)
  • Sergey Balk (BSF)

Appendix 2: Deployments of ships and vessels of all types of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea from November 2021 to November 2023

Abbreviations:
PF – Russian Pacific Fleet, NF – Russian Northern Fleet,
BSF – Russian Black Sea Fleet, BF – Russian Baltic Fleet.
The names of ships and boats, as well as their classification, are given in NATO terminology.
The names of ships are preceded by their tactical numbers.
The cell date colors indicate:
Yellow 
– stay in the Mediterranean Sea
Blue 
– arrival to the Mediterranean Sea
Red 
– departure from the Mediterranean Sea.


NATO’s Engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Comprehensive Overview

Introduction to NATO’s Historical Focus in the Mediterranean

NATO’s strategic interests in the Mediterranean region trace back to the 1960s, initially through the Expert Working Group on the Middle East and the Maghreb and the subsequent ad hoc group on the Mediterranean. However, the Cold War era saw limited NATO policy specific to the Mediterranean, focusing instead on the defense of allied territory, maritime space, and sea lanes. The end of the Cold War marked a significant shift in NATO’s approach. The 1991 Gulf War underscored the importance of stability and peace in the Mediterranean for the security of the Alliance, raising concerns about military build-up and weapon proliferation in the region, including weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

Development of the Mediterranean Dialogue and Strategic Concepts

In December 1994, NATO expressed a willingness to engage with non-member Mediterranean countries, leading to the establishment of the Alliance Mediterranean Dialogue. This forum aimed at promoting regional security and dispelling misconceptions about NATO. The 1999 strategic concept further highlighted the Mediterranean’s significance, linking European security to the region’s stability. The concept emphasized NATO’s cooperative approach to security, including the Mediterranean Dialogue as a key element in fostering confidence and cooperation.

The 2010 strategic concept, while not making explicit geographic references, addressed various issues pertinent to the Mediterranean, such as terrorism, protection of communication routes, and crises beyond NATO borders. It stressed strengthening relations with Mediterranean countries through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

NATO’s Response to Global Developments and the Eastern Mediterranean

Developments like Russia’s annexation of Crimea, instability in the MENA region, and Donald Trump’s election necessitated a strategic reevaluation by NATO. This led to a “strategic reset” during the 2014 Wales Summit and a revision of NATO’s strategic concept in 2021, reflecting the need for a coherent strategic framework to address emerging global realities.

The new strategic concept of 2022 acknowledges the complex security dynamics following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It outlines the necessity for NATO to adapt to the resurgence of great power politics, emphasizing the threat from Russian expansionism and China’s tactics. The concept focuses on maintaining NATO as a defensive alliance while being prepared to respond to security threats with military means.

Greece-Türkiye Tensions and NATO’s Role

NATO’s history with Greek-Turkish relations is complex, marked by historical, territorial, and security disputes. Both countries joined NATO in 1952, but their bilateral conflicts often strained the Alliance’s unity. The Cold War era saw NATO prioritizing containment of Soviet communism over resolving member disputes. Significant incidents like the 1974 Cyprus crisis, and later the Imia crisis in 1996, showcased the challenges in NATO’s involvement in Greek-Turkish disputes.

Post-Cold War, expectations were that NATO would play a more active role in resolving these disputes. However, the Alliance’s focus on expansion and transformation into a pan-European security organization reduced its engagement with Greek-Turkish relations. Additionally, the ‘Americanization’ of NATO in the post-Cold War period and the enlargement of the European Union changed the dynamics of conflict resolution, with NATO losing its sole position as the primary security organization in Europe.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw improvements in Greek-Turkish relations, influenced by factors such as the Ocalan affair, earthquake diplomacy, and Türkiye’s EU accession prospects. However, issues like the Aegean Sea and Cyprus disputes continued to create tensions.

Energy Security and NATO’s Role in the Eastern Mediterranean

The discovery of significant natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean led to increased competition and tension between Greece, Cyprus, and Türkiye. NATO recognizes the importance of energy security for collective security and focuses on protecting critical energy infrastructure and ensuring reliable energy supplies. The Alliance’s role includes enhancing energy security measures and promoting cooperation and dialogue among member states.

Russia’s Role in the Eastern Mediterranean

Since 2015, Russia has been assertive in the Eastern Mediterranean, seeking to elevate its status and influence NATO and EU member states, particularly Greece, Türkiye, and Cyprus. Russia aims to influence policymaking, offer economic partnerships, and increase its regional standing.

NATO’s response included establishing the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) in the Eastern Mediterranean to enhance situational awareness and demonstrate presence. Despite these efforts, tensions between Greece and Türkiye continued, with incidents like the 2018 Imia crisis and the migration crisis adding complexity to their relations.

The Challenges Ahead

The ongoing tensions between Greece and Türkiye, including disputes over the Aegean Sea and differing stances on various international issues, present ongoing challenges for NATO. Türkiye’s acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system and Greece’s concerns about its territorial integrity and sovereignty highlight the intricate balance NATO must maintain. The Alliance’s ability to de-escalate tensions, foster dialogue, and maintain unity among its members remains crucial for stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and the broader Euro-Atlantic region.

Evolving Dynamics of NATO in the Face of Contemporary Security Challenges

As the international security environment continues to shift dramatically, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) demonstrates a remarkable capacity to adapt, transitioning from a primary focus on military defense to addressing a broader range of regional security challenges in an integrated manner. This evolution is underscored by the significant events of recent years, notably Russia’s violation of international law in 2014 and the ensuing war in Ukraine, which have compelled NATO to consider more dynamic responses to protect its members’ interests, particularly those on its eastern flank.

NATO’s role in the international security landscape is increasingly defined by strategic adaptation to modern geopolitical challenges. The 2022 Strategic Concept is a testament to this evolution, highlighting NATO’s commitment to collective defense through a comprehensive approach that encompasses deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security. This strategic pivot is occurring against a backdrop of complex geopolitical shifts and evolving public opinion.

For instance, in the United States, the younger generation of Republican congressional representatives exhibits changing attitudes towards the Ukraine conflict, reflecting a divided and evolving public sentiment (Cerda, 2023; Langer, 2023). This divergence in views underscores the complexities of US involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the necessity for policymakers to consider these varied perspectives in future foreign policy decisions.

The dynamic international security situation and the shifting public opinion form the backdrop for the ongoing challenges faced by NATO member states in addressing the Ukraine crisis. This scenario has prompted a surge in literature exploring these issues from various perspectives, including geopolitics, economics, and psychology. Comprehensive research on conflicts like the Ukraine war demands an integrative approach that combines multiple sources, including scholarly articles, governmental resources, international organization reports, social media, and public opinion polls. Researchers are tasked with navigating the strengths and weaknesses of these sources while employing an interdisciplinary methodology to analyze these events thoroughly.

The March 2023 conference, co-organized by the War Studies University of Warsaw and the American College of Greece, provided valuable insights that inspired this special issue of Security and Defence Quarterly. The conference covered a range of topics, including NATO’s strategy on the eastern flank, the interdependence of member states, country-specific challenges in the region, the European countries’ defense industrial base, and personnel psychology issues on Ukrainian battlefields. A key focus was the increasing interest in hybrid warfare in the context of a changing geopolitical landscape.

One of the papers, “Conventional and hybrid actions in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine” by Ionita (2023), put in evidence that the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022 was profound, affecting health security, economies, finance, and social life. This backdrop set the stage for a major conflict in Europe, further intensifying global crises in energy, refugee movement, and food distribution. The conflict, which started with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has been unique and challenging, marking a significant event in modern warfare. Despite being termed a “Special Military Operation” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, its scale, objectives, and conduct reveal it as a conventional war with significant implications for European and global security.

This conflict also saw the implementation of General Gerasimov’s vision of “Limited Action” and “Active Defence,” combined with tactics of “Non-linear Warfare” or “Hybrid Warfare,” experienced initially in Ukraine and later across Europe. This approach merges conventional operations with hybrid actions, including cyber-attacks, disinformation, and nuclear threats, aligning with Russia’s ambition to maintain regional power and possibly ascend to superpower status.

International diplomacy has struggled to resolve the conflict, with NATO and the UN facing unique challenges due to the non-membership status of the belligerent nations in these organizations. NATO’s relationship with Russia froze post-2014, while its ties with Ukraine strengthened. The UN’s effectiveness was limited due to Russia’s Security Council veto power. These constraints led to a reliance on political, economic, and informational support for Ukraine, rather than direct military intervention.

The analytical approach of this paper, guided by Professor Clifford Woody’s methodology, seeks to understand the cause-effect relationship of the war and its implications for future European and global security. The analysis covers the integration of conventional and hybrid warfare tactics and their effectiveness in achieving Russia’s strategic objectives. The paper also explores the lessons learned from the conflict, their impact at strategic, operational, and tactical levels, and their potential to shape future military training and doctrine. This research aims to contribute to the understanding of modern warfare and its challenges to the current world order.

Another paper, “Net spills among NATO allies: Theory and empirical evidence from dynamic quantile connectedness” by Palaios et al. (2023), addresses NATO’s effectiveness in resolving critical situations using soft diplomatic power.

In the study the research put in evidence that he recent geopolitical upheaval, primarily triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has revived scholarly interest in the economic dynamics of military alliances, particularly NATO. This complex scenario has led to a bifurcation in academic circles, with one faction arguing in favor of the free-riding hypothesis within alliances, while another underscores the complementary nature of defense spending decisions among alliance members.

The study re-examines the theoretical framework of military alliances by introducing the concept of ‘net spills’, which encapsulates the differences between spill-ins and spill-outs. This approach is particularly relevant in the context of NATO’s long-standing and substantial military alliance. Focusing on seven key NATO members – the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Türkiye – the study spans over half a century (1971-2022). The objective is to depict each member’s net spill contribution to NATO using a sophisticated and novel analytical tool: the time-varying dynamic quantile connectedness analysis. This methodology, both theoretical and empirical, is a pioneering approach in assessing the impact of military alliance members’ spending decisions.

The study’s findings are revelatory. They point to a strong inclination towards free-riding behavior among the allies, largely driven by the high spill-out costs associated with defense equipment acquisition. The data further suggest a geographic divide in contributions: North-European NATO states tend to be net contributors, while their South-European counterparts are more often net receivers. Interestingly, the motivation to contribute appears to be heightened during periods of crisis, a pattern that has become more pronounced in the wake of the Ukraine conflict.

The paper is methodically structured to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of the subject. Following the introduction, Section 2 provides an overview of recent relevant studies, setting the stage for a deeper exploration. Section 3 delves into the theoretical model’s development, laying the foundation for the subsequent analysis. Section 4 describes the statistical properties and the econometric methodology employed, ensuring the study’s findings are grounded in robust analytical techniques. Section 5 presents the empirical findings, offering insights into the practical implications of the theoretical framework. The paper concludes with Section 6, which synthesizes the findings and discusses their broader implications, especially in the context of current global political and economic landscapes.

Further, the paper “NATO’s strategic concept: Implications for Greece and Türkiye” by Lampas and Filis (2023) shifts focus to the bilateral relations of Greece and Türkiye within NATO. At the Madrid Summit held on 28–30 June 2022, NATO allies adopted an updated strategic concept, marking a significant milestone in the Alliance’s history. The NATO strategic concept, a cornerstone document that defines the strategic direction of the Alliance, sits just below the North Atlantic Treaty. This document, as analyzed by Becker et al. (2022, p. 490) and Simonet (2023), articulates NATO’s purpose, core tasks, and strategies to address security challenges and leverage opportunities in an evolving global landscape.

The creation of the strategic concept is a complex process, demanding consensus and compromise among NATO members to address strategic issues collectively, as noted by Ringsmose and Rynning (2009) and Shea (2022). Tardy (2022) emphasizes that the strategic concept is not an action plan but rather a guiding framework for policy-making. Since its inception in 1949, NATO has adopted seven strategic concepts, reflecting the evolving security landscape (Chiriac and Olariu, 2017; Becker et al., 2022; Michaels, 2020; Ringsmose and Rynning, 2009).

The Eastern Mediterranean region has increasingly become a focal point for NATO, particularly since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Felde (2020, p. 59) highlights the vacuum left by the United States’ withdrawal from Syria, swiftly filled by Russian influence. This geopolitical shift has exacerbated tensions between NATO members Greece and Türkiye, primarily over maritime disputes and territorial claims. These tensions have been further fueled by the discovery of natural resources and Türkiye’s revisionist narrative. The ongoing Syrian Civil War and Türkiye’s military offensives in the region, along with the use of chemical weapons as reported by Hubbard (2020), have added complexity to the regional dynamics. Additionally, Chinese investments in Eastern Mediterranean infrastructure have made China a strategic economic partner in the region, as noted by Kasapoglou (2019).

This article delves into the effects of NATO’s new strategic concept on its role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the implications for Greek-Turkish relations. It examines how NATO’s evolving strategic priorities and regional commitments have influenced its approach to the longstanding tensions between Greece and Türkiye. The article explores NATO’s policies, actions, and diplomatic initiatives in the region, assessing whether these efforts have fostered stability or exacerbated the complexities of Greek-Turkish relations.

Furthermore, this analysis evaluates the broader implications of these developments for regional security dynamics and the geopolitical landscape. It underscores the importance of examining Greek-Turkish relations, given NATO’s renewed interest in the Eastern Mediterranean and the potential of this bilateral relationship to disrupt NATO’s unity.

The findings indicate that NATO’s updated strategic concept, while aimed at adapting the Alliance to new security challenges, has not significantly mitigated the tensions between Greece and Türkiye. Despite NATO’s commitment to collective defense and conflict resolution, the Eastern Mediterranean disputes have persisted and, in some instances, escalated. The strategic concept has fallen short in providing a comprehensive framework to address the critical issues in Greek-Turkish relations, including territorial disputes, energy interests, and historical grievances. The Alliance’s responses are often seen as inadequate or overly diplomatic, failing to address the root causes of tension effectively.

Consequently, the tensions between Greece and Türkiye continue, leading to sporadic crises that challenge NATO’s internal cohesion and regional stability. This situation underscores the need for more robust and proactive conflict resolution measures within the Alliance. As the region’s strategic significance grows, understanding these challenges and opportunities becomes increasingly vital for maintaining global security and stability.

The issue of economic resilience in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and Black Sea countries is explored in Constantinescu’s (2023) paper, which employs an economic resilience index to assess the relative resilience of countries in these regions in light of the Ukraine conflict. The study emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of ‘economic resilience’ in the context of comprehensive defense, calling for further refinement of the index to include social, innovative, digital, and defense-related aspects.

This special issue offers a deep dive into the multifaceted challenges confronting NATO, ranging from operational tactics and economic resilience to internal dynamics and the psychological aspects of warfare. It provides valuable insights into NATO’s strategic adaptations in response to the evolving security environment, highlighting the need for a comprehensive approach to international security that encompasses both traditional and non-traditional threats. This issue not only contributes to academic discourse but also has practical implications for policymakers and military strategists involved in shaping NATO’s future direction.

Italy’s Strategic Role in NATO: Capitalizing on Geopolitical Opportunities in the Mediterranean and Beyond

Italy’s geographical position and its bilateral relationships present a unique opportunity for the nation to elevate its status within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This comes at a crucial time when NATO’s southern flank, particularly in the context of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, demands adept management and leadership.

Italy’s advantageous location in the Mediterranean, coupled with its political stance, positions it perfectly to assume a leadership role in both the Mediterranean and Africa. The nation has already established strong partnerships with countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, primarily through energy and development initiatives. The launch of the Mattei Plan is a strategic move by Italy to boost its influence in these areas.

January 2025 marks a significant milestone for Italy within NATO, as Admiral Giuseppe Cavo Dragone, the current Chief of Defense of Italy, is set to chair the NATO Military Committee. This appointment, along with Italy’s role in hosting US bases and key NATO positions like the Joint Force Command-Naples, provides Italy with an excellent platform to enhance its influence in NATO’s policy-making, particularly at a time when the focus of the alliance is increasingly shifting towards the east and the north.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s administration demonstrates a strong commitment to NATO, a stance that has garnered extensive support both domestically and internationally. This is evident in Italy’s expanding foreign policy, which now extends beyond the Mediterranean into the Indo-Pacific region, aligning with NATO’s global strategy. Following NATO’s 2022 Brussels Summit, where China was labeled a “systemic challenge,” Italy strategically withdrew from China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2023. Enhancing its engagements in Asia, Italy has fortified strategic partnerships with Japan and India and has put forth its Indo-Pacific guidelines.

The Mattei Plan, a cornerstone of Meloni’s foreign policy, symbolizes Italy’s ambition to become NATO’s “Mediterranean Hub.” The government’s proactive approach in promoting this plan aims to strengthen energy partnerships with key regional players such as Algeria, Libya, and Qatar. By doing so, Italy is positioning itself as a vital link in transatlantic collaborations, bridging Euro-Atlantic partnerships and managing regional tensions. This role is crucial for advancing NATO’s agenda on important issues like terrorism and energy security.

Italy’s steadfast support for Ukraine and its plans for military modernization reinforce its position as a reliable partner within NATO. The government’s decision to extend assistance to Kyiv through 2025 underlines Italy’s growing importance, especially as support for Ukraine becomes increasingly critical.

Looking ahead, Italy needs to undertake concrete steps to solidify its influential role within NATO. A key priority is the implementation of the Mattei Plan, which was officially approved on November 3rd. This strategic initiative is designed to transform Italy into the European energy hub in the Mediterranean and to foster equal cooperation with African countries. For the plan’s success, Italy needs to swiftly launch initiatives that support economic development in Africa, as outlined by Prime Minister Meloni. This requires substantial financial investment and diplomatic engagement, with significant partnerships expected to be announced at the 2024 Rome Mediterranean Dialogue.

Another crucial step for Italy is to advance its military modernization efforts. Under the guidance of Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, the Ministry of Defense’s plan for 2023-2025 emphasizes smart investments in cutting-edge technologies to enhance Italy’s military capabilities.

This strategy is particularly important in light of the upcoming 2024 US elections, where the extent of US support to Europe might hinge on the self-defense capabilities of NATO countries. Italy should leverage its business connections to foster joint defense projects with European partners, building upon existing collaborations such as Leonardo’s tank development project with Franco-German KMW+Nexter Defense Systems and the Naviris joint venture between Fincantieri and France’s Naval Group.

The coordination with France represents a complex yet crucial component of Italy’s strategy. The Quirinal Treaty, effective since February 2023, provides a platform for bilateral coordination, especially concerning NATO’s southern flank. Italy can utilize its North African partnerships and the Mattei Plan to mitigate the gap left by France’s withdrawal from the Sahel. This treaty also offers a mechanism to resolve potential disagreements and coordinate efforts in defense industrial cooperation, energy, and migration.

A significant challenge for Italy is ensuring sustainable funding for military spending. Currently, Italy allocates 1.46% of its GDP to defense, ranking 24th among NATO members, with an aim to reach the alliance’s 2% target by 2028. However, achieving this goal remains uncertain. With the possibility of a NATO-skeptic US presidency, Italy faces the risk of struggling to fulfill its defense spending commitments. The Italian leadership must seize the current geopolitical climate to emphasize the benefits of defense spending for the nation’s industry, competitiveness, and overall security.

In summary, Italy’s strategic position and bilateral partnerships offer a pivotal window of opportunity for the nation to enhance its role within NATO, especially in managing the alliance’s southern flank.

This moment is crucial for Italian policymakers to act decisively and in coordination with NATO allies to navigate these turbulent times and prepare for future challenges. Italy’s strategic initiatives, particularly the Mattei Plan and military modernization, along with its enhanced partnerships in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific, position the country as a key player in NATO’s evolving strategy.

By leveraging its unique geographic and political advantages, Italy has the potential to significantly contribute to the alliance’s objectives and bolster its own stature on the international stage. The successful implementation of these plans and the strengthening of alliances will not only enhance Italy’s role within NATO but also ensure stability and security in the Mediterranean and beyond.

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