The new Cold War in the Mediterranean

Russia is already winning a new Cold War in the Mediterranean by re-establishing a permanent air and naval base on the Syrian coast under the guise of helping Bashar Assad fight terrorism. 

That bold move is a geostrategic disaster for the U.S. and its allies, and President Obama has shown only very modest concern about it while trying to treat Russia as a partner in Syria.

The ships and aircraft Russia has moved there already threaten one NATO ally, Turkey. But they will menace many other NATO members in years to come, as part of Vladimir Putin’s larger effort to undermine and ultimately break the alliance, and claim a permanent Russian role in the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Russian redoubts will soon force the U.S. to deploy more ships and planes of its own simply to maintain our ability to operate in what has been a NATO lake for more than a quarter-century. And if we fail to do that, even worse scenarios could emerge.

Suddenly, history has slid backward. During the old Cold War the Soviets projected power in the Middle East through a variety of ports and airfields in Syria, Egypt and Libya. When the Soviet Union collapsed, all those ships and planes withdrew, leaving the U.S and NATO to operate freely with significantly fewer ships and aircraft of their own.

Vladimir Putin began Russia’s resurgence in late 2011 when he announced that he was sending ships and aid to the Syrian port of Tartus to help Assad with what was, in fact, a popular revolt against his brutal family-run dictatorship.

Helping Assad was never the main goal. It was part of a broader Russian strategy to rebuild its strategic position. Adm. Mark Ferguson, the head of Naval Forces Europe-Africa, recently noted that the Russians have openly “talked of establishing a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, and breaking out from their perceived military encirclement by NATO, economic sanctions and political isolation.”

The Russians have deployed weapons to Syria that have nothing to do with the war against terrorism. They have reportedly sold a highly capable anti-ship cruise missile to the Syrians and deployed advanced air defense systems there. 

The terrorists of ISIS have neither ships nor planes. These systems are aimed at denying NATO the ability to operate freely in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as helping to crush all opposition to Assad. 

Syria’s Russian-supplied air defense system ranges well into Turkey, and is as close to an offensive air-defense system as can be imagined. It could be used to challenge Turkey’s and NATO’s ability to fly even in Turkey’s own airspace. 

Putin has also deployed long-range air-superiority fighters that can operate all along the southern NATO flank.  He has just sent an advanced surveillance aircraft to join them, creating the nucleus of a sophisticated long-range air-defense and precision-strike complex. 

Russian submarine activity in the North Atlantic is returning to Cold War levels, according to NATO officials. It is only a matter of time before those operations move to the Mediterranean, where the Soviet base in Tartus could provide them with a robust maintenance facility.

Russian submarines can threaten both seaborne and land targets and if they range the entire Mediterranean, no NATO capitol is safe.

These moves will be a problem for the alliance, not only strategically, but in terms of the war on terror. NATO has long relied on its ability to strike terrorist targets along the North African coast and throughout the Middle East from Mediterranean-based ships, subs and aircraft.

We haven’t had to worry about an air or sea fight in the Mediterranean since 1991.  Now we do.  With the U.S. armed forces already badly over-committed and facing shrinking budgets, that will mean either buying more ships and planes or robbing other theaters — the Persian Gulf, the Western Pacific — that have no capacity to spare. 

Putin has found a brilliant way to impose either great cost or great risk on the U.S., to pressure and possibly even split NATO, and to start re-establishing Russia as a global military power — his stated strategic objective. 

He has persuaded President Obama and even a Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, to accept this geostrategic setback. 

That, comrade, is an impressive strategy indeed. We continue to think this way at our great peril.

Vice Admiral John Miller (USN, Ret.) was most recently commander of U.S. Fifth Fleet in and around the Persian Gulf. Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

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