By Charles Frattini III and Genevieve Casagrande
Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin is establishing a long-term military presence in the Mediterranean Sea in part to contest the United States’ ability to operate freely and hold NATO’s southern flank at risk.[i] Russia’s military has deployed approximately 15 naval vessels as part of a permanent Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) as of July 5, 2017.[ii] Russia secured long-term naval basing for the MTF in Tartous, Syria in January 2017 after signing a bilateral agreement with the Bashar al Assad regime that extends the previous lease on the Russian Naval Facility for the next 49 years.[iii]
Russian warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s MTF launched two series of Kalibr cruise missile strikes against ISIS positions in Syria on May 31 and June 23.[iv] The MTF’s June 23 strikes included coordinated fixed wing airstrikes.[v] This strike highlighted Russia’s ability to execute a combined arms assault utilizing forward observation positions on land, strategic assets from the sea, and follow-on strikes from the air within an active combat zone. The increasing complexity of Russia’s coordinated strikes is indicative of Moscow’s dedication to the development and modernization of its military and to showcasing its arsenal for multiple audiences. Putin is exploiting the Syrian war to test Russia’s newest naval assets and weaponry in combat, including the P-800 Onyx supersonic anti-ship missiles.[vi] The MTF will continue to receive the Russian Navy’s most advanced warships outfitted with Russia’s intermediate- and long-range land and ship attack cruise missiles. Russian officials have claimed that the MTF has also conducted a variety of operational and logistical naval exercises near the Libya and Egyptian coasts.[vii] Russia, which is in a strategic coalition with Iran, will continue to utilize the MTF to expand Russian military influence along the Mediterranean basin, while simultaneously increasing the risk to U.S. freedom of maneuver in the Middle East and North Africa.[viii] Russia’s growing naval capabilities, partnerships, and future basing expansion could threaten major global maritime trade chokepoints, including the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait, in the long term.[ix]
[i] John W. Miller and Fredrick W. Kagan, “The New Cold War in the Mediterranean,” Fox News, February 17, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2016/02/17/new-cold-war-in-mediterranean.html
[ii] “Russia’s Mediterranean Group Incorporates Fifteen Black Sea Fleet Ships,” TASS Russian News Agency, June 01, 2017 http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948989 ; Russian naval deployments to MTF after June 1, 2017: SB-739 Tugboat, [“The Black Sea Fleet’s New Rescue Tugboat Began to Perform Tasks in the Mediterranean Sea”], Russian Ministry of Defense, June 28, 2017, http://www.function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12131320@egNews ; Vasily Tatishchev Reconnaissance Ship, “Russian Navy Reconnaissance Ship Deployed off Syria,” Interfax, June 26, 2017, http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?id=762557 ; Redeployment of Admiral Essen Frigate, “Admiral Essen Frigate to Join Russian Mediterranean Grouping-source,” TASS Russian News Agency, July 9, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/955483
[iii] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad,” New York Times, January 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/world/middleeast/russia-turkey-syria-deal.html
[iv] “Russian Cruise Missiles Hit Terrorist Targets Near Palmyra,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 31, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948581 ; “Russian Warships C Cruise Missiles, Destroy IS Arms Depots in Syria.” TASS Russian News Agency, June 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/95298
[v] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation Facebook Page, June 23, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/1492252324350852/videos/vb.1492252324350852/1944936562415757/?type=3&theater ; Ellen Stockert and the ISW Syria Team, “Russia’s Maneuvers in Syria: May 1 – June 7, 2017,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2017. Publication available upon request.
[vi] Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger, “Putin’s Real Syria Agenda,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2017. Publication available upon request.
[vii] Sharkov, Damien, “Russia Set for Rocket Fire Off Libya, Coast, U.S. FAA Warns,” Newsweek, July 5, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/russia-set-rocket-fire-libya-us-faa-warns-610943 ; [“Russia Warns about its Fleet Live-Fire Training off the Coast of Libya”], RBC Information Systems, May 17, 2017, http://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/17/05/2017/591b90c09a7947e06e8652e0 ; “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Holds Drills in the Mediterranean,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/947124 ; “Russian Warships Conduct Anti-Sub Drills in Mediterranean,” Al Defaiya Arabian Defense and Aerospace Business, May 30, 2017, http://www.defaiya.com/news/Regional%20News/MENA/2017/05/30/russian-warships-conduct-anti-sub-drills-in-mediterranean; [“Russia closed the area off the coast of Libya to carry out missile strikes”], Lenta, May 17, 2017, https://lenta(.)ru/news/2017/05/17/po_komu_priletit/
[viii] Putin, Vladimir and Rogozin, Dmitry, et al.,“Russian Federation Marine Doctrine,” President of Russia Website, July 26 2015, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/50060 ; Christoper Kozak, “The Strategic Conversion of Russia and Iran,” Institute for the Study of War, February 2017. Publication available upon request.
[ix] Jennifer Cafarella, Kimberly Kagan, and Frederick W. Kagan, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Four – America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017 ; Genevieve Casagrande, “Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017. Publications available upon request.