At the end of June, Russia said its air force fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the way of the British destroyer HMS. Defender which cruised near the Crimea in the Black Sea. Officials in London said that hadn’t really happened, but whatever.
Always ready with the macho reply, Russian President Vladimir Putin said if the British NATO ship strayed into the waters again and the Russian Navy sank it, the Western Alliance could do nothing about it. “It put the world on the brink of World War III,” he said. “They cannot be victorious in this war.”
Looking at the event in isolation, we can see that Putin seemed upset that a NATO ship was operating near the territory he wrested from Ukraine in 2014 – a display that likely stoked his fear that the Slav neighbor of Russia will one day join the Atlantic alliance.
And NATO had sent a message to Moscow that although Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine is still sovereign and can move closer to NATO if it wishes and Russia does not own the Black Sea.
Sending militarized messages highlights an ongoing naval chess game between Russia and NATO. After a post-Cold War absence, Russia has returned in force to the waters off Europe’s southeastern flank and wants everyone to know it.
The push created NATO strategic concerns over what for 40 years had been a West-dominated lake.
Moreover, Russia has a contemporary sidekick in a bitter attempt to show off its military importance: China, which itself is expanding its commercial interests in the Mediterranean – and possibly military as well.
China provides soft power support to Russia’s projection of hard military power. As part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global infrastructure loan and investment program, the Belt and Road, Chinese companies have taken equity stakes or have become port managers in Spain, France, Turkey, Malta and Egypt.
COSCO, the giant Chinese shipping company, controls the majority of shares in Piraeus, the iconic Greek port made romantically famous in the 1960 film Never on sunday.
The Belt and Road carrot has – along with the lures of the vast Chinese market – been effective in creating divisions within the Western alliance. At the recent meeting of the G-7 of industrialized democracies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi challenged US President Joe Biden’s proposal to categorize China as a security threat.
The Mediterranean port agreements on the European side of China mainly concern heavily indebted countries – Italy, Spain and Greece – which need infrastructure funding from any source willing to provide it.
Greece’s Ambassador to NATO Spiros Lambridis rejected suggestions that his country should rethink its development ties with China. “We are strategically opting for the best possibilities for our own country – again always as part of our obligation” to the EU and NATO, he said.
“We joined the Belt and Road initiative in a very concrete project and in a very concrete term, without seeing this as a strategic relationship with another partner, but we are certainly not going to give it up.”
Apparently, under pressure from the United States at the G-7 summit, Italy’s Draghi said he was “reviewing” a Belt and Road agreement concluded under a previous government. It would have included the Chinese participation in the renovation and the acquisition of a stake in two Italian ports, Genoa and Trieste.
On the very day of the G-7 conclave, China attempted to undermine Draghi’s decision by inviting one of its coalition partners, the populist Beppe Grillo, who supports Italian participation in the Belt and Road, to lunch.
On the military side, China established a naval base in Djibouti, the gateway to the Mediterranean at the entrance to the Red Sea, in 2017. And the Chinese navy has organized several joint naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean.
But back to Russia. The decades following World War II represented the height of Moscow’s power and influence in the Mediterranean. The Soviet Union’s Fifth Operational Fleet, known as Eskadra, was based in Tartus on the Syrian coast and sailed the sea.
The Soviets had occasional friendships with Algeria, Syria and, above all, Egypt. With the exception of Syria, these countries ended up breaking with Moscow.
The Soviet fleet was deactivated in 1992, but Putin returned it to Tartus in 2013. At that time, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was teetering with a vicious civil war. But that summer then-President Barack Obama and then the US Congress refused to allow Syrian forces to bombard a rebel-held suburb of Damascus using nerve gas.
American involvement was further reduced under President Donald Trump. Russia has filled the void. In 2015, Russia launched aerial bombardments in support of Assad. The Mediterranean fleet used the Tartus to supply Syrian forces inside while ships at sea provided some air cover for ground operations. Russian jets used the nearby Hmeimim airfield for bombing sorties.
Along with allied Iranian ground forces and Hezbollah’s Lebanese militia, the intervention helped turn the war in Assad’s favor. Russia is now definitely back, not only in Tartus but installed in Hmeimim.
Thus, the recent feints at sea illustrate potentially hostile competition. The visit of two NATO ships off Crimea took place ahead of an exercise, called Sea Breeze, underway in the Black Sea, involving some 40 NATO ships as well as Ukrainian ships.
Sea Breeze, in turn, is an offshoot of a large NATO exercise in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean called Steadfast Defender, with Russia as the imagined antagonist.
In response, Russia staged a counter-performance off Syria to show that it “controlled the airspace in the sea zone,” according to the Moscow Defense Ministry.
Russian Tu-22M bombers and MiG-31K fighters armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles simulated an attack on the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which led the Steadfast Defender fleet across the Mediterranean.
The Russians boast that the Kinzhal flies at 10 times the speed of sound. The Su-35 and Su-34 fighters also flew cover missions over other NATO ships.
Over the Black Sea, Russian planes buzzed the HMS Defender with the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen, which transports helicopters. Up to 20 Su-24 and Su-30 still taunted the Evertsen, flew up to 100 meters from the ship and attempted to jam its sensors.
As a symbolic response, an F-35 stealth jet took off from the queen elizabeth and flew near Russian ships at sea. A Russian sailor posted video online of the stealth jet as it circled one of the fleet’s frigates.
For now, the irritating dance of the sea has come to an end, even as Sea Breeze kicks off. At least Russia is hoping it has shown its navy to be a force to be reckoned with. NATO, for its part, has warned Russia that the alliance can demonstrate massive naval strength at will.
The meaning for everyone, if not yet obvious, is that a new cold war is underway.
The next demonstrative episode will take place far to the east: the HMS queen elizabeth is to lead a flotilla of six British ships, a Royal Navy submarine, an American destroyer and a Dutch frigate (the Evertsen again) across the Indian Ocean to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
The passage is intended to show the determination of the Allies to deter China’s growing naval power in other now contested seas.
Journalist Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Herald. He is now based in Rome.