Russia’s quest for power
The international system has been evolving ever since the bipolarity of the Cold War ended. As the unipolar U.S. moment was short lived, and none of the international powers has enough capacity to unilaterally dominate its peers, a somewhat multipolar world system is slowly emerging. Under such conditions, Russia, since Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency a second time, has been trying to attain pole position in such a multipolar world. At the same time, Russia has been uncomfortable with the regime changes around the globe, stimulated by the West in general, and the latter’s involvement in its near abroad. Thus, in order both to recover its former glory and to end what it perceives as Western containment over its borders, it has begun to successfully push back the Western influence in its near abroad, starting with its conflict with Georgia in August 2008.
The Russian gains since then in world politics have been undoubtedly aided by a favorable global environment. First, the U.S. desire to pivot its focus toward the Asia-Pacific region and its hands-off policy toward the Middle East as well as its reset policy toward Russia under the Barack Obama administration have created a conducive milieu for Russia to stage a comeback. The EU’s struggle with its internal developments and attention deficit disorder in its global relations have also helped. Finally, simultaneous developments in Syria and Ukraine enabled Putin to advance a strategy that was tested in Georgia.
To succeed, Russia concluded that the role of naval forces would be paramount. Thus its revised maritime doctrine signaled its strategy to expand its global naval reach, and its 2011-2020 State Armaments Program professed an ambitious overhaul of its Black Sea fleet. As a result, despite all its limitations in economic and military terms, Russia managed to consolidate its supremacy in most of the maritime and underwater areas of the Black Sea since its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The control of Crimea with powerful weapon systems and the creation of an anti-access/areal denial (A2-AD) zone for NATO, heralded Russian supremacy in the Black Sea, which is crucial for projecting power toward Central and Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and even the Eastern Mediterranean.
In addition to developments around the Black Sea region, the ongoing civil war in Syria undoubtedly provided Russia with an opportunity to access the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East region to an extent that it never had even during the Cold War. Hence, Russia upgraded its naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus and signed an agreement to create a permanent air base in Hmeimim for the first time outside its borders.
The military balance in the Eastern Mediterranean has been in favor of the U.S. and its allies since the end of World War II. Russia began to boost its presence in the region from 2013 onwards by deploying 10 or more warships from its Black Sea Fleet as well as its sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, to the region. Although its current power structure cannot challenge U.S. and NATO supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean Levant, changing dynamics are already affecting political calculations and the equilibrium throughout the region.
The military build-up in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean hints at the failure of the US/NATO strategy to entice Russia with dialogue. The Russian strategy to control sea lines and create A2-AD zones has prevented NATO from utilizing sufficient clout to secure its regional members and partners, allowing Russia to project power in its ever-widening neighborhood. To counter such a strategy, NATO and the U.S. need to adopt a stronger defensive posture and persistent military presence in the Black Sea region, while keeping the channels of dialogue open.