Russia shows what it can do in ‘warm waters’

Russia shows what it can do in ‘warm waters’

The Russian desire to reach the “warm waters” of the Mediterranean goes back to before the First World War. The copyright belongs to foreign minister Sergei Sazonov of Tsarist Russia. Sazonov was actually the third signatory of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, along with Britain and France, aiming to divide the collapsing Ottoman Empire into zones of control. In an earlier letter to the British and French ambassadors to St. Petersburg, Sazanov clearly stated that he wanted control of Istanbul and also a mandate for the Armenian-populated eastern Anatolia.

He got what he wanted in the Sykes-Picot agreement. Actually, when that secret agreement was first revealed (in a very WikiLeaks way, to the Manchester Guardian) by Vladimir Lenin and Lev Trotsky, over the course of the 1918 Brest-Litovsk agreement negotiations after the 1917 communist revolution in Russia, it was for some time known as the Sykes-Picot-Sazonov agreement. History was later re-written during the Stalinist era and Russia’s role in the agreement was somehow erased. 

The French and the British had decided to divide the southern areas of the Turkish empire according to the known oil fields of the time. Its mention of Jews and Kurds was ignored, and the agreement was ill-born anyway, declared null by the 1920 Paris Agreement that marked the end of WWI. Nevertheless, in the years since the agreement has always been condemned as proof of imperialist plots in the Middle East. Even former British Foreign Minister Jack Straw admitted during his tenure that it was the source of many problems in the region today.

Today, Russia is mainly aiming to protect its interests and maintain its military base in Syria, its only one in the entire Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. The agreement for the navy base in Tartus was signed between the Soviet Union and the Baathist regime in Syria in 1971, right after Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s father, took power through a military coup. Moscow has since been a heavy supplier of arms, including missile systems, to Syria. 

Al-Assad’s control of large swathes of Syria has faded during the civil war since 2011, even threatening the capital Damascus and the Mediterranean coastal towns of Tartus and Latakia. The Syrian ambassador to Moscow therefore recently welcomed the idea of Russians establishing a bigger base in Tartus, with air force capabilities added to naval capabilities. It is also no surprise that there have been new talks between Russia and Israel regarding the recent military moves.

Those talks took place right before Russia started to hit anti-Assad bases in Syria. It was mainly hitting not the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but rather the bases of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other militant anti-Assad groups. Just as Turkey and the West started to complain about Russia’s targeting policy in Syria, airspace violations across the Turkish-Syrian border and missile radar lock-ups targeting Turkish border patrol jets started, escalating the situation into broader NATO-Russia tension.

Russia has massed up its military in the East Mediterranean in favor of the Syrian regime, with the ground support of Iran (through Shiite militia, including Lebanese Hezbollah) and China (with which Russia recently carried out a military exercise). And there are signals that there is more to come. For example, Moscow announced yesterday that it had fired missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea at ISIL targets in Syria - though it is not clear which air spaces the rockets crossed but Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey and Iraq lie between the two spots. 

Russia’s moves are not only military, but diplomatic too. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that French President François Hollande had suggested that the FSA could side with al-Assad against ISIL. This was promptly denied by Paris, which stressed that the FSA was actually formed to bring down Assad. The Turkish Foreign Ministry also had to deny that it was Turkey which approached Russia to sit and talk over the Syrian situation. It did this in a most bizarre way, with the Defense Ministry approaching a Russian attaché in Istanbul at a time when Russian Ambassador to Ankara Andrey Karlov is being summoned to the ministry almost every day for protestations.

President Tayyip Erdoğan, who tends to favor Moscow in Turkey’s political and economical relations, said on Oct. 7 he was confident that the U.S., as an ally, would side with Turkey against Russia if it came to that point. He also hinted that Turkey could cancel the nuclear agreement at Akkuyu on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, where a power plant is to be built by the Russians, who see it as an economic means to reach “warm waters.”