Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Now They Have More Ambitions

Even if you want to argue that Russia's move into Ukraine was "defensive" in nature (and then I ask why Russia is uniquely granted the permission to invade others because the Russians fear being invaded one day themselves); and even if Russia's intervention in Syria on behalf of Assad was designed to conceal the lack of success in Ukraine and prop up Putin's support in Russia by displaying Russian military power; sometimes motives change as opportunities present themselves. Like the Mediterranean Sea.

Does Russia have more ambitions now that they are involved in Syria and have Crimea secured?

[The Russians] want to continue to use Syria as a way to bolster Putin’s credibility at home and to give them a lever in negotiations over Ukraine. But a third possibility is emerging. The Russians may want to take a leading role in the Middle East. That would go against everything Putin learned from Afghanistan, and it would take logistical resources Russia doesn’t have. Plus, it significantly hampers Russia’s ability to operate in Europe. Russia has limited military resources, and deploying too much in the Middle East is dangerous. I would have to regard this as unlikely.

Is it unlikely? If Russia thinks they won't be opposed, will they stop before they hit serious resistance?

And what if rather than seeking influence in the Middle East, Russia just wants to shield Russia from NATO navies that might operate in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean? This would help Russia security in Europe and would also protect further Russian moves against Ukraine; and would pose a threat to American lines of communication to the Persian Gulf through the Suez Canal.

And Russian friendship with Iran bolsters the direct threat to the Gulf as well as riding on the coattails of Iranian ability to sow chaos in the region.

Yes, it is a long way to saying Russia has rebuilt influence in the Middle East. Assad hasn't taken or secured Aleppo yet--let alone all of Syria.

But if Russian interests are in the eastern Mediterranean Sea rather than the Middle East, all Russia needs is a secure western Syria under a friendly Assad. I don't think Assad needs Aleppo to have that secured core Syria that can benefit Russia in extending their influence into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

We are losing control of the eastern Mediterranean Sea:

By adopting a strategy of total war, Putin has ensured that far from becoming the quagmire that President Barack Obama warned him Syria would become, the war in Syria has instead become a means to transform Russia into the dominant superpower in the Mediterranean, at the US’s expense.

In exchange for saving Assad’s neck and enabling Iran and Hezbollah to control Syria, Russia has received the capacity to successfully challenge US power. Last month Putin brought an agreement with Assad before the Duma for ratification. The agreement permits – indeed invites – Russia to set up a permanent air base in Khmeimim, outside the civilian airport in Latakia.

Russian politicians, media and security experts have boasted that the base will be able to check the power of the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet and challenge NATO’s southern flank in the Mediterranean basin for the first time. The Russians have also decided to turn their naval station at Tartus into something approaching a full-scale naval base.

With Russia’s recent rapprochement with Turkish President Recip Erdogan, NATO’s future ability to check Russian power through the Incirlik air base is in question.

Even Israel’s ability to permit the US access to its air bases is no longer assured. Russia has deployed air assets to Syria that have canceled Israel’s regional air superiority.

Under these circumstances, in a hypothetical Russian-US confrontation, Israel may be unwilling to risk Russian retaliation for a decision to permit the US to use its air bases against Russia.

America’s loss of control over the eastern Mediterranean is a self-induced disaster.

I think the suppression of Israeli cooperation is over-stated--we faced worse during the Cold War when both Syria and Egypt were Soviet client states.

But Russia's moves in Crimea and Syria are complementary. Crimea is a staging area to support Russian forces based in Syria--where Russia will build a permanent naval base at their Tartus facility--which can exert control over the eastern Mediterranean, which is also bolstered by Russia's announcement (in the same article) that 5,000 paratroopers will exercise in Egypt this month (is Russia angling to re-flip Egypt, which was our Cold War coup?)

I noted this eastern Mediterranean problem recently.

And this linkage was on my radar screen both before Russia invaded Crimea and before Russia intervened directly in Syria.

Add in Russia's port agreement with Cyprus, a Turkey more friendly to Russia, a Greece angry with the European Union, an Egypt upset with American behavior after the Arab Spring revolt there, with chaos in Libya, with Israel still stinging from the Iran deal and general administration hostility to our long-time ally, and with Jordan cutting off the Southern Front rebels in Syria, and you have a picture of a deteriorating American position in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Italy seems like the new front line to hold the Mediterranean Sea front.

And remember, too, that America's Sixth Fleet is a phantom fleet. The powerful fleet that once defended the Mediterranean Sea during the Cold War is now our European fleet. It has 4 destroyers capable of ballistic missile defense and which are tasked with missions from Finland to Syria. And it has a command ship based out of Italy. Otherwise the only assets it routinely has in the Mediterranean Sea are naval assets transiting between Central Command and America's east coast.