Containing NATO: Russia’s Growing A2/AD Capability in the Mediterranean

By: Emily Kangas, Columnist

Photo Credit: US Naval Institute

On January 20, 2017, Russia signed a long-term agreement with Syria to expand their naval and air base in Tartus and Latakia, respectively.[i] Though the agreement was arguably signed under the auspices of supporting counterterrorism, the base expansions will bolster Russia’s regional military presence in scope and longevity and, perhaps more notably, establish Russian anti-access area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the region. The purpose of A2/AD, to deny an adversary air, land, and naval access to regions of interest,[ii] supports Russia’s larger strategic objectives of enhancing its own international prominence while simultaneously countering NATO’s relative influence. In addition to the base expansion agreement in Syria, Russia has deployed sophisticated anti-air and anti-ship defenses, bombers, and missiles at strategic locations along NATO’s borders as part of their A2/AD objective. Such a capability creates considerable political and security challenges for the alliance by denying NATO access to the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and eastern Mediterranean regions.[iii] In doing so, Russia’s actions work to both contain NATO and increase Moscow’s influence in the NATO-Russian border space, thus supporting Russia’s broader pursuit of global military power and prestige.[iv]

The recent agreement calls for the expansion of Russia’s naval base in Syria’s port in Tartus under a 49-year lease and outlines the potential for an automatic 25-year renewal, thereby guaranteeing Russia’s military presence in the region for at least another half century, likely more.[v] The Tartus naval base is strategically significant as it represents one of only two Russian outposts outside of the former Soviet Union—the other being a resupply facility in Vietnam.[vi] However, though the base provides Russia the means to offload arms and personnel, it is not entirely effective. It cannot currently accommodate Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and lacks large-scale repair facilities as well as command and control capabilities necessary for Russia to supervise operations from Tartus.[vii] The base expansion will supposedly allow Russia to berth up to 11 warships, including nuclear powered ships, which will more than double their current docking capacity.[viii] The agreement also includes provisions to expand and make more permanent the Khmeinin Air Base in Latakia, which was built in 2015 to establish Russia air support capabilities for Syrian president Bashir al-Assad.[ix]

While the agreement appears to support Russia’s stated commitment to defeat terrorism and militarily support Assad, it may instead be indicative of a larger effort to limit NATO’s activities in the region by strengthening Moscow’s A2/AD capabilities. Success in establishing an A2/AD zone in the eastern Mediterranean would deny NATO the ability to take “action against Russia or its allies in the region.”[x] Russia is pursuing this endeavor via three main paths: (1) posturing a credible, present military force; (2) exploiting fissures within US and Western relations with regional allies, to include Egypt and Turkey; and (3) establishing permanent base agreements.[xi] In 2014, Russia began establishing a military force in the region with forward deployments from their Black Sea Fleet. As of 2016, there were six new Kilo-class diesel electric submarines, 1,000 Marines, and a surface contingent of 42 ships.[xii] Russia’s Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles create surface naval A2/AD zones in the northern Mediterranean.[xiii] And at their Latakia airbase, Russia deployed tactical aircraft and strategic airlift, which sets the foundation for developing future A2/AD capabilities.[xiv] Additionally, Russia’s access to the region currently relies heavily on positive or at least neutral relations with Turkey, the only state with the power to block Russia’s access route from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.[xv] Russia has worked to improve Russian-Turkish relations as evident through increased counterterrorism cooperation, including Russia’s inclusion of Turkey in the January Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan—even after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in December, 2016.[xvi]

The base expansion agreement represents the third pillar Russia utilizes to establish A2/AD in Syria, namely securing base agreements.[xvii] A permanent base presence mitigates Russia’s reliance on a neutral Turkey for Black Sea access and increases Moscow’s influence among states in the eastern Mediterranean.[xviii] The ability to deny other major powers (i.e., NATO) access to the region will force eastern Mediterranean states to acknowledge Russia’s capability and pursue positive or at least “cordial” relations with Russia.[xix] The arrangement will also deepen Russia’s alliances with current allies and subdue opposition from NATO-friendly states out of fear of Russian retaliation, which weakens NATO’s southern regional strength and stands to create internal divisions within the alliance.[xx]

Even more worrisome for NATO is that Russia’s A2/AD objectives do not appear to be limited to the eastern Mediterranean. On a larger scale, Western commanders consider Tartus as the “third bubble” of Russia’s A2/AD capability, while the Black Sea and Baltic Sea regions represent the other two “bubbles.”[xxi] In the Black Sea region, Russia implemented an S-400 missile air defense system with a 250 mile range in Crimea—which denies NATO aircraft airspace access over the Baltic states, Ukraine, the Black Sea, northern Poland, Syria, and Turkey.[xxii] Additionally, in the Baltic region, Russia is building conventional forces in its Kaliningrad enclave and plans to deploy the nuclear capable Iskander missile system in 2019, an operation that already ignites controversy within NATO.[xxiii] Should Russia be successful in its objective, NATO risks being contained within its own borders through airspace denial and naval and ground force maneuverability limitations.[xxiv] Such a situation would erode NATO’s credibility—particularly if the alliance is unable to intervene or access these three regions—and may create divisions within NATO as members debate the proper response.[xxv] Given these risks, it is essential that NATO and its partners assess how such basing agreements and associated activities fit within Russia’s greater security objectives. Taken alone, the base expansion agreement may not appear to be an immediate threat. But when viewed within the larger context of Russian global military and diplomatic ambitions, the strategic implications of the agreement could be detrimental to NATO’s relative power, credibility, and stability.

[i] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad,” The New York Times, January 20, 2017, online.

[ii] Giulia Paravicini, “New chess game between West and Russia,” Politico, July 11, 2016, online.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad.”

[vi] “Russia, Syria Sign Agreement Expanding Tartus Naval Base,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 20, 2017, online.

[vii] Edward Delman, “The Link Between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine,” The Atlantic, October 2, 2015, online.

[viii] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Edward Delman, “The Link Between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine.”

[xi] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” Naval War College Review, Winter 2016, 69:1, p. 71- 74, print.—A-Gro.aspx

[xii] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” p. 72.

[xiii] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” p. 75.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” p. 76.

[xvi] Abdus Sattar Ghazali, “Putin Orders Expansion of Russia’s Naval Base in Tartus, Syria,” Counter Currents, December 27, 2016, online.

[xvii] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” p. 74.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” p. 78.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Top NATO general: Russian’s starting to build air defense bubble over Syria,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2015, online.

[xxii] Constance Baroudos, “Why NATO Should Fear Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities (And How to Respond,” The National Interest, September 21, 2016, online.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Loic Burton, “Bubble Trouble: Russia’s A2/AD Capabilities,” Foreign Policy Association, October 25, 2016, Online.

[xxv] Giulia Paravicini, “New chess game between West and Russia.”

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