The Russian Navy 'Rebalances' to the Mediterranean

By Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Those heady days have long since passed. The Soviet 5th (Mediterranean) Eskhadra, sometimes as big as 30–50 ships and submarines, largely melted away with the fall of the Soviet Union. At the same time, NATO’s war plans were superseded by the need to station American naval forces in areas central to conducting the war on terrorism and responding to global instability. This made the Mediterranean not much more than a transit stop for Atlantic Fleet warships en route to the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Gulf of Aden. The combination of the Russian Navy’s demise and shifting U.S. priorities left the Mediterranean, once the planet’s maritime center of gravity, bereft of any navy of serious consequence for most of the 21st century.

The Bear Reappears

Russian President Vladimir Putin, never shy of taking advantage of an opportunity to expand his country’s international influence, became keenly aware of the Mediterranean power vacuum several years ago. He was equally aware that his naval fleet had been emasculated by years of neglect. Naval inventories were a shadow of their former selves, and readiness levels were precariously low. Since then, Russia made sizable improvements to its fleet’s size and readiness and stepped up patrols in the region, roughly coinciding with the escalation of tensions in Syria. During the past calendar year, the Black Sea Fleet alone conducted 17 operational voyages and 39 port visits in the Mediterranean, spending 650 days at sea. 2

In January 2013, Russia conducted its largest naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War. During his visit to the Black Sea Fleet in February, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stressed that the “Mediterranean region was the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interests” and that continued fallout from the Arab Spring increased the importance of this region. 3 Shortly thereafter, he showcased a new Russian naval policy by announcing the decision to establish a Navy Department task force in the Mediterranean “on a permanent basis.” 4

The details of that move became a hot discussion topic in the Russian military press. Many believe the Black Sea Fleet will provide the permanent core of the task force owing to its proximity to the region, with the missile cruiser Moskva its likely flagship. However, other naval experts point to the Northern Fleet as the main source of ships, as it has the most numerous and modern vessels. Russian naval officials will also consider Pacific Fleet and Baltic Fleet ships for inclusion.

The underlying consensus of the unclassified press reporting is that there will be around ten modern warships from various Russian fleets operating permanently in the Mediterranean. This force will be under the tactical control of an afloat staff drawn primarily from the Black Sea Fleet, but led operationally by Navy staff in St. Petersburg. Commander Admiral Viktor Chirkov added that the number of ships in the task force could be enlarged to “to include nuclear submarines,” and the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was also rumored to become part of this force, despite her midlife upgrade scheduled for year’s end. 5 This permanent task force is already working to schedule future exercises with any interested NATO navy in the Mediterranean littoral, as well as with Israel and China. Precise timelines for deployments are necessarily vague and somewhat tied to Russian access to logistical and maintenance support in the region.

Russia also has yet to nail down which Mediterranean ports it will use. Its naval base in Tartus is its only one outside Russian territory; with ongoing military developments in Syria, naval officials are considering other locations as their primary regional port. Unofficial rumors suggest Russia is considering ports in Cyprus, Montenegro, and Greece in addition to Syria. Of these, Cyprus has gotten the most attention, owing to the close economic relations between Moscow and Nicosia. Cypriote Defense Minister Fotis Fotiou acknowledged a close relationship with Russia but denied any discussion about a “permanent base” in Cyprus for Russia. 6 He did not, however, rule out a relationship in which the Russian Navy could use port facilities, much as the U.S. Fleet does in many European countries.

Why Move to the Med?

The Russian naval movement back into the Mediterranean can be explained by a number of rational calculations; however, no one of them is either conclusive or persuasive. This realignment is perhaps best understood by a simple confluence of supply and demand. From a supply perspective, after talking about rebuilding its defense forces for many years, Russia has finally begun to do so. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute lists Russia at a comfortable third in global defense spending, behind the United States and China, with an impressive 113 percent growth over the past decade. The Russian Navy shipbuilding and modernization account is receiving an increasingly large share of national defense appropriations, amounting to more than $132 billion between now and 2020, according to Reuters .

Additionally, Russian shipyards are finally delivering vessels to the fleet. Russia has reported that the “Navy will receive 36 warships in 2013, an unprecedented number in Russia’s history.” 7 This statement should be taken with a grain of salt, because it includes a large number of very small craft, yet one cannot deny that larger ships— Yasen -class submarines, Steregushchiy -class frigates, Gorshkov -class corvettes, Ivan Gren –class amphibious ships, Dagestan -class gunships, and Borei -class ballistic-missile submarines—are also beginning to become operational. Russia’s desire to expand its fleet has also resulted in the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, a dramatic increase in Russian naval-school enrollment, and significant growth in cruise-missile production. All told, the Russian Navy is showing signs of growth in geographical deployments, inventory, and sophistication.

On the demand side, Russian President Vladimir Putin insistently asserts that the drastic upgrade in Russia’s defense forces is a logical response to U.S. and NATO efforts to “tip the strategic balance,” while making pointed reference to the new NATO missile-defense system in Europe. 8 Putin further contends that Russian military responses must be “well calculated and quick.” Any responsible Russian naval adviser would naturally point out that “quick” suggests the need for forward presence.

Why does the Mediterranean—a body of water with no Russian seacoast—qualify for this even more aggressive response? Firstly, Russia’s only exit to the open ocean for its Black Sea Fleet is the Mediterranean. Russia also has long-standing economic ties to many regional states, including Greece, Libya, Cyprus, and Algeria, and is buying or selling arms with a number of the Mediterranean littoral states, including France and Algeria. Another consideration is the logistical node in Tartus, a location of increasing strategic importance during this period of ongoing Syrian conflict, especially if Russian citizens need to evacuate the country. Finally, the Russian Navy would be able to increase its readiness and develop more sophisticated training by operating in the Mediterranean during the winter months. 9

However, no one of these is sufficient to invite a ten-ship Russian armada to set up a permanent presence. The most likely logic behind this naval movement to the southwest is probably the iron law of power politics: Nature abhors a vacuum. The regional NATO navies have been suffering an inexorable decline for years. The French and Italian naval orders of battle are shadows of their former selves, while NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups are spending less time in the Mediterranean. This is partly attributable to diminishing inventories, and also to NATO’s counterpiracy Operation Ocean Shield, conducted in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. America’s European allies are more willing to leave the theater simply because NATO proclaimed that the European theater has diminished in strategic significance. In effect, the West has placed a low-cost “for rent” sign on very valuable property, and Putin has responded like any canny investor.

A U.S. Response?

American strategy would do well to consider the Mediterranean not a European subregion, but rather the nexus of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southern Europe. Thus, our allotted military force there should reflect the aggregate security-environment demands of these three locales. It must also recognize the economic constraints faced by the Pentagon and operate with “economy of force.” Furthermore, the United States should take into account balance-of-power considerations, informing the Russians that there is, in fact, no security vacuum in the region.

The U.S. Navy’s current presence in the Mediterranean does not match the strategic capabilities called for by the NATO Maritime Strategy during a time of instability and violence (as is the current state of affairs given recent turmoil in Libya, Egypt, and Syria). 10 While the Maritime Strategy emphasizes the need for information sharing, interdiction missions, improved maritime-domain awareness, and potential mine-warfare and special-forces insertions, the United States and its NATO allies are instead creating a ballistic-missile defense (BMD) network (the European Phased Adaptive Approach, or EPAA) in accordance with agreed-upon NATO policy. The core of the alliance’s second phase of EPAA is the insertion of four BMD-capable Aegis DDGs to be home-ported by pairs in Rota, Spain, in 2014 and 2015.

These impressive multipurpose ships are officially designated to protect our European allies from small ballistic-missile attacks from “rogue” states, notably Iran. However, should these ships, in the performance of their designated role, be America’s sole naval presence in the Med, we could be walking in exactly the wrong strategic direction. In fact, the NATO BMD capability is likely to provoke more Russian naval activity than it deters.

The Russians have been very clear that any American deployments supporting BMD will be viewed as a challenge to their nuclear strategic force. The United States would be better served by downplaying the BMD role and accentuating all the other high-end military capabilities the U.S. Navy brings to the table. Its unsurpassed antiair- and antisubmarine-warfare capabilities should, in turn, evoke a NATO desire to conduct more multinational naval exercises with the United States. The deployment patterns of U.S. ships in the region should take them to the Eastern Mediterranean when a clear ballistic-missile threat occurs. Otherwise, they should act as an all-purpose, permanent American Mediterranean task force. The naval capabilities provided by these ships should first and foremost be the U.S. high-end response to crisis and conflict in the regions of the Mediterranean littoral, from Gibraltar to the Suez. Significantly, this home-port change need not come at an exorbitant price to American taxpayers. In fact, U.S. naval leadership has characterized it as an efficiency, not an expense. 11

Additional home-port changes also would be a good idea. The United States should augment the DDGs following the examples set by both the 5th and 7th Fleet areas of operation. First, to respond to the need for capability against terrorism and illicit transnational trafficking, the United States should establish an AFSB in the Mediterranean, which would then be easily employable in any of its subregions. 12 Such a ship, along the lines of the 5th Fleet’s USS Ponce (LPD-15), would be a cornerstone for evacuation operations and special-forces insertions, while providing the helicopter capability crucial to any humanitarian-assistance operation. Her capabilities would be closely aligned with NATO Maritime Strategy as well as the requirements posed by both African Command and Central Command. Second, to support counterterrorism, countertrafficking, forward presence, and mine warfare, America’s growing fleet of LCSs could be employed much as we are doing in Singapore for the 7th Fleet. Their beauty is not just that they should be available in large numbers, but their small size, low maintenance cost, and ability to get into Europe’s small and shallow harbors make them ideal for the 6th Fleet commander. To complement the homeporting of destroyers in Spain, the AFSB would be best situated in the central Med, co-located with the 6th Fleet command ship in Italy, while the LCSs would be best positioned in the Eastern Med, preferably in Greece or Turkey.

The cost of moving this small handful of ships to the Mediterranean, while not trivial, would not begin to compare with the cost of rebalancing to the Pacific. The benefit, however, would be substantial. First, the message to our closest allies in NATO couldn’t be clearer: We are making European security a high priority, while still keeping “economy of force” in mind. This is classic “assurance of allies”—a theme emphasized in the U.S. National Security Strategy—at an affordable cost. Signaling our support to NATO allies now will likely pay off in the future: It is precisely these allies to whom we are most likely to turn to for assistance down the road. Along with assurance, we also gain credibility and persuasiveness when asking our allies to spend more on defense in NATO forums.

Second, this low-cost Mediterranean force pays a triple dividend in that it responds to the strategic challenges faced by three geographical commanders: Central Command, African Command, and European Command. Finally, the Russians will see a powerful naval response, and not one necessarily aimed only at them. Most important, they will perceive that a security vacuum no longer exists in the Mediterranean.

‘Prudent Strategic Choice’

For several decades, the Russian Navy has disappointed in its ability to do what navies aim to do: assure allies, show the flag, project power, and influence power balances. Today, however, this meager but growing force is expending considerable effort to operate in waters the United States and others have vacated on a permanent basis. The reasons behind Moscow’s move are manifold, but certainly one is pure opportunity based on NATO’s absence. While its actions rarely match its rhetoric, Russia has decidedly amped up its presence in the Mediterranean at the same time NATO allies appear to have lost their motivation to control this region.

Many American policymakers decry the negative consequences of removing all troops from Afghanistan, but this is what we and our allies have nearly done in the Mediterranean. A small naval reinvestment in the Mediterranean would be a very prudent strategic choice for both deterring Russian ascendancy in the region and demonstrating American commitment to European allies. In other words, a stronger U.S. presence in the region would be a low-price offering with the potential for a significant strategic return on investment.

1. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 5 January 2012).

2. Comments of Vice Admiral Aleksandr Fedotenkov, Commander Black Sea Fleet, cited in “Russian Black Sea Fleet CO on rearming and Expanding Operations,” Interfax AVN, 29 April 2013, .

3. Voice of Russia , 26 February 2013, 02 26/Russia-returns-to-the-Mediterranean-Fifth-Soviet-Navy-Squadron-is-back/.

4. “Russia Capable of Guaranteeing Permanent Presence of its Warships in Mediterranean,” Voice of Russia , Interfax, 11 March 2013, 03 11/Russia-capable-guaranteeing-permanent-presence-of-its-warships-in-Mediterranean/.

5. “N-Subs to be Part of Russia’s Mediterranean Task Force,” IANS/RIA Novosti , 12 May 2013, .

6. “Russia Eyeing Cyprus Bases,” Cyprus Mail , 30 June 2013, .

7. “Navy to Receive 36 Warships This Year,” RIA Novosti , 7 July 2013, .

8. “Putin Orders Upgrades for the Armed Forces,” the Washington Post , 28 February 2013.

9. Dmitry Gorenburg, “The Russian Navy’s role in the Mediterranean,” Russian Military Reform , 1 February 2013, .

10. Alliance Maritime Strategy , Annex 1, C-M(2011)0023 (Unclassified).

11. RADM Michael E. Smith (USN), “Roadmap to the Rebalance,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 8 (August 2013), 48.

12. I owe this idea to John Keating, research intern at the U.S. Naval War College. He envisions a Wasp -class amphibious assault ship being reconfigured along the lines of the USS Ponce , ultimately to move toward the capabilities found in future mobile landing platforms.

Captain Fedyszyn is chair of the Europe-Russia Studies Group at the Naval War College. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University while on active duty. His 31-year naval career included assignments as the U.S. naval attaché to Russia and two tours at NATO headquarters. A former surface-warfare officer, he commanded the USS Normandy (CG-60) and William V. Pratt (DDG-44).


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