Russia’s Syria Strategy Poses Challenge to NATO in Mediterranean

Russian warship celebrating Navy Day, July 26, 2015Russia’s military intervention in Syria is serving as a broader announcement of Moscow’s renewed determination to hold sway in the Middle East.

But beyond the immediate outcome of the civil war there, Nato military chiefs are now viewing it as a wider strategic play by Vladimir Putin’s Russia to challenge the west closer to home. According to a senior Nato civilian official, the Mediterranean “is a contested space again.”

“We have to be prepared for Russia to be [in Syria] as a factor for a long time,” Alexander Vershbow, Nato’s deputy secretary-general, told the Financial Times on Monday, speaking on the edge of Nato’s biggest war-game since 2002: Trident Juncture, which for the next two weeks will take place across the western Mediterranean.

Russia’s deployment to fight anti-Assad rebel forces is an immediate challenge for the west. But Moscow’s permanent, disruptive presence south of the Bosphorus is the long-term one, Mr Vershbow says: “[We have to] think about the broader consequences of this build up in the Eastern Mediterranean and the capacity of these airbases….”

Nato officials concede there is no “southern strategy” to match the alliance’s recent efforts in eastern Europe, where it has developed a range of responses intended to counter Russian belligerence following its meddling in eastern Ukraine.

“We have taken a lot of these new threats on board,” says General Denis Mercier, former head of the French air force and Nato’s current supreme commander for transformation — in which role he is responsible for helping Nato’s troops to train and adapt.

The most serious challenge Russia has laid down for Nato has influenced the exercise. Moscow’s strategy hinges on carving out protective “bubbles”, says one senior Nato official.

“We look at this as [part of] their whole doctrine. In Kaliningrad, in occupied Crimea — which they are turning into a fortress — and now in Syria, we see similar concentrations of forces designed to stop Nato’s freedom of action and navigation.”

Russia’s Mediterranean fleet, for example, bristles with its most powerful anti-aircraft missiles — s300 systems — which have been fitted to all but its smallest ships. For Nato it creates what military tacticians refer to as an anti-access area-denial problem — a no fly-zone — but one directed against the West….

“It’s something entirely new,” says Gen Mercier. “We have now a situation where we are exercising in a scenario where Nato does not necessarily have the balance of military power.”

Image: Russian warship celebrating Navy Day, July 26, 2015 (photo: Office of the President of Russia)