Russia loses temper over the S.E. Mediterranean Energy & Defense developments

Tassos Tsiplakos - South East Med Energy & Defense Strategy Consultant

In our recent Report #3: “ENERGY WARS” The Security of the Energy Routes in South East Mediterranean, we had mentioned that one of the main sources of potentially significant security threats in the region is Russia’s intention to interdict any possible change in the current energy status quo, or turn the odds on its favor.

Watching the fast pace of the regional developments in the energy sector, as well as the evolution of the Israel-Greece-Cyprus and Egypt-Greece-Cyprus tripartites from economic to defense and strategic alliances with the support, and foreseeable participation, of the U.S.A, Moscow felt compeled to warn Nicosia, on Wednesday, that increasing military cooperation with the US to counter Russian influence in the region will “inevitably lead to dangerous and destabilizing consequences for Cyprus itself.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Moscow “will have to take response measures in case of a military buildup by the US in Cyprus.”

Russia endeavour to undertake pre-emptive action against everything that can undermine its hegemonic position as energy-provider to the European Markets and to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. In this context, Zakharova made her comments just two days before a visit to Moscow by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (the visit started today) and almost two weeks before the trilateral summit between Greece, Israel and Cyprus, which is being backed by the US, after President’s Anastasiades expressed hope that the US will join the trilateral energy cooperation between Cyprus, Israel and Greece, earlier this week.

Zakharova said that Moscow has information that Washington is seeking to build up its military presence on the island. “The aim is not being hidden – to counter growing Russian influence in the region in the light of the successful operation by the Russian military in Syria” she said.

Her remarks prompted Cyprus Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides to contact his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in a bid to defuse tensions, while Cyprus government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou said that ”We do not militarize Cyprus and we do not explain to anyone, nor do we apologize to anyone, Cyprus is a member of the European Union and follows the European policy.”

On reactions that the government issued a subservient response to the Russian threat,  Prodromou said that ”blustering does not count, nor does it concern us that some are alarmed by the upgrading of our relations with the US”, adding that “we do not need to give rigorous answers to anyone.” The Republic of Cyprus, he added, ”making the most of its geographic position, provides facilities for operations of a humanitarian nature and only when certain countries submit a relevant request or if there is a relevant agreement or memorandum of understanding in place”, referring to statements by Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides in Parliament that in 2017 facilities were provided in 672 instances in Cyprus’ airports and in 225 instances in the island’s ports.

Russian embassy’s spokeswoman in Nicosia Alla Khanaeva said that Zakharova ”…made these statements based on information by the TASS news agency,” adding that “perhaps TASS received this information from American sources.” (sic).

Cyprus Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov had a telephone conversation, on Wednesday afternoon, during which the two Foreign Ministers “reviewed the bilateral relations of Cyprus and Russia and exchanged views on possible ways of further enhancing them,” as the Foreign Ministry press release says. They also discussed recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean region and matters which have to do with EU – Russia relations, and the press release continues “In this context, they agreed to meet in the coming months.”

The “…growing Russian influence in the region” 

Moscow tried in the past to enter the Eastern Mediterranean gas-monetization game through the front door, however results were poor. Indeed, between 2012 and 2013, Russian companies made efforts to be involved in the Tamar and Leviathan Israeli gas fields, but without success. In 2013, Russian companies signed a long-term deal with the Assad regime to develop the Syrian offshore sector (Syria launched its first offshore attempt in 2007). But with the outbreak of war and the rise of ISIS, no further development was possible. Finally, Russian companies also took part in the Cyprus offshore bidding round, and Russia has supported Nicosia’s offshore plan, condemning Turkey’s interference. But in this case, too, Russia was not able to enter the Levantine energy game. Cyprus preferred to include European companies and international oil majors. This situation was partially reversed only at the end of 2016, when the Russian company Rosneft reached a deal with the Italian ENI to buy a 30% participating interest in the Shourouk Concession, offshore Egypt, where the gas field Zohr is located.

It is more than evident that Russia continues to have an interest in avoiding a possible route connecting the Eastern Mediterranean resources with the EU market, the major outlet for its pipeline gas. On the other hand, Russia also has an interest in avoiding an Israel-Turkey rapprochement cemented by a long-term pipeline deal, from both a wider geopolitical point of view and an energy perspective. In the first case, as mentioned, this would increase U.S. influence in the region. With regard to the energy dimension, Russia is committed to maintaining a strong presence in the Turkish gas market, on which rests an important outlet to expand Gazprom exports, especially owing to the problem the Russian company is having in the EU with the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Another consideration is the logistical node in Tartus, a location of increasing strategic importance during this period of ongoing Syrian conflict. Due to the fact that this naval base is its only one outside Russian territory, with ongoing military developments in Syria, in the recent past naval officials were considering other locations as their primary regional port. Unofficial rumors suggest Russia considered 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. Cypriot Defense Minister acknowledged a close relationship with Russia, but denied any discussion about a “permanent base” in Cyprus for Russia, even though since 2012 Russian naval vessels had been using the Limassol port for refueling. In the same context, back in August 2013, the Kremlin submitted an official request to rent the “Andreas Papandreou” AFB near Paphos, to no avail.

The Mediterranean Task Force

Amidst the flurry of diplomatic and political activity accompanying the Syrian crisis, the Russian Navy declared that at least four warships, a spy ship, and a repair ship located at Tartus, would join other units of Russia’s new permanent Mediterranean Task Force. Since last July, a 15-strong Mediterranean Task Force was established to be based out of Tartus. Ever since, this force provides, mainly, support and protection to the Assad regime, as well as monitors the southern flank of NATO and its activities in the region, including the Black Sea. The Russian Navy conducted, also, six international exercises demonstrating its global presence and power projection capability, communicating the message: “The Mediterranean Sea has ceased to be a “NATO Lake” dominated by the U.S. 6th Fleet….American vessels don’t own these waters anymore. As a great power, Russia has its own interests in the region and has a powerful naval force permanently deployed to defend them”.

As of today, the Russian Navy has deployed one guided missile cruiser, an anti-submarine destroyer, five frigates, three corvettes, two Kilo class submarines, two landing crafts, an oiler and two minesweepers mostly from Baltic Sea fleet. They were: “Marshal Ustinov” (055) Slava-class guided missile cruiser, “Severomorsk” (619) Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer, “Pytlivy” (808) Burevestnik-class Frigate, “Admiral Grigorovich” (494), “Admiral Essen” (490) and “Admiral Makarov” (799) Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates; “Yaroslav Mudry” Neustrashimy-class (777) frigate; “Grad Sviyazhsk” (652), “Velikiy Ustug” (651) and “Vyshny Volochek” (609) Buyan-M class corvette; “Ivan Bubnov” Boris Chilikin-class Replenishment oiler; Orsk and Nikolay Fil’chenkov Project 1171 Alligator-class landing ships; “Turbinist” Projekt 266M and “Valentin Pikul” Projekt 266ME ocean-going minesweepers; “Velikiy Novgorod” (B-268) and “Kolpino” (B-271) Kilo class submarines.

To support the Navy ships and submarines, the Navy Aviation participated with seven Su-30SMs, four Su-33s, two Il-38s and two Tu-142MK maritime patrol airplanes. Four out of the seven Su-30SMs with 41, 42, 47 and 48 BLUE bort numbers were belonging to the 43rd Independent Maritime Assault Aviation Regiment (43rd OMShAP) which has total 11 Su-30SMs in Saki Air Base, Crimea peninsula. The remaining three Su-30SMs were 71, 74 and 75 BLUE beloning to 72nd Aviation Base of Russian Navy which has total 8 Su-30SMs at Chernyakhovsk, Kaliningrad. The four Su-33s including 66 RED were all belonging to the 279th Independent Shipborne Assault Aviation Regiment (279th OKShAP) at Severomorsk-3 AB. All four Su-33s were recently upgraded by 10th Aircraft Repair Plant and have SVP-24 “Hephaestus” targeting system enabling them to carry-out more precise bombing. A pair of Il-38s of Russian Navy, both belonging to the 7050th AvB (former 403rd OSAP) at Severomorsk-1 were deployed to Hmeimim AB, to be used for daily maritime patrol missions and observe the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) which was monitoring the Russian Navy. The SNMG2 was consisted of HMCS Ville de Quebec, HNLMS De Ruyter, ESPS Cristobal Colon and HS Elli.

In support of the Medieterranean Task Force, the Russian Air Force also has deployed a fleet of eight Su-24M2 and eight Su-34 strike bombers as well as four Su-35S interceptors, four Il-78Ms of the 3rd Aviation Squadron, 43rd Training Center Ryazan Air Base, to Hmeimim Syria. They were 30 BLUE (RF-94269), 32 BLUE (RF-94270), 36 BLUE (RF-94274) and 50 BLUE (RF-95275). These Il-78Ms were used to refuel the Su-30SMs and Su-33s every day keeping them in air for at-least four hours in each combat air patrol flight. These Il-78Ms also refuelled three Tu-160 Strategic bombers which flew from Engels-2 to Syria, on 5th September and returned Russia without stop in the same day. The Tu-160s simulated launch of cruise missiles at the RAF Akrotiri in case of any confrontation with the west, during last September’s naval exercise.

Last but not least, the Russian Anti-access / Area Denial (A2/AD) architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean is centered on a network of layered onshore and offshore disruptive weapon systems. In this regard, Moscow has deployed a three-layer air and missile defense system in Syria by deploying S-400, S-300V, BukM2E (SA-17), Pantsir S-1 (SA-22) batteries to cover long, medium, and short ranges respectively. Furthermore, this formidable air-defense architecture is networked with the Syrian Air Defense Force’s assets, sea-based S-300FM systems embarked on missile cruisers, as well as Krasukha-4 electronic warfare (EW) system deployed in the Hmeymim Airbase. Russian military perceives A2/AD as a component of strategic operations, as opposed to a separate, independent effort. In this context, A2/AD, along with cyber/information warfare, and traditional warfighting components, are postured so that they can be used simultaneously and so that they may ready further conventional and nuclear forces when/if necessary. More importantly, these strategic operations are designed for providing maximum options to the Russian political leadership while minimizing those of the adversary.



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