Russia recently announced that it will spend $500 million to fix and update the commercial port of Tartus in Syria. In 2017 Moscow had renewed its lease over the port, signing an agreement with Damascus in a clear show of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russian (and before 1991, Soviet) naval presence there dates back to the early 1970s. A remnant of a much vaster Soviet string of bases developed from the 1970s on, Tartus is now the only port Russia has outside of those on its own shores. What to make of this renewed Russian effort to have a Mediterranean presence? Given Russia’s economic weakness—and long land borders—why is Moscow so focused on Syria and in particular on having a naval footprint there?
There are three related answers to these questions.
First, Russia needs outlets to break free of its de facto landlocked position. Since Peter the Great, Moscow has pushed to have a presence in the more distant seas, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, in order to be able to compete with the other great powers. Russia has access to seas, of course, but the Baltic and Black seas (not to mention the Caspian Sea, an endorheic basin with no drainage into any other body of water) are effectively closed and offer at best the possibility of local dominance and control. The push to have access to “warm-water ports” is a constant in Russian foreign policy, characterized by “matchless simplicity of conception and persistence of effort,” as Robert Strausz-Hupé put in a 1947 essay.
The fact that Moscow has a decrepit navy with its sole aircraft carrier on fire in a dock should not diminish the strategic impact of a Russian port in the Eastern Mediterranean. In a way, compared to Western seapowers, Russia’s maritime power develops in reverse: Moscow needs to have outlets to the open seas before it can develop a commercial fleet and powerful navy. Most European naval powers developed navies to protect an already developed shipping route, and their coastlines and ports. Russia needs ports before it can have a navy. Tartus is one such small but strategically important port.
Second, the Mediterranean is a peculiar sea that favors those who control the shores more than large fleets. Moscow’s investment in Tartus does not mean, in fact, that Russia will have a large fleet in the Mediterranean. But the Mediterranean is not the open Atlantic or Pacific where the size of the navies matter. Great power confrontations in the Mediterranean are often confrontations over ports rather than ships.
Horatio Nelson noted in 1798, with some puzzlement, that the “Russians seem to me to be more bent on taking ports in the Mediterranean than destroying Bonaparte in Egypt.” The British admiral was annoyed at the Russian unwillingness to challenge the French fleet, while British military analysts a century later thought that the Muscovite penchant for ports rather than large fleets meant that Russia was not a threat.
But the Mediterranean is a sea for land powers: What matters is control over the coastline and especially the straits. Today’s Russian rapprochement with Turkey may be fragile and temporary, but it has mitigated the risk for Moscow that the Black Sea will be a closed body of water. And the fortification of the Russian military presence on the Syrian shores means that a large portion of the Eastern Mediterranean will be under Russian overwatch, if not control.
Third, Russia is interested in the Mediterranean as a strategic prize that will allow Moscow to be a much more influential player in Europe. The Mediterranean sea appears to be a backwater that is of interest only to tourists and students of ancient history. But in reality it continues to play a similar role as in past centuries: Whoever controls the Mediterranean has enormous leverage over Europe.
Historically, the Mediterranean sea had two important features. First, it was a highway of commerce not just between Europe and the Middle East and Asia, but also among European countries. As railways and highways were built in continental Europe, the sea lost some of its influence, and with it, Great Britain, the master of this sea since the late 18th century, lost some of its leverage over France and Germany. But the Mediterranean continues to be a valuable waterway with 15 percent of global shipping activity (10 percent by ship deadweight tons, according to 2013 data). It is also a growing source of energy as large gas deposits are being discovered (with accompanying tensions among states, such as Greece and Turkey that have competing claims).
The second important feature of the Mediterranean was that it was a security frontier for Europe. Ancient Rome discovered quickly that its security could not be found in southern Italy or even Sicily, but had to be established on the North African shores leading to two Punic wars (three, if one counts the final destruction of Carthage). The situation has not changed. Europe is not secure if the Mediterranean sea is a highway of threats sailing northward. The instability of the Middle East and North Africa of the past decade has demonstrated that European security is not on the European coastline of the Mediterranean but on its southern shores.
Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean, however limited, adds another driver of instability to the region, complicating further the geostrategic calculus of an already weakened and contentious Europe. The Russian naval presence in Tartus, therefore, is a means for Moscow to exert leverage over Europe. It can promise to help to stabilize the Mediterranean while at the same time threatening to create even greater volatility. In other words, Russia can present itself as both the problem and the solution, in either case elevating its influence over European powers.
There is, therefore, a serious strategic rationale for Russia’s involvement in Syria and, more specifically, for the recent announcement of a sizeable financial investment in the port of Tartus. It is not just the whim of Putin as an unpredictable autocrat seeking personal glory or stubbornly protecting Assad, a fellow Middle Eastern dictator. Moscow has grander goals that are not new and are rooted in a clear understanding of the nature and the value of the Mediterranean. To be a European great power, Russia needs to be a player in the Mediterranean—and it is gradually but steadily becoming one.