In late June, Russia said its air force fired warning shots and dropped bombs in the path of the British destroyer HMS Defender that was cruising close to Crimea in the Black Sea. Officials in London said it didn’t really happen, but no matter.
Ever ready with the macho rejoinder, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the British NATO ship strayed into the waters again and the Russian navy sank it, the Western alliance wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. “It put the world on the brink of World War III,” he said. “They can’t emerge as winners in that war.”
Looking at the event in isolation, we can see that Putin seemed upset that a NATO naval vessel was operating near territory he had wrested from Ukraine in 2014 – a display that likely stoked his fear that Russia’s Slavic neighbor will join the Atlantic alliance someday.
And NATO had sent a message to Moscow that although Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine is still sovereign and can cozy up to NATO if it wants and that Russia doesn’t own the Black Sea.
The militarized message-sending spat highlights a naval chess game underway between Russia and NATO. After a post-Cold War absence, Russia has returned in force to the waters off Europe’s southeastern flank and wants everyone to know it.
The thrust has created NATO strategic concerns over what, for 40 years, had been a Western-dominated lake.
Plus, Russia has a contemporary sidekick in a full-bore attempt to show its military importance: China, which itself is expanding commercial interests in the Meditteranean – and maybe military ones, too.
China provides a soft-power accompaniment to Russia’s projection of hard military power. As an offshoot of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s global Belt and Road program of loans and infrastructure investment, Chinese companies have taken stakes in or become managers of ports in Spain, France, Turkey, Malta and Egypt.
COSCO, the giant Chinese shipping firm, controls a majority of shares in Piraeus, the iconic Greek harbor made romantically famous in the 1960 film Never on Sunday.
The Belt and Road carrot has – along with the enticements of the vast Chinese market – been effective in creating divisions in the Western alliance. During the recent G-7 meeting of industrialized democracies, both Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi contested US President Joe Biden’s bid to categorize China as a security threat.
China’s Europe-side Mediterranean port deals mostly involve heavily indebted countries – Italy, Spain and Greece – that need infrastructure financing from any source willing to provide it.
Greece’s ambassador to NATO, Spiros Lambridis, dismissed suggestions that his country should rethink its development ties to China. “We strategically opt for the best possibilities for our own country – again always within our obligation” toward the EU and NATO, he said.
“We have joined the Belt and Road initiative in a very concrete project and in a very concrete term, not looking at that as a strategic relationship with another partner, but certainly we are not going to abandon it.”
Apparently, under pressure from the US at the G-7 summit, Italy’s Draghi said he was “re-examining” a Belt and Road accord made under a previous government. It would have included Chinese participation in renovating and taking a share of two Italian ports, Genoa and Trieste.
The same day as the G-7 conclave took place, China tried to undermine Draghi’s decision by inviting one of his coalition partners, populist Beppe Grillo, who supports Italian participation in the Belt and Road, for lunch.
On the military side, China established a naval base in Djibouti, a gateway to the Mediterranean at the entrance to the Red Sea, in 2017. And the Chinese navy has held several joint naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean.
But back to Russia. The decades after World War II represented a heyday for Moscow’s power and influence in the Mediterranean. The Soviet Union’s Fifth Operational Fleet, known as the Eskadra, based itself at Tartus on Syria’s coast and roamed the sea.
The Soviets possessed off-and-on client friendships with Algeria, Syria and, most prominently, Egypt. Except for Syria, those countries eventually broke with Moscow.
The Soviet fleet was deactivated in 1992, but Putin returned it to Tartus in 2013. By then, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was teetering in the face of a vicious civil war. But that summer, then-president Barack Obama and subsequently the US Congress declined to authorize the bombing of Syrian forces that used nerve gas on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.
American involvement shrank further under President Donald Trump. Russia filled the vacuum. In 2015, Russia began aerial bombing in support of Assad. The Mediterranean fleet used the Tartus to supply Syrian forces in the interior while ships at sea provided some air cover for ground operations. Russian jets used the nearby Hmeimim airfield for bombing sorties.
Along with allied Iranian ground forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, the intervention helped turn the war in Assad’s favor. Russia is now permanently back, not only at Tartus but set up in Hmeimim.
So, the recent feints at sea exemplify potentially hostile competition. NATO’s two-ship visit off Crimea took place in advance of a drill, called Sea Breeze, going on in the Black Sea, involving some 40 NATO ships along with Ukrainian vessels.
Sea Breeze, in turn, is an offshoot of a large NATO exercise in the eastern Atlantic and into the Mediterranean called Steadfast Defender, with Russia as the imagined antagonist.
In response, Russia organized a counter-performance off Syria to show it was “mastering the air space in the maritime zone,” according to Moscow’s Defense Ministry.
Russian Tu-22M bombers and MiG-31K fighters armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles made a mock attack on the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was leading the Steadfast Defender fleet through the Mediterranean.
The Russians boast that the Kinzhal flies at 10 times the speed of sound. Su-35 and Su-34 fighters also flew cover duty over other NATO ships.
Over in the Black Sea, Russian planes buzzed the HMS Defender along with the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen, which carries helicopters. Up to 20 Su-24s and Su-30s further taunted the Evertsen, flew as close as 100 meters from the ship and tried to jam its sensors.
In a token response, one stealth F-35 jet took off from the Queen Elizabeth and flew close around Russian ships at sea. A Russian seaman posted an online video of the stealth jet as it circled one of the fleet’s frigates.
For now, the unnerving sea dance has come to a close, even as Sea Breeze gets underway. At the least, Russia hopes it showed that its navy is a force to be reckoned with. NATO, for its part, put Russia on notice that the alliance can flex massive naval muscle at will.
The significance for everyone else, if not yet evident, is that a new Cold War is underway.
The next demonstrative episode will take place far to the east: HMS Queen Elizabeth is to lead a flotilla of six British ships, one Royal Navy submarine, a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate (the Evertsen again) across the Indian Ocean to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean.
The passage is meant to display allied resolve to deter the growing naval power of China in other, now-contested seas.
Journalist Daniel Williams is a former staff foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. He is now based in Rome.