Suddenly, even Vladimir Putin looks more attractive. He looks, at least, like he actually intends to fight radical Islamism – in some of its varieties anyway. In theory, he has some pull with Iran. He can exert a certain level of “check” on the Syria crisis. His relatively well armed nation sits on the other side of Erdogan’s wild-card Turkey, which keeps bouncing from China to Iran to NATO and back again. He’s not “Europe” – not really – but “Europe” acknowledges that he has to be given a place at the table.
Maybe he doesn’t look attractive, exactly; maybe the word is interesting. Whatever it is, it’s showing up in real forms now, in regional nations’ decisions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Last week came the flurry of reports that Putin would visit Egypt in November and announce a major arms sale, which will inevitably serve as something of a counter-smack to the U.S. decision to halt arms deliveries to Egypt a few weeks ago.
The newer news is from Monday, 11 November, when Russia’s Slava-class missile cruiser Varyag pulled into Alexandria for the Russian navy’s first port visit in Egypt since 1992. Pundits of varying quality have rushed to speculate that Moscow will soon have the use of Egyptian ports as bases in the region. I doubt that; Egypt is too anxious to retain her stature and independence of action – properly so – and doesn’t “need” to accord Russia such privileges to keep useful ties going between the two of them.
In the current, comparative disarray of some Arab governments in the region, Egypt’s actually looks solid and moderate, and has the overt support of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as the tacit support of Israel – all of which are well armed, well connected regional powers with common interests in a status quo. The situation over which Al-Sisi presides is different from that of the Nasser regime in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was so eager for the great-power patronage of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Russia, for her part, is unlikely to press this issue. Between Syria, Greece, Cyprus, Montenegro, and Malta, the Russian navy has a lot of options now for making temporary landfalls for logistics. Moscow wouldn’t necessarily even save money by concluding more literal “basing” agreements in the Mediterranean.
But I’m sure we can expect to see the Russian navy welcomed in Egyptian ports. This makes a noteworthy, and regrettable, contrast with the U.S. Navy, which has been scarce in Egyptian ports in recent years – in spite of our two nations’ close relationship – largely because of the threat of terrorism.
Egypt, meanwhile, isn’t the only nation to roll out the welcome mat for the Russian navy in the past year. In May, the Russian amphibious ship Azov arrived in Haifa for the first port visit ever by a Russian navy ship to Israel. Russia and Israel have of course found some common ground in their opposition to radical Islamism, and the Netanyahu government has had a robust program of diplomatic outreach to Russia since it took over in the spring of 2009. After Putin visited Jerusalem in June 2012 to pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, a naval port visit could hardly have been far behind.
Russian warships also visited Lebanon in March 2013, an exceedingly rare occurrence. According to Russia’s defense ministry, the visit involved a frigate and two amphibious ships, and signified no intention on Moscow’s part to establish any permanent basing arrangement.
Cyprus hosted multiple visits by Russian warships in 2013, fueling the usual speculation that Moscow is negotiating for basing rights on the island. (See here for more on Russia’s strategic approach to Cyprus.) It has become routine in the last few years for Russian navy ships to visit ports in Greece and Malta. Russian officials announced earlier this year that the navy’s newly constituted (or, in effect, reconstituted) Mediterranean squadron would use a port in Montenegro as well, referring to the port of Tivat (which for many years during the Cold War was a Yugoslav navy base, used as a Mediterranean base by the Soviet navy). A September 2013 press release on the upcoming activities of amphibious landing ship Yamal indicated the ship would visit Greece and Montenegro this fall.
Other things do change, of course. In 2008, the Russian naval task force on the way to Latin America to visit Cuba and Venezuela stopped in Libya to tag Moscow’s good buddy Muammar al-Qadhafi, but there was certainly none of that going on in conjunction with this year’s Russian circuit to Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Russia continues a longstanding patron-client relationship with Algeria, selling and refurbishing military equipment for the Algerian forces, but isn’t visiting Algerian ports these days. The Algerian navy did, on the other hand, conduct its first-ever port visit in the United States in July of 2012.
Speaking of the United States, our aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz (CVN-68), left the Mediterranean on Friday, heading through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea and toward a return to her home port in the state of Washington. USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) is in Southwest Asia (CENTCOM). The USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) Amphibious Ready Group and 26 Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) returned to the East coast last week. The USS Boxer (LHD-4) ARG and 13 MEU out of San Diego relieved Kearsarge ARG/26 MEU in the Middle East in October.
In other maritime matters, for those following the saga of “ghost ship” ex-Lyubov Orlova, the one-time Russian cruise liner hauled off for scrap in late January and missing in the North Atlantic since February 2013, LU regrets to report that there is no new news in recent weeks. This hasn’t stopped the Irish media from speculating wildly about what could happen if Lyubov Orlova comes surging out of the fog off the Emerald Isle’s west coast. There is, of course, a website dedicated to the hunt for Lyubov Orlova, if any of our indefatigable readers do gain new information on her whereabouts. We’re not aware of a bounty being offered, however.