Vladimir Putin’s Russia has moved to clamp down on Ukraine in advance of the laughably rigged “referendum” scheduled for 16 March, when Crimeans will vote on which way to secede from Ukraine: either as an “independent” state or through annexation by Russia. Crimeans who want to remain part of Ukraine are out of luck.
The battle for Crimea may be preordained; the battle for Ukraine underway. There are also indications of a larger battle shaping up in the region, as the aircraft carriers of Russia and the United States perform an elaborate minuet in the Eastern Mediterranean. If you weren’t convinced that the Russian move on Ukraine would rapidly destabilize the region, consider what has been going on in the last week west of Cyprus.
Skullduggery afloat and aloft in EastMed
It’s not clear how far back the series of (seemingly minor) provocations goes. But the first one appears to have been recorded on or shortly before 8 March, when aircraft from Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov were operating in the Athens “flight information region” (FIR) west of Cyprus. FIRs are geographic sectors designated for civil aviation within which a central authority manages flight information for mutual safety and deconfliction. See the map for a depiction of the Athens FIR and the adjacent Nicosia (Cyprus) FIR to the east of it.
The aircraft from Admiral Kuznetsov reportedly flew as far north as the Greek island of Kastellorizo, about a mile off the southern coast of Turkey. As depicted in a defencenet.gr graphic (below), the aircraft also flew further south, along the line dividing Greece’s economic exclusion zone (EEZ) from Egypt’s. The flight path, with its outline shown in red on the graphic, was interpreted as representing Russian endorsement of a “maximum” EEZ claim for Greece, up to and including a dividing line less than 1,000 yards off the Turkish coast; i.e., between Kastellorizo and Turkey. This would naturally be unacceptable to Turkey.
The defencenet.gr summary quotes a Russian official making a vague but pointed statement that “Greece has certain rights in the region and islands that constitute these rights.” (It’s not clear the date on which this statement was made.)
Turkish and Greek EEZ claims have been disputed for years. Turkey’s dispute with Cyprus, over EEZ boundaries as well as the status of “Northern Cyprus,” has heated up in the last three years with the exploitation of oil and gas reserves off Cyprus’s coast. (See here and here for more.) Russia and Greece have been renewing their traditional maritime ties (previous links and here), a process that has involved Admiral Kuznetsov demonstrating “solidarity” in previous years’ operations. There are no indications that Russian aircraft have ever before flown as close to Turkey as Kastellorizo, however. In the meantime, there has been a steady stream of reporting in recent months that Russia will get the use of bases for ships and aircraft in Cyprus. According to local sources, Admiral Kuznetsov has made at least one port visit in Limassol, Cyprus in the last couple of weeks.
All of this ratchets up the level of tension in the Eastern Mediterranean. As to whether the Russians would involve themselves in backing up Greek maritime claims, the answer would have to be, of course. They did just that in a much farther-flung venue in August 2013, off Nicaragua. They appear, if the Greek reporting is correct, to have no reluctance to do the same thing closer to home. We can legitimately wonder what Russia will need to be deterred from next, and whether deterrence will be possible.
The report of the Admiral Kuznetsov operations puts in perspective reporting from a few days later about other warship deployments in the area. One on 11 March concerned the deployment of a Turkish frigate, Gokceada, and (reportedly) two submarines, to protect a survey ship, Barbaros Hayrettin Pasa, conducting operations in Cyprus’s claimed EEZ. (Links below.) That deployment mirrors a number of others since the dueling undersea exploration programs began off Cyprus nearly four years ago, and is perhaps of less note.
Dueling flight ops
But USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) is also playing a role in this saga. Between her departure from a port visit in Greece and her arrival in Turkey on 9 March for her port visit in Antalya, Bush conducted flight ops in the Eastern Med. According to Greek sources (see here, here, and a version in mangled English here as well), the area her planes flew in overlapped the Athens FIR and the Nicosia FIR, and covered an area for which a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) had previously been issued for flight ops by the Admiral Kuznetsov’s air wing.
The U.S. effectively ignored the NOTAM issued for the Russian carrier’s aircraft, which could be considered a tacit poke in the eye. But the Greek sources report that the U.S. aircraft also flew in the Nicosia FIR without the issuing of a NOTAM warning of their operations. According to the Greek reports, the Athens FIR did issue a NOTAM about the U.S. air wing’s flight ops, but the Nicosia FIR did not.
It’s not fully clear what politics are at play in this situation. But it is definitely unusual. (Pure speculation on the Nicosia FIR and the mystery of the missing NOTAM: little Cyprus is walking a tightrope between the U.S. and Russia, the latter being her emerging patron and the strong horse of the moment. The Cypriots didn’t issue a NOTAM because that would leave a paper trail of evidence that they were notified of the U.S. flight ops. Moscow knows they were, of course, but declining to issue a NOTAM might at least suggest a passively uncooperative profile. Stomachs have got to be churning in Nicosia.)
Russia on the move?
If Russia starts pressing Greek and/or Cypriot claims in the Eastern Med, there are few positive outcomes to hope for. The U.S. can hardly take sides between Greece and Turkey, nor does the EU want to be forced to. The beauty of NATO has been that they are both our allies, and for the most part, their ongoing disputes have simmered at a low level, subordinated to the logic of regional stability in the larger alliance.
But Russia will certainly take sides, and she will use her leverage to extort and “encourage” both parties to the conflict. Leverage over Turkey is a significant arrow in Moscow’s quiver. A hardening of Russia’s profile is virtually guaranteed to polarize Greece and Turkey, and encourage more extreme geopolitical postures from both, rather than reconciling their concerns.
It is a very bad sign that Russia appears to be willing to make this move so soon after moving on Ukraine. It indicates a comprehensive vision that looks much further down the road than Western Europe or the U.S. is seeing at the moment. Projecting dominant influence into the Aegean and Eastern Med is the obvious next step for an ambitious Russian policy – creative minds in Russia have imagined it for at least three centuries now – but it was by no means obvious a month ago that Putin was ready to execute it.
He can be stopped at this point, in my judgment, if there is serious pushback. Probing until she is stopped has been the most typical of Russian geopolitical patterns. The question is what it will take, at this point. The West is looking disorganized and unprepared, and Turkey’s national situation is far from cheerful, with widespread internal dissent against the Erdogan regime, and the particularly unfortunate circumstance of being caught between Russia and a war-torn Syria.
USS George H.W. Bush got underway from Turkey on 12 March, reportedly (again, according to local Greek sources) to resume her flight operations west of Cyprus. (Bush is operating with other ships, some of which are from her carrier strike group. Other NATO ships are probably in company with her during her underway periods.) The implication of the Greek reports is that Bush’s ops will put her aircraft in the Admiral Kuznetsov’s NOTAM area again. The public may never get a full accounting of this arcane drama, but if Bush is NATO’s pushback against a quiet Russian geopolitical offensive, reports that she will stay longer in the Mediterranean, rather than proceeding directly to the CENTCOM region, are likely to be true.
The question is whether this level of pushback will be enough. My own sense is that the U.S. and Western Europe will need to be much more politically engaged and forward-leaning, if we want to put oomph behind relatively minor tactical moves with NATO warships. Deterrence won’t last, if Russia can just wait and try again. Putin’s seriousness isn’t limited to Ukraine and Crimea. He’s not just reacting to the Maidan eruption; he’s acting according to a plan to rearrange the status quo. It would be too much to say that he engineered this moment, but clearly, he is determined to take maximum advantage of it. Those who sense that our world has changed out from under us in the last few weeks are right.