Russia’s defense minister said October 12 that Moscow is dispatching its flagship aircraft carrier to bolster its forces in the eastern Mediterranean off Syria. The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier would be sent to join Russia’s current naval deployment there, Minister Sergei Shoigu said during a televised meeting.
“Currently the Russian naval deployment to the east Mediterranean consists of no less than six battleships and three or four support vessels. In order to bolster the military capabilities of the group we plan to add the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to the group,” Shoigu said, without specifying a timeframe”, he said.
Moscow continues to ramp up its military footprint in and around Syria. Three missile corvettes from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet left their base in Sevastopol days before and will join other Russian warships in the Mediterranean off the Syrian coast. All three ships — The Serpukhov, The Zelyony Dol, and The Mirazh, are equipped with Kalibr and Malakhit cruise missiles. Furthermore, Russian troops participated in a symbolic joint military exercise in Sinai with Egypt’s army.
Parallel to Russia’s move, Iran sent several naval ships to the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes, “to protect trade vessels from piracy,” Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported October 12. Furthermore, Iran deployed two warships off Yemen threatening to further escalate tensions after the U.S. fired Tomahawk cruise missiles destroying three coastal radar sites in Houthi-controlled territory. Iran is funding Yemen’s Shia rebels, who have also waged a series of attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Let us examine Putin’s recent steps in the Middle East and try to connect the dots. In addition to deploying more naval vessels off Syrian coast, we will see two significant developments: 1- Signing a deal with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to construct the “Turkish Stream”. 2 – Joint military exercise in Egypt’s Sinai with rising speculations about Moscow’s desire to establish a military facility on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast (denied officially by Egypt’s authorities).
The Turkish Stream deal is indeed significant if measured in strategic terms. The project fits well within the framework of Moscow’s strategic plan for the Middle East. It binds Turkey to Moscow. It establishes the foundation of a future Iranian-Turkish rapprochement by luring Iran to expand its energy exports west under the auspices of Russia. It will lead to a strategic shift in the East Mediterranean alliances. And it guarantees that Iraq’s exports (at least those of the Kurdish region) will be integrated in a network supervised by Moscow.
Indeed, the essential driver of the next phase of the implementation of Russia’s regional strategy will be energy. Ironically, this was the initial mover of the US regional strategy at one point in the past. But “times are a’changing”.
Obviously, President Putin is trying, through Turkish Stream, to put obstacles on the road of expanding Europe’s Southern Gas Corridor. This Corridor is composed of TANAP (Trans Anatolian Pipeline), the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (starting in Greece and going under the Adriatic waters to Albania, then to Italy), and the South Caucasus Pipeline (from Azerbaijan to Georgia then to Turkey). This will require Russian intensive pressure on Baku.
The West’s strategy to reduce Russia’s leverage west of its borders is now thinned to working hard to quickly expand Europe’s Southern Corridor. The Turkish Stream gives this one single egg-in-the basket an additional importance. It also intensifies Russia’s pressures on Azerbaijan.
Another obstacle facing Moscow’s plans is the “Ukraine sanctions” which complicate Russia’s transports to the EU. It is expected now that the Turkish Stream, if it indeed goes ahead, will be reduced in size in its first phase to transport what is needed only by Turkey. But the line will be expandable in the future. Furthermore, the EU sanctions pressure Gazprom to reduce prices to fit the conditions of Ankara.
The name of the game in the Kremlin is to place Russia in a leading position in the future natural gas pipelines network going west through Turkey. This will necessitate a presence in the East Mediterranean, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. From what we see on the ground now, President Putin’s progresses fast towards accumulating effective leverage to achieve that objective.
In the case of Iraq, it is only natural that the KRG exports its gas to Turkey. In the case of Iran, any breakthrough in Russia’s future exports to the EU will lead to an expansion of Iranian exports via Turkey. This will pave the road for more active Russian role in the rehabilitation and development of Iran’s energy infrastructure. Russia has the strategic appeal and the leverage in the eyes of Tehran to be invited in.
Moreover, the energy “square” composed of Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece is opened to strategic understandings with Moscow. Egypt will not play an active role in this strategic game plan yet as it is engaged in an uphill fight to rebuild its economy, but at one point down the road Cairo will have its say in the progress of the East Mediterranean energy strategies.
For the time being, Turkey seems the natural market for Leviathan gas of the East Mediterranean. With Russian forces on the shores of Syria, Moscow will certainly throw its shadows on any energy game plans in that region.
What we see is actually a clear Russian strategy in implementation. The areas of focus are also proposed by the dynamics of this phase. Those areas are: Azerbaijan, the EU, Iran and the East Mediterranean. Putin has some significant in-roads in all those spots.
Those dynamics propose as well Putin’s next step. It is now expected that Moscow will use the leverage it accumulated in the Middle East in a force-multiplier spectacle that may start in 2017. Talks between the Arabs and Iran will be scheduled once the situation in Syria settles in a semi-sustainable condition. Turkey will be enlisted as a facilitator of talks. The essential objective will be a Middle East Pax-Russiana.
This “Pax-Russiana” will give Moscow’s regional energy strategy a tremendous push. In the case of the US, Washington’s next administration will find itself in a defensive trench, satisfied with the role of the spoiler, at best. In other words, with Putin-Erdogan recent breakthrough, Iran’s expanding naval presence in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, Assad’s progress on the ground in Syria and the enhancement of Russia’s regional posture; we may be seeing a totally new page in the great game for the Middle East.