Russian Naval Presence in Eastern Mediterranean
NATO’s chief spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, announced on August 29 that at least eight ships, including a missile cruiser and two missile-carrying submarines, have joined the Russian flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea over the past three weeks. The United States (U.S.) heads of the 2nd and 6th Fleets met on August 30 to discuss the Russian navy’s advancement in the region. The admirals’ meeting coincided with a Russian defense ministry announcement that it will commence military exercises in the eastern Mediterranean involving at least 25 warships and 30 aircraft. It has been dubbed “Moscow’s biggest such deployment since the end of the Cold War.” This movement follows the Kremlin’s claim that the U.S. was planning a new round of attacks against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime.
It is unclear how many of the Russian naval assets in the Mediterranean will participate in the drill and return home, and how many are there to support a regime offensive in Idlib. As of now, the exercise will end on September 8, when Iranian, Russian, and Turkish leaders meet in Tehran to discuss military strategy in Syria. Because of this meeting, it is unlikely that an Idlib offensive will be seen in the upcoming days. However, this meeting is cause for the Pentagon’s growing concern in the region. Due to the rise in Russian and Turkish partnership, Washington has suggested it might make permanent cuts to its military presence in Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, a strategic point for U.S. military incursions against the Islamic State in Syria.
What denotes Russia’s naval movement as unique is that it comes at a time when the Syrian government’s forces are rearing their heads toward the only province in Syria that remains in rebel hands—Idlib. The Syrian military is currently supported by the Russian air force, which is now joined by the buildup of Russian naval forces. The drills will pull together ships from Russia’s Northern, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets; they will include Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers, fighters, and anti-submarine maritime patrol planes.
The U.S. has responded that it will react “very strongly” if the regime chooses to use chemical weapons in Idlib—a fear that this sea buildup is coming ahead of an expected Syrian regime assault on the province. However, this would not be the first time that Russia has claimed that the rebels are planning to stage a “false-flag” chemical attack in order to draw the U.S. out to battle against the regime.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stood next to his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem as he warned Western powers of interfering in any operations in Idlib. “We have facts on the table and have issued a strong warning to our Western partners through our defense ministry and our foreign ministry not to play with fire.”
Amid this, the U.S. continues to seek out various avenues to strengthen its military presence to counter Russian aggression. The U.S. released a recent response to the increase of Russian naval presence on September 5. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford said that they were looking to further expand its military presence in Greece, including increasing access for U.S. aircraft, ships, and joint exercises.