Putin and the Race to the Sea?

We hear a lot about Putin’s “long game”, particularly since it was revealed that the Russians hacked the US presidential election. There are those who saw something coming with Putin’s ascent to power, but something certainly shifted in the last couple of years-

1. Russia reasserted its control and military base in Crimea (Ukraine) in 2014.

2. Significantly, Russia began its first joint military training exercise with Egypt. A second training exercise in October 2016 led to Russian-spread rumors they were negotiating for a military base (a claim Egypt has denied) along the Mediterranean Egyptian border with Libya.

3. Then, after vetoing two UN-proposed ceasefires in Syrian, Russia began direct military involvement in Syria beginning in September 2015.

Interestingly, Russia has used a mixed arsenal of weapons in what has been correctly termed a multi-vector, non-linear war.

· Military: Formal military exercises with Egypt are concerning, particularly as US and Egyptian relations are strained.

· Paramilitary: The “annexation” of Crimea was conducted with “little green men”, non-regular uniformed troops that Putin only later admitted to being under his command.

· Diplomatic: Russia has also exercised its diplomatic power via veto in the UN, undermining international efforts towards peace, and in partnering with Erdogan in Turkey and Assad in Syria, including the use of its air force.

· Cyber and Psy-Ops: The hacking of the US DNC and sharp increase in cyber personnel in Russia points to the cyber stage, and in the use of advanced data analytics by a private corporation, which presumably helped President Trump win the American election. This ability should not be underestimated, as it will be a key weapon in winning (or seriously stratifying) the battle for public opinion.

· Nuclear Deterrence: And of course, possession of nuclear weapons is a perennial deterrent. In short, Putin is using every tool available to him.

The one we’ve potentially overlooked however is sea power. Since WWII, naval power has largely been a thing of the past- indeed only two major battles have taken place in the sea since 1945. Common belief suggests unequivocally that navies are primarily useful as air carriers and marine transporters only. If asked, “will there ever be another major naval battle?”, I think most people would just be baffled by the question, particularly in a world focused on the “war on terrorism”, which thus far has absolutely nothing to do with a navy.

Ostensibly, the proxy war in Syria, and the rhetoric used by Russia, was to combat ISIL/Da’esh. It bears repeating though because there are almost 100 players in that proxy war, and it seems to have become more of a dictators club (Assad-Putin-Erdogan) where no one is clear what the objective really is.

Consider next the battle between Haftar and Sarraj for control Tripoli. Under the Government of National Accord (GNA), brokered by the UN and agreed to by Libyan factions in December 2015, Sarraj, who is supported by the militias who liberated Sirte from ISIL, is set to become the head of the legitimate parliament. Except Haftar is posing significant resistance. Haftar’s allies are the UAE, Egypt and Russia. Not only is Russia undermining the UN again, in January 2017 it was announced that Russia would be building two military bases in Tobruk and Benghazi- yes, Benghazi, Libya.

If you’re still with me, what this means, when mapped (above), is that it’s starting to look an awful lot like Russia is seeking military control of the Mediterranean. Russia gained a warm water port in Syria with its aid to Assad. When the Egyptian military base didn’t work out, Russia moved slightly east into Libya, which post-Benghazi and in absence of the GNA, is ripe for the picking. In the Mediterranean, the major oil ports are through the Turkish Straights and the Suez Canal. If trade could be disrupted in the Mediterranean, the oil producers could easily be pushed from the “Middle East” into the East. Not only would navies and ports then rise to the radar again, it would mean crippling economic warfare on the US and Western Europe. The battles wouldn’t have to be in the sea anymore, but the ports, and the cost of air strikes on oil ports would be environmentally and economically disastrous.

I’ll be working more on this in the coming weeks, but I think it at least solidly suggests we have to change our way of thinking. Nothing is off the table in a multi-vector non-linear war. And we’re eroding the hard and soft power of the UN and NATO at the worst possible time in history. This is not the time for nationalism.