NATO is the most formidable military alliance in the world, capable of deploying and sustaining forces anywhere around the globe—an unprecedented degree of power projection. However, analyzing the contemporary geopolitical situation in the eastern Mediterranean shows that NATO is only one of the key players. Russia has strategically acquired the lion’s share of political and military influence in Syria and Libya, while also gradually empowering a potential rift in the alliance, enticing Turkey to change its course and drift away from the West. This fact is in stark contrast with basic NATO principles and goals, as dominance in the Mediterranean is critically vital to Europe’s stability and prosperity. In July 2020,French President Emmanuel Macron made this point unequivocally during a speech calling for a strong and unified Europe in the Mediterranean, declaring that “we must not accept that our future will be built by other powers.”
Confronting the challenges facing NATO in the Mediterranean region first requires an understanding of the reasons the alliance finds itself in this situation. Exploring those reasons will help identify potential solutions and improve prospects for the alliance. The objective must be to deny the emergence of an irreversible new status quo that will critically affect the security of NATO’s southern flank.
NATO and Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean
Verba volant, scripta manent, the ancient Romans believed—spoken words fly away, written words remain. If we look at the scripta of NATO’s official website, we find this as the alliance’s original reason for being:
The North Atlantic Alliance was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its purpose was to secure peace in Europe, to promote cooperation among its members and to guard their freedom—all of this in the context of countering the threat posed at the time by the Soviet Union.
NATO fulfilled this mission until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the socialist republics in Eastern Europe. For a while it seemed that NATO had lost its raison d’etre, but it quickly adjusted to the post–Cold War world. Specific events like the wars that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the resurgence of Russia, and the US-led post-9/11 wars focused that reorientation.
NATO includes two members, Great Britain and France, with centuries of history as preeminent sea powers and one member, the United States, that came into its own as a sea power during World War II. These remain today the dominant sea powers in the alliance. Through superiority at sea, NATO thwarted any efforts of land-based powers like the Soviet Union to become sea powers capable of challenging the alliance in the maritime domain. George Liska, in his book Quest for Equilibrium: America and the Balance of Power on Land and Sea, puts forth a view of the United States during the Cold War as an insular, sea-based power searching for the means to balance the rise of the land-based Soviet Union. In today’s environment we could add Turkey, a NATO member, to the land-based powers attempting to become sea powers. This attempt, however, must be carefully managed and, to the extent possible, influenced by the United States through and within NATO to ensure not only that it strengthens NATO’s southeastern flank but also that it deters Russian efforts to project military capability in the Mediterranean—efforts now taking place entirely from the Russian naval base in Tartus, Syria. Encouraging Turkish maritime aspirations to align fully with NATO interests means that the alliance also brings into consideration the Greek-Turkish nexus—both its complexity and its potential to affect NATO’s cohesion and capability. Turkey and Greece joined the alliance in 1952 under the same protocol to the North Atlantic Treaty. This was an obvious symbolic strategic decision aiming to safeguard NATO’s southeastern flank. The fact that currently there are reasonable concerns about stability in the region is also clear proof that it warrants sustained attention from the alliance.
Russia’s Motives and Strategy in the Region
The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor state of modern Turkey, was at the height of its power in 1683, when defeat in the Battle of Vienna changed the tide and it began its long decline. By the late eighteenth century, European powers had begun to contend with the Eastern Question—the issue of how that decline would affect the rest of Europe. Russia initiated efforts to take advantage of the situation to extend its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean—the “Greek Plan” of Catherine the Great. The failure of this project said as much about the complexity of the Eastern Question as anything else. Karl Vasilyevich, Count Nesselrode, the Russian foreign minister, described this complexity in 1829. “The more one thinks about the immense question of the fall of the Turkish Empire,” he wrote, “the more one plunges into a labyrinth of difficulty and complications.” Failure of the Greek Plan aside, Russia has a long history of understanding the complexity of southeastern Europe’s geopolitics and seeking to leverage it for Russian strategic advantage. We are witnessing the same approach from Moscow today.
Russia has a specific strategic vision for this area, which seeks to expand and maintain Moscow’s sphere of influence. This contrasts with NATO, which focuses on tactics rather than setting and following a stable strategy. If Sun Tzu could come back to life, he would see this situation as a paradigm of one of his famous dictums: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Russian strategy in the region involves deploying covert means, information warfare, and mercenaries, which combine to give Moscow the advantage of deniability. In a contemporary strategic environment where, as Sean McFate describes, deniability will prove more effective than firepower, Russia’s approach is increasingly likely to show positive results.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has also showed itself to be a strategic opportunist. An opportunist needs two simple things: the existence of the opportunity itself and the space to take it. NATO has offered this space by its absence at the strategic level. Russia saw the gap and, by deploying effective tools short of firepower, rushed to fill it.
How could we predict Russia’s motives in order to prevent a slow defeat in the eastern Mediterranean? After all, as Winston Churchill once said, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But, as he continued, the “key” is to identify “Russian national interest.” To do that, an early twentieth century theory of Sir Halford John Mackinder is useful. He described a “geographical pivot in history,” and depicted his theory by identifying the core of the Eurasian landmass as the “Heartland” and the rest of Eurasia and the Mediterranean littoral as the “Rimland.” Together, these composed what he called the “World-Island.” He concluded that “who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the World.” Today it appears that Russia sees the eastern Mediterranean in the role that Mackinder placed “East Europe” in his theory.
Moreover, Moscow has adopted the Byzantine and British Empires’ divide-and-conquer approach in the region. Russia has already succeeded to some degree in manipulating Turkey, which was supposed to be the strong and reliable barrier on NATO’s southeastern flank. Russia has also consolidated its presence in the vital areas of Syria and Libya. NATO’s search for a viable and stable solution to these moves by Russia should lead to two imperatives: taking advantage of the strategically important location of the island of Crete, and enhanced integration between the alliance and the European Union.
The Strategic Role of Crete
Crete has been considered a strategic island since the Middle Ages. Venetians and Ottomans paid particular attention to it, with both ruling it for periods of time. In modern times nothing better illustrates Crete’s strategic importance than the German decision to capture the island during World War II. The Germans wanted to prevent the British from using it as a launching pad for air raids against North Africa and the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
Shortly after World War II, the Naval Support Activity Souda Bay (NSA Souda Bay) base was founded—around the time that Greece joined NATO. The base played a crucial role in securing NATO’s southern flank during the Cold War. NATO’s permanent presence was a security assurance for both Greece and Turkey and a deterrent to the Soviet naval presence in Syria. NSA Souda Bay contributed significantly to George F. Kennan’s strategy of containment. It is worth mentioning that Greek governments since 1952 have committed to keeping the base in Crete. Even the socialists under Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s, despite their anti-NATO rhetoric, renewed the agreement with the United States. Greek foreign policy has also long considered NATO’s presence in Crete as a deterrent to Turkish escalation in the Aegean, especially after Turkey’s invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974.
Despite tensions between Greece and Turkey, the generally Western orientation of the Kemalist state ensured a sometimes minimal, but important, level of communication between the two NATO allies. Things started to slowly change, though, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power—a change that accelerated following the 2016 failed coup against Erdogan. Shortly after the coup attempt, in an unprecedented move, Turkey cut off power to Incirlik Air Base, and two years later sought to arrest several US military personnel who, the Turkish government contended, have ties to a US-based Turkish religious figure and opponent of Erdogan. In late 2019, Turkey even threatened to close the base. In response to these events, together with increasing anti-American rhetoric, the United States explored moving military assets from Incirlik to NSA Souda Bay.
The most public sign of a growing schism, however, came when Turkey struck a deal with Russia to purchase the S-400 air-defense system, an unprecedented anti-alliance move. Erdogan’s government justified the purchase on the grounds that Greece possesses the S-300 air defense system—although this avoids the reason Greece has that system in the first place. Athens never purchased it, but rather volunteered to host S-300s purchased by Cyprus, which Turkey threatened to strike if deployed on the island in 1998. In the latest move in this episode, just last month Erdogan expressed his government’s intention to purchase another Russian air defense system in an interview to CBS.
Amid these tensions between Turkey and NATO and Russia’s strategic approach to the eastern Mediterranean, Crete’s strategic location becomes immediately apparent. The September 2020 decision to utilize NSA Souda Bay as the permanent berthing place for the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams is evidence that US foreign policy recognizes this fact.
NSA Souda Bay can be utilized as the main base for US naval forces in the region, already providing a great variety of facilities to NATO ships. The base is capable of providing logistical support and can serve the needs of an aircraft carrier, and is home to the NATO Fleet Operational Readiness Accuracy Check Site (to check weapons and sensors) and the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Centre. The NATO Missile Firing Installation sits just north of Souda Bay. As a result, NATO ships can meet high standards of logistics and operational training support, while remaining in a safe berthing place, close enough to the vital eastern Mediterranean to guarantee influence in the area—and counter Russian influence.
NATO and the EU: The Perfect Strategic Pair
“NATO and the European Union,” the alliance’s website reads, “are essential partners who share common values, strategic interests and a majority of member nations.” That partnership is critical to enhancing NATO’s ability to fulfill its missions. ΝΑΤΟ is the most powerful military alliance globally, but its brand has suffered, in a sense, across the broader region of the Middle East and North Africa after twenty years of dynamic intervention and military presence. Political legitimacy is a must for any intervention and the EU, by contrast, as a worldwide soft power brand, could bring the sense of legitimacy required in the areas where NATO might act and where both organizations have shared interests. On July 8, 2016, a joint declaration by European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg paved the way for a “new impetus and new substance to the NATO-EU strategic partnership.”
In order to meet the security challenges facing Europe, not least from Russia and it’s efforts in the eastern Mediterranean, this partnership must be further strengthened. Both present threats and future challenges should be managed with a combination of NATO’s hard power and the EU’s soft power. The two were combined during peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans, which is and should be regarded as a success, despite its shortcomings. Accordingly, there is sufficient potential for the EU’s Operation Irini and NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian, for example—both in the Mediterranean—to become a joint maritime operation since they serve the same principles. Such increased cooperation could become a valuable proof of concept to help improve the relationship between the two organizations and the effectiveness of a common effort at both the strategic and operational levels to serve the shared interests of both.
Toward a New Security Architecture in the Eastern Mediterranean
Upgrading the strategic role of Crete is a critical starting point of strengthening NATO’s readiness to meet challenges in the eastern Mediterranean. Controlling this area and managing challenges to stability and security there are vital to countering Russia’s strategic objectives vis-à-vis Europe. In that respect, NATO and the EU have common goals and should pursue enhanced integration in service of these goals. Combining NATO’s hard power and the EU’s soft power could stop Russia from increasing its access and influence in the eastern Mediterranean. If Crete’s natural potential to serve as NATO’s most forward operating base in the region—effectively controlling the sea area stretching from the Suez Canal and the Levant across much of the Mediterranean, including the North African littoral and the transitway from the Black Sea—is harnessed, and if NATO-EU integration is enhanced, the alliance, this “unique community of values committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” will be well positioned to shape Turkey’s maritime aspirations in a mutually beneficial way, manage any consequent tensions within the alliance, and most importantly, meet the Russian challenge in the region.
Constantinos I. Saragkas is a lieutenant in the Hellenic Army Reserve, 88th Military Command, bids manager at Input Output Global, and a RIEAS research associate. He holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and an MBA.
Georgios I. Manassis is a lieutenant commander in the Hellenic Navy. He has served as weapons engineering sea rider officer at the Royal Navy’s Fleet Operational Sea Training in the UK. He holds an MA in southeast Europe studies.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or those of any organization the authors are affiliated with, including the Hellenic government.
Image credit: NATO