top of page

Kremlin's Aquatic Chessboard - Russia's Mediterranean-Red Sea Nexus

Updated: 5 days ago

Earlier during the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, both powers sought to expand their reach to the newly decolonised states. The Soviets in their quest to compete with the Americans felt that the competition was going to be crucial in the Eastern Mediterranean. They felt the need to obtain strategic chokepoints in the region such as the Suez Canal and the Bosphorous that would limit the influence of the US in the region and check world trade.

An Illustration on Kremlin's Aquatic Chessboard

Illustration by The Geostrata

Professor Etzold articulated that the Soviets had looked to prevent the US from helping its allies in various parts of the world that would choke NATO as a security alliance. Furthermore they had also seeked to influence the global oil market and had seeked to regulate its price, thereby helping their economy and affecting western economies.

To the contrary, with the end of the cold war and the culmination of the Soviet Union, its successor state, Russian Federation post the millennium had sought to understand the threats from the Eastward expansion of NATO that threatened its Security interests.

Therefore the Kremlin had sought to counterbalance the western led liberal order and expand its outreach. In this everchanging times of geopolitical turbulence that the Russian Federation faces from its military operation in Ukraine, its plan to utilise its position as a Great Power to subvert Western Sanctions and expand its national interests. 

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War from 2011 onwards, Moscow had backed its support for the Bashar Al Assad government. It has taken critical steps to support the government in Damascus that ranges from diplomatic to military.

Ever since the start of the conflict, the Kremlin was quick to veto any UN resolutions that seeked military intervention into Syria through its P5 status. This has seen since 2011, the Russian Federation using its veto power 17 times to prevent West to jeprodise its interests in the region.

Furthermore with the entrance of the Islamic state which rose against the administration, Moscow quickly intervened through its military power and utilisation of the Wagner group to assist the Syrian military and the rebel factions allied with the Syrian government.

It felt that its national interests were directly threatened due to the rise of islamic extremists like ISIS. Russia understanding its importance has risen to provide military equipment to the Syrian army. This has included T-90 military tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and military personnel.

Furthermore it has helped the government to conduct joint airstrikes on Syrian targets that has amounted to 1500 major attacks within the first three years of the conflict that has helped the government regain the territories it lost to the rebel forces. It is of imperative importance for Russia that it continues backing the Assad government to continue its strategic interests on the region and act as a counterbalance to the U.S.

The Syrian port of Tartus is of vital importance as it provides the Russian Navy with a port that has warm water access and also its location and proximity to the Mediterranean provides it with potential opportunities to obtain in the future. 

Firstly the presence of warm waters helps the russian navy patrol the region and detect adversaries in the region. To maintain this, Moscow has looked at upgrading the facilities present in the port.

This is taken care by deploying strategic weaponry such as SS-N-26 shore to sea anti ship missile system which has a range of 300 kms, Iskander SS-26 short-range ballistic missile having a range of 500 kms, S-300 surface to air missile that has a range of 150 kms and can precisely target air threats in the Tartus port area. It intends to utilise the port and the nation overall to obtain opportunities.

Scholar Lovotti augments, “Russia is identifying opportunities spontaneously emerging from various contexts of crisis and exploiting them to its own interests, by fitting them into its broader strategy of projecting power overseas.” Therefore it has seeked to always advance its interests in the international system by understanding advantages and rationally utilising it. 

With the overthrow of Mummar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, saw the country splinter into two major factions, one led by the Government of National Accord and the other led by warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Russia planned to utilise its prior soviet debt to obtain its strategic interests in the region. It backs the Khalifa Haftar faction as an alternative to the US backed GNA. It therefore tries to gain influence not only to counterbalance Europe in the Mediterranean, it seeks to establish itself as a ‘great power’ and to gain a greater foothold in its Africa strategy where it competes for natural resources such as gold, aluminium, copper etc. 

Libya being at crossroads between the Mediterranean and the inwards Sahel region would help Russia gain access to these resources and continue funding its military operation on Ukraine and strengthen its European plans.

The Kremlin has understood this and has curately invested in favor of Khalifa Haftar. Economically it has printed about 14 Billion Libyan Dinars since May 2016 and during the pandemic a further 4.5 Billion Dinars were provided for the war effort against the Tripoli based government. 

Militarily since May 2024, about 1800 soldiers are on ground assisting the Haftar regime and several hundred special forces. From its naval base in Tartus a shipment in April alone which comprised 6000 tonnes of equipment that includes weapons including T72 tanks, artillery systems, radar systems, armored personnel carriers etc.

The main interest for the Russians is to obtain the strategic base in Tobruk port that is right beneath NATO’s southern command and overlook the Turkish Straits Bosporus and Dardanelles.

NATO will have its prospects directly overlooked by Russian long range missile ships such as the SS-N-30A could reach targets in Italy, Spain and France. The Kremlin is close to accomplishing its objective to finalise a deal that would heighten security tensions in the region once again.

Senior Fellow Ben Fisherman articulates, “To reduce Russia’s ability to use Tobruk, there could be disruption of radar use or the stationing of vessels off the coast – but that is now impossible now given our commitments in the Red Sea.” Russia needs to work closely with the Libyan National Army and gain influence over the base and look for security advantages in the region thereby gaining two warm water ports that would help in its strategic interests. 

Lastly, Russia to gain closer proximity in the Red Sea has developed cordial relations with Eritrea, which has a 1300 km of Coastline. Assab, located on Eritrea's strategic Red Sea coast, represents a giant possibility for Russian pursuits in the region.

Assab is likely included in Russia's broader strategy for Eritrean ports. In 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov introduced negotiations for a logistics center in a strategically critical Eritrean port, highlighting Russia's cause to establish a presence inside the area.

The formation of an excessive-stage Russian-Eritrean working group in July 2023 similarly underscores this interest. Russia's awareness on Eritrean ports gives potential navy and financial advantages. Militarily, a logistics center could support Russian naval operations, projecting power inside the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, even as probably assisting in modernising the Eritrean navy with Russian generation.

Economically, as exemplified by means of the settlement between Sevastopol and Massawa, such ports could function as transshipment hubs for items, bypassing sanctions through parallel imports and re-exports to Russia. Additionally, Eritrea's mineral wealth is attractive for high-tech industries.

By securing entry to ports like Assab, Russia aims to benefit a strategic foothold inside the Horn of Africa, improving its worldwide impact on and reaping both navy and economic benefits on this important region.

Russia's strategic maneuvers within the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and the Red Sea spotlight its ambition to reassert itself as a great power and act as a counterbalance to Western interests. By helping the Assad regime in Syria, backing Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and cultivating ties with Eritrea, Moscow seeks to secure warm-water ports, establish military footholds, and gain access to precious resources.

These movements serve multiple functions: projecting energy in key regions, circumventing Western sanctions, and challenging NATO's strategic positions. Russia's strategy includes a combination of diplomatic, financial, and military approaches, together with  economic inducements and the deployment of military experts and soldiers. 

As geopolitical tensions persist, particularly in light of the special military operation in Ukraine, Russia's efforts to increase its have an effect on in these strategic areas are likely to hold, doubtlessly reshaping regional dynamics and posing new challenges to Western pursuits inside the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.




Recent Posts

See All

19 commentaires

Jai Sodhi
Jai Sodhi
6 days ago

Well written


Ishan Sinha
Ishan Sinha
6 days ago

Russian advance is crucial for counterbalance


very well written and well summarised piece on such a complex and deep topic


Mehak Latwal
Mehak Latwal
05 juil.

Such a comprehensive and engaging piece of work!


Fascinating insight

bottom of page