The dust is finally settling in Syria as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have largely defeated ISIL in the East, and pro-regime forces have pushed back rebels in the West. And while the United States increasingly shifts its focus from Syria to North Korea, Russia has further solidified its presence in Syria by ensuring that two of its bases in the Mediterranean country will house highly capable military equipment and troops for the next several decades. With the United States distracted by Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions, Russia’s moves to expand in the Mediterranean are being left unchecked. Though there is no doubting the danger of a fully-capable North Korean nuclear program, overlooking President Vladimir Putin’s strategy in the Mediterranean by allowing ample time for Russia to build a stronghold in the region could create a security situation of Cold War proportions.
While the United States is engaged in Southeast Asia, a nuclear superpower with an arsenal dwarfing that of North Korea is slowly and steadily building a considerable presence in the Mediterranean. Not only has President Putin reneged on his pledge to pull troops out of Syria after the defeat of ISIL, but he has also negotiated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to ensure that the Russian-owned Tartus Naval Facility in the Mediterranean operates for the next 49 years while the Hmeimim Air Base remains open indefinitely. This deal between the two presidents allows Russia to “simultaneously deploy up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered combat vessels, at the Tartus naval facility.” Currently, Russian vessels in the Mediterranean are equipped with highly advanced missiles including Kalibr cruise missiles which can carry a nuclear warhead and strike targets at a maximum range of 1,500 miles. Further still, Russia’s recent naval activity around Europe has surpassed that seen during the Cold War. This includes Russian submarines operating near critical underwater cables that connect United States and European data links. NATO, on the other hand, has made significant cuts to its frigate and submarine fleets, while the United States devotes major naval assets to the South China Sea in response to rising tensions in that region.
It’s not all gloom and doom, however. The US decision to maintain a troop presence in Syria after ISIL’s defeat is a good start for the United States that will likely prevent further growth of Russian influence in the war-torn country as it begins to rebuild. But the United States should do more to counter this growing threat in the Mediterranean. The United States should consider greater coordination with NATO allies, especially in the Mediterranean, in the form of joint military exercises to prepare for a Mediterranean Sea with a potentially antagonistic Russia residing in it. The United States would also benefit from mending strained ties with Turkey, another country that stands to suffer from Russia’s larger presence in the Mediterranean.
Russia’s calculated actions reflect the superpower’s intention to counter US influence and military power across Europe through deterrence via conventional and nuclear weapons as well as threatening physical access to important maritime routes like the Baltic Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. Consequently, as the world looks to the Korean Peninsula during the Olympic games, the United States should take care not to forget the Russian bear lurking on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.