Competition in the Mediterranean

Friday, January 10, 2020

During the Cold War, and for more than two decades after the Cold War, the United States was the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Barack Obama’s reduction of the U.S. military presence in the Mediterranean and the ensuing Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 allowed Russia to gain in influence at the expense of the United States. Russia reestablished itself as a maritime power in the Mediterranean by securing a 50-year lease on the port of Tartus in Syria, Russia’s only major port outside of the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Russia is exploiting its growing presence in the eastern Mediterranean to increase its exports. Russian arms manufacturers are selling weapons to Egypt and Algeria, and Russian energy companies have bought oil exploration rights in Syria and Lebanon. Russia has loaned Turkey $20 billion to finance a nuclear power plant built by a Russian state-owned company, and has loaned $25 billion to Egypt for the same purpose.

Russia’s rising influence also gives it opportunities to thwart competition with Russia’s oil and natural gas industries. Russia is trying to persuade Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel to undermine efforts to build a pipeline from Israel to Europe, which would reduce Western Europe’s reliance on Russian energy and hence its vulnerability to Russian pressure. Russia has provided support to Libyan strong man Khalifa Haftar in the hope of gaining access to Libyan oil fields.

Russia also views itself as the protector of Orthodox Christendom in the Mediterranean, and for this reason has natural affinities with the Orthodox populations in Greece, Syria, and Lebanon. The recent split between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow on recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has, however, provided a wedge that the United States is seeking to exploit. By backing Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the United States may be able to weaken the cultural ties between Russia and the Mediterranean countries.

China has been moving aggressively into the Mediterranean in the past few years in order to develop links in its Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese have bought stakes in several major European and Israeli ports. In addition to providing commercial advantages, the port deals allow the Chinese to monitor the activities of U.S. Navy ships. China has been especially successful in building relations with the authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Algeria, which the Chinese find easier to trust because they do not preach at them about democracy as other countries in the region do.

Russia and China are both competing for influence in Israel, at the expense of the United States. Chinese investment in Israeli technology firms has created such consternation in the United States that Washington has threatened to curb sharing of intelligence with Israel unless it takes greater precautions against Chinese chicanery. Russia’s presence in Syria has compelled Israel to obtain permission from Russia to strike pro-Iranian targets in that country, which makes Israel less inclined to side against Russia on other issues.

Turkey has been moving toward closer relations with Russia while distancing itself from Europe and the United States. It has purchased Russian missile defense systems despite complaints from NATO allies, and employed the threat of migrant flows to extract funds from the Europeans and Americans. The Trump administration has found some areas of mutual interest with respect to Syria, and has recently turned over the problems of the Syrian Kurds, the ISIS captives, and Syrian refugees to Turkey.

The countries that stand to lose the most from the ascendance of Russia, China, and Turkey in the Mediterranean are the United States, the Western European nations, and Japan. In September 2019, the European Union and Japan signed an infrastructure deal with $50 billion in funding intended to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative. They believed that transparency, good labor, and environmental practices will make their model more attractive than China’s. Closer American involvement in this initiative may be useful.