Whether the crisis with Ukraine escalates to a military clash or moves toward disengagement, Russia’s presence on the Crimean Peninsula will shape the security of the region for the foreseeable future. No doubt, Russia’s long term political objectives in Ukraine and Putin’s vision of Russian revival are the key drivers of an aggressive policy to the south. But a more direct operational interest in secure access to naval and air bases surely plays a role in the Russian calculus. And Moscow counts on its energy leverage to deter meaningful responses. As the United States and the EU debate a range of fairly weak political and economic sanctions, it is worth considering a few more strategic options on the southern periphery.
First, Russia values its Crimean bases for a reason. They allow the projection of Russian naval and air power into the Black Sea, and Black Sea transits are the means for projecting Russian military power into the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Levant. During the Cold War, NATO worked hard to limit the Soviet Navy’s freedom of action in the Mediterranean. The U.S. Sixth Fleet was a constant presence, including the deployment of at least one aircraft carrier battle group. For a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Russian navy essentially withdrew from the Mediterranean, and the U.S. naval presence in the region has dwindled in the face of demands elsewhere. In recent years, Russia has come back to the Mediterranean, and has used its revived naval presence to underpin ties with Syria (where Russia has access to a base at Tarsus) and Algeria. In light of the crisis over Crimean bases, and with every prospect of a more contentious relationship with Moscow over Syria and other flashpoints, it may be time for the United States and NATO to reinforce their naval posture in the Mediterranean. This would be a useful hedge against new crises and would raise the costs to Moscow of a more active maritime strategy in the south.
Second, the reality of European, including Turkish, dependency on Russian gas exports should spur progress on new initiatives for diversification and security of supply. These steps will take time, but they will signal that Europe and the United States are willing to make tangible investments to reduce Moscow’s energy leverage. Accelerated development of new oil and gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean — ideally via a settlement of the Cyprus dispute — is one useful hedge. Accelerated exports of U.S. liquid natural gas to European markets could be another. With constraints on the modernization of Russia’s energy sector, and the rise of new suppliers, time need not be on Russia’s side when it comes to energy geopolitics.
If Russia has strategic objectives vis-à-vis the Crimea, the Western response should be similarly strategic. It might just shift the calculus in Moscow on the costs and benefits of an aggressive policy, and if not, it will reduce our exposure to the consequences.