Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Interview

Russia is 'pre-eminent naval power' in Mediterranean

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (c) at Russian military command centre in Syria in January 2020 (Photo: Kremlin.ru)

Russia is the dominant power in the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey is a rising one, and the West's "golden days" in the region are long gone, according to Italy's former military chief.

"Russia is the pre-eminent naval power in the Mediterranean ... [and] it has earned this role in the field," admiral (retired) Luigi Binelli Mantelli, who was head of Italy's armed forces from 2013 to 2015, told EUobserver in an interview.

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  • Admiral (retired) Luigi Binelli Mantelli (l) was head of Italy's armed forces between 2013 and 2015 (Photo: nato.int)

Russian conventional firepower included two modern frigates, two submarines, and a destroyer, most of them with land-attack missile systems, currently stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, he said.

It was seeking a naval base in Libya and had an "advanced" one in Syria, he added.

It could link its Mediterranean fleet with Black and Caspian Seas units, he noted.

And it could back its fleet with air power from Russia or "forward-deployed aircraft in other countries, such as Syria," Binelli Mantelli said.

The Kremlin also had a political edge, he said.

"In recent years, Russia has displayed a level of assertiveness that recalls the US during the golden days," Binelli Mantelli said, referring to the end of the Cold War, some 30 years ago.

"[Russian president Vladimir] Putin's decisiveness is evident, in terms of both freedom of action at the political and military level, and his ability to create relationships ... with countries in the area," Binelli Mantelli, who was speaking in a purely personal capacity, said.

One of these countries was Turkey, with which Russia was carving up the South Caucasus.

Turkey was also a rising Mediterranean force, the Italian admiral noted.

"It's on its way to acquiring a significant power-projection capability with the new amphibious-assault ship Anadolu, [which] can be configured as a light aircraft carrier," he said, referring to a Turkish-built vessel.

If it put vertical take-off and landing F-35 jets on board, Turkey would "gain additional regional relevance," he added.

And Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also had an edge, Binelli Mantelli said.

His recent war with Azerbaijan to reconquer the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Armenia "provided Erdoğan with an additional strategic testbed for demonstrating his political assertiveness," Binelli Mantelli said.

The South Caucasus peace deal, brokered, last week, by Russia, cemented Putin's role as "primary arbiter" of events, the Italian admiral said.

But it came after Putin and Erdoğan helped each other to become "absolute masters of the scene" in wars in Libya and Syria.

And it came after Turkish ships intimidated French and Greek ones in other disputes in recent months.

Erdoğan's game

Turkey has been a Nato member since 1952 and, for Binelli Mantelli, it was out of the question that Putin could ever peel away Erdoğan from the Western alliance.

"I'm definitely against the idea that Turkey could break away from Nato. I don't see any interest for Ankara to do so," Binelli Mantelli said.

"In the first place, for the free access to intelligence available to Nato nations", which helped Turkey in multiple theatres, he said.

But, for Binelli Mantelli, Erdoğan was, still, "playing the 'one foot in both shoes' game" with Putin to advance Turkish ambition.

And their games had "destabilised" the status quo.

Russia and Turkey had pushed out "traditional peace-providers, such as the US, Nato, or any other European actor with interests in those countries [Libya and Syria]," Binelli Mantelli said.

"In this sense, I see Nato's relevance being put seriously at stake [in the Mediterranean]," he said.

Part of the change was due to US redeployments, he noted.

"Nowadays, US Sixth Fleet consistency and engagement [in the Mediterranean] is nothing compared to what it was before the collapse of the USSR," Binelli Mantelli said.

The fact the US recently moved warships from Italy to Spain was "emblematic" of a "swing of US interests from the Mediterranean to the African seas," he added.

The French "Force de dissuasion" was "a significant naval power", the Italian admiral noted.

But the Italian navy was starved of funds, due to Italy's "sea-blindness", he said.

'Sad spectacle'

And even if the French "Force de Frappe" was to be reckoned with on paper, "what matters, anyhow, is the willingness to act", Binelli Mantelli said.

"As I said before: It's a matter of lack of [Western] assertiveness," he said.

Nato, in recent years, had deployed new forces in the Baltic Sea region, but it was "no longer the deterring organisation able and eager to show its muscles in the Mediterranean arena, as it did in the good old times," he added.

Recalling Nato drills such as "Dragon Hammer", in the early 1990s, which involved aircraft carriers and amphibious landings in Turkey to repel potential Russian invasion, the 69-year old Binelli Mantelli said Western powers had drifted "far away" from their former superiority.

"The Western bloc, with Europe leading this unfortunate enterprise ... is becoming less and less credible in its willingness to commit, on the field, rather than through endless diplomatic talks, to international stability [in Europe's southern neighbourhood]," he said.

It was a "sad spectacle", the admiral noted.

"Nato is too much land-centric, forgetting that only great maritime powers have influenced the world throughout history," he said.

Analysis

There is no 'Russia-Turkey alliance'

Talk of a grand Turkey-Russia realignment is premature, Nato and Russia experts say - despite Putin and Erdoğan's friendly ties.

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