The Mediterranean Security and Defense Dynamic

By Giulia Tilenni

Migration is usually considered the most relevant strategic challenge in the central Mediterranean.

However, militarisation due to political instability is by far more crucial for its security

The Mediterranean is a complex geopolitical environment.

It is a nodal point for commercial routes and crucial source of energy exploitations, especially in terms of oil and gas, the Mediterranean Sea has been a strategic area for a growing number of countries belonging to the region.

Security in Central Mediterranean could be influenced by crises taking place in areas such as Mashreq, Sahel, Horn of Africa, and the Gulf.

Thus, events taking place in the Mediterranean or near the crucial choke points of Suez, Bab-el Mandeb and Hormuz have an impact on the other areas.

It not surprising that both regional and non-regional actors have strategic interests in the area.

However, the Mediterranean is a complex geopolitical space in which endogenous sources of complexity mix up with a high level of uncertainty.

Political instability within several Mediterranean countries (from Libya to Yemen and Syria) fuels current security issues in this region. With the exception of Tunisia (which is facing political, economic, and social problems anyway), the so-called Arab springs, expected to stimulate a democratic transition from within, have been creating further instability in most of concerned states, Egypt amongst others. Qadafi’s dead left a political vacuum in another key country, Libya, one of the most relevant African oil and gas producers, creating the preconditions for Islamic State’s eruption in the continent.

States belonging to the Sub-Saharan area are also experiencing political instability, fuelled by a demographic growth that is becoming economically unsustainable. Thus, Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have been able to expand their presence in these territories, thus continuing to introduce further sources of instability in the region.

Looking eastwards, civil conflicts in Yemen and Syria, and the consequent international military interventions, represent additional sources of instability in the region, as numerous regional and international actors have been dragged into military actions by events – and by their political stakes.

Mass migrations from African countries and illicit traffics of people, drugs, fuel and arms are the most known consequences of instability. For instance, the impact of migration on the European territory has become so important that the European Union that significant fissures have opened in the EU due to the inability to find an efficient way to cope with the issue.

However, they represent just basic examples of the security threats concerning the area, where tensions are spreading both at the political and the military level.

At the political level, local and international instability has been spreading at the point that even the most solid alliances have experienced some impact. Some new ones are rising, such as the one between Turkey and Russia, while some of the existing ones are changing or failing, as the one between the EU/NATO and Turkey, thus feeding further unpredictability and turmoil.

On the one hand, ongoing military actions come from widespread need to better protect economic interests.

On the other, such struggles escalate the militarization of the region, thus raising the risks of political-military confrontation.


Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2015, tensions between Brussels and Moscow had considerably risen, and took to the wage of mutual of economic sanctions. Since then, skirmishes between Russia and NATO have sensibly increased, with Russian jets flying above Baltic States’ skies and submarines and vessels crossing the Mediterranean.

In September 2017, the Zapad exercise that took place in Belarus raised concerns in Europe, as one of the scenarios seemed to mirror a conventional conflict against the Atlantic Alliance. In the last years, tensions with Russia are fuelling a new anti-Russian narrative within NATO, splitting the Alliance in the same two subgroups that can be seen within the EU: the countries convinced that the Eastern flank of the EU is the riskiest, and the ones that believe the Southern front is the most important one.

While NATO countries, and especially the ones that are also EU member states, have been trying to define which geographic region should be a top priority in their foreign policy, the civil war in Syria has become growingly complex.

In the last years, the fact that Russia supported Bashar al-Assad has fuelled tensions with European states, especially in the aftermaths of chemical attacks on civilians as the one in Eastern Goutha in March 2018. In fact, Western countries accused the Syrian regime to be responsible for the attacks, and blamed Russia for its insufficient vigilance on the destruction of Syrian chemical arsenal.

On his side, Russia accused “Russophobe” countries of being the real authors of the attack. According to Moscow, they helped Syrian rebels to organise the attack. They then accused Moscow of being the author to justify a military intervention against Moscow’s positions in Syria. In the last years, and especially after 2016, relations have become tense also with Turkey, another relevant EU neighbour.

However, Moscow and Turkey have somehow benefitted from their difficult relations with Brussels, which forged a renewed alliance between the two countries. Political relations between Moscow and Ankara have been complicate for decades, reaching their lowest point with the 2015 Sukhoi incident. Despite mutual convenience has been leading to consistent economic ties – especially after post-Ukraine EU sanctions – Turkey did not hesitate to shoot down the Russian jet, and Moscow waged back economic retaliations promptly.

The international response to the attempt to overthrow Erdogan in July 2016 (condemned by all Western states, but not as firmly as Russia did), together with the ongoing and growing islamisation of the country, has represented a tipping point, a positive one, for the relation between Ankara and Moscow.

The immediate consequence of such renewed cooperation has been Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian conflict in protection of its exclusive national interest, regardless the international counter-ISIS operations, next to the Syrian-Turkish border.

Nevertheless, the political-military implications of these revived ties is becoming particularly problematic, as Erdogan wants Turkey to pursue its own foreign policy and defence agendas, thus detaching from Western countries to get closer to Moscow.

The latest developments of Turkish international procurement programmes provide a remarkable example of these mounting risks for Europe. Recently, Ankara has declared it will finalise the purchase of Russian produced S-400 air defence systems, which will likely be operational between 2019 and 2020. Despite Turkey has repeatedly stressed that it will negotiate with the US in order to remain compliant with NATO engagements, such a program raises strong intelligence concerns.

The fact that Turkey could have in its inventories the most sophisticated, US-produced 5thgeneration aircraft and a state-of-the-art air defence system produced in Russia is a source of great concern for NATO, as the Alliance fears that this could help Russia in gathering sensitive information.

However, neither Ankara nor NATO countries are envisaging that Turkey will leave NATO. Should it remain a full member, Ankara would keep the power of vetoing Western states military undertakings at the NATO level, therefore favouring Russian proactive approach to the Middle East.

Such a scenario opens to a new wave of potentially disrupting geopolitical reshapes, as it means that Russia could build up its presence in the Mediterranean thanks to its renewed relation with Turkey.

Turkey and Russia have been strictly collaborating with Iran in an attempt to solve the Syrian conflict, and this collaboration could evolve in stricter ties among the three, thus further increasing the complexity of the Mediterranean scenario.


 Instability brought by the trends highlighted above is leading to the increase of military traffic in the Mediterranean.

Following the intervention in the Syrian civil conflict and in the anti-ISIS campaign, the number of Russian units sailing across the Mediterranean has been increasing considerably. Several (and a growing amount of) vessels belonging other fleets, especially the Third Fleet originally deployed in the Black Sea, have been redeployed in the Mediterranean since 2016. The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov has been redeployed in the Mediterranean from November 2016 to January 2017, when it was recalled to its homeport for maintenance.

The formal operating base for operations in Syria is the Humaymim Air Base in Latakia. At the same time, Tartus naval facility (Syria), already in use as logistic base for vessels crossing the Mediterranean sea, is now serving as forward operating base for operations – previously beefed up through the Sevastopol base (the closest Russian naval base to the Mediterranean before Tartus was restored).

Some recent declarations from Russian high officers speculate on the fact that the Tartus base should be transformed in the first active fleet infrastructure in the Mediterranean. The relevance given to the Tartus base and the whole naval group is underlined by the redeployment of at least two S-400 air-defence batteries in the area.

The latest development of the civil war in Syria provide a further example of how a crisis taking place in the Middle East could represent a main security threat for the Mediterranean and for coastal countries due to the militarisation of the area.

After several years of conflict, from the end of August 2018 Russia and the Syrian regime have been preparing for the battle of Idlib, in the north-western part of the country, the last Syrian region under rebel’s control.

Consequently, a new wave of militarisation has been taking place in the Mediterranean since the beginning of summer. Moscow is reported to have reinforced its assets in the area with the two Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates Admiral Grigorovichand Admiral Essen, the two Buyan-class Grad Sviyazhskand Veliky Ustyug corvettes, theBuyan-M corvetteVyshny Volochok, and theValentin Pikul oceanic minesweeper.

Moreover, from 1 to 8 September 2018, Russia carried a massive exercise in the Mediterranean involving 26 warships, led by the Slava-class cruiser Marshal Ustinov, and 34 aircrafts belonging to different fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and the Caspian flotilla). Russian authorities declared the area of the exercise is “dangerous for shipping and flying.”

The significant presence of Russian vessels in the Mediterranean requires Western states’ better situational awareness, including the need to track ongoing activities in this crucial area.

Missions like shadowing vessels or intelligence gathering could prove increasingly difficult to perform safely, given the unprecedented security architecture around the Syrian theatre amongst Turkey, NATO, and Russia.

Despite budget constraints and political tensions, the doubtful reliability on Turkish assets (considering that Turkey is also the closest NATO member to the Syrian front) forces NATO to take additional measures, and so adding to the complexity.

In the meantime, Turkey’s interest in enhancing its amphibious capabilities stresses once again Ankara’s key role in any future military undertaking in the region. For instance, the MILGEM program started in 2000 will allow for enhancing Turkish strategic independence from off-the shelf products thanks to the purchase of domestically produced corvettes and frigates.

The latest Turkish MILGEM (Ada) class corvette out of the total four has been launched in 2017, and the country has signed a contract with Pakistan in July 2017 for selling four corvettes.

Thus, Turkey has been gaining in importance as a key player with more military autonomy.

Furthermore, surface vessels represent only a part of the traffic (even if the most significant), as submarines are increasingly coming back to the Mediterranean. With stealthness and long endurance as main features, submarines can accomplish both combat missions and intelligence gathering – namely


Israel represents an interesting example in the Mediterranean submarine domain, as the country is supposed to base its nuclear deterrent on submarines as second-strike capability. The country owns six German produced Dolphin 2submarines; according to various sources, the most recent units should be refitted to carry submarine launched cruise missiles (SLCM) with nuclear warheads – probably the Israeli built Popeye Turbo. Furthermore, a number of countries – the US, but also the UK, the Baltics and Sweden – are reporting a growing number of Russian submarines moving back and forth the Mediterranean, therefore crossing the Channel and the Baltic Sea.

According to Russian official sources, the two Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines Veliky Novgorodand Kolpinohave been redeployed from the Black Sea off to Syrian coast since August 2017. Some US analysts believe Russian submarines fleet has reached a remarkable availability and enhanced technological level thanks to a deep maintenance process.

Keeping in mind present and future scenarios, the raising submarine traffic in the Mediterranean is crucial for a number of reasons.

First, the inadequacy of Western (especially Southern EU countries) assets to counter submarine threats. Following a period of decreasing submarines traffic in the Mediterranean, different countries, Italy among the others, have been replacing their ASW capabilities with MP ones.

Also, northern Mediterranean submarine fleets are shrinking while southern Mediterranean ones grow up. This could have negative consequences in the short and mid-term. Looking at the latest technological developments in the naval sector, submarine warfare is entering a new developing phase – not only in terms of submarines, but also concerning underwater robotic technologies –, probably enhancing submarine threat capabilities in the area in the near future.

Second, the majority of Mediterranean states (namely Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Algeria and Egypt), has already  a submarine fleet; regardless the efficiency rate of these fleets, what it is interesting is that an eventual deployment of submarines as a consequence of the above mentioned tensions is not to exclude.

A sample scenario serves well to describe a potential evolution of the ongoing situation. A small sub-area of the Mediterranean is currently “hosting” a relevant amount of traffic, in terms of surface vessels – the ones involved in the Syrian crises, plus the commercial traffic – and submarines. The need of gathering intelligence and keep potential enemies under control make submarines enter and exit the area without coordination, because of the different tasks they have within a system of fluid alliances.

In detail, we can figure out that at least seven submarines could currently operate in Eastern Mediterranean at the same time: a Russian one, in  support of the fleet’s activities in the area; a US one, to track Russian activities; an Israeli one, to gather intelligence and to prevent illicit arms traffic from Syria to its coasts; a Turkish one, to observe what is happening next to its maritime border and in Syria; an Egyptian one, to control eventual threats to its strategic interests; a French and an Italian one, with intelligence gathering as main tasks, and the opportunity to support their troops in Lebanon or as part of NATO activities.

Many submarine assets with multiple tasks and caveat actually rise the likelihood of escalating situation consistently and add to a geopolitical theatre which is difficult to manage on its own terms.


A number of critical security issues have been affecting the entire Mediterranean Sea, and the instability concerning the MENA (Middle East and North African) region is a further pushing factor for instability. Considering the strategic importance of the Mediterranean, several countries want to play a role in the area, both physically (see the military presence) and politically (with the creation or renewal of alliances, especially among MENA and non-MENA states).

Moreover, if the Syrian conflict will continue to represent an important security threat in the Mediterranean in the short term, its end will not mean the end of instability in the area. Rather, new dynamics will affect the area in the medium to long term.

In particular, the need to protect economic interests linked to energy resources such as offshore gas and oil deposits and fields will have a growing impact on regional security.

The most crucial issue here is that the threats that this trend originates belong to classical geopolitical dynamics. The countries concerned will try to protect their economic interests by using political means, shifting to military actions in case of diplomatic failure.

However, as the struggle for protecting its energy supplies requires a classical approach in political and especially in military terms, the number of countries that can potentially be involved in such a scenario rises consistently.

In particular, European countries, and especially the ones for which the Mediterranean is a source of energy supply, should attentively monitor three potential sources of instability.

First, the fact that Egypt will likely become the main energy hub for Eastern Mediterranean following the discovery of unexplored gas deposits. Willing to protect its major economic interests – namely offshore gas and oil deposits (Egypt is candidate as gas hub for the Eastern Mediterranean), and the security of the Suez canal, especially after its doubling – Cairo is enhancing its naval fleet taking advantage of its political ties with the US, EU countries (France, but also Italy) and Russia.

Here the critical part lies in the political ambiguity of al-Sisi government, both at the domestic and the international level.

Second, the skirmishes between Turkey and Cyprus on the exploitation of natural gas and oil deposits in the seas off Cyprus, as both Greek and Turkish Cypriots claim their drilling rights in the area. In March 2018, tensions arose, with Turkey blocking foreign drillings in the area. Now that relations between Turkey and the EU have deteriorated, and that membership of the Atlantic Alliance does no longer represent an insurance against eventual Turkish military actions in Cyprus, skirmishes in the area could rapidly escalate.

Third, the struggle between Israel and Palestine for the exploitation of the undeveloped Gaza Marine natural gas field, located about 30 km off the Gaza coast. In addition to political disputes, the increasing importance of the Mediterranean Sea as source of energy supplies means that new export routes will be created, with significant consequences in terms of maritime traffic in the region, but especially in security terms.

All this considered, while the Eastern Mediterranean represents one of the hottest spots in today’s world, the unclear and unstable political situation in relevant North African countries, together with the ongoing “militarisation” fed by the eastern turmoil, put relevant premises for spreading crisis westward, thus inflaming the whole Mediterranean region.

The main vulnerability for international security is that, despite of multiple stakeholders’ growing efforts, no one has a comprehensive situational awareness (the reasons to be found on capability gaps and political/military variables here described) nor the command of the bigger picture.

And the fluidity of alliance structures affects negatively political-military reliability as well.

In short, the dynamics in the region are cross-cutting and dangerous.  And are becoming of increasing concern to Europe as it struggles to deal as well with the internal tensions generated from the Mediterranean migration as well.

The author is an Italian defense analyst based in France.

Also, see the following report from the German Marshall Fund,