Eastern Mediterranean as a crossroads, where West and East meet, has traditionally had strategic significance. Nowadays, the emerging strategic landscape in the region is getting more and more complicated and unpredictable. The global context is characterized by two crises – the Russia-West crisis after Ukraine and the EU-US crisis after the election of president Trump. It is widely recognized that relations between Russia and the West are on decline and Russia is steadily drifting away from EU, NATO or US. It will not be an exaggeration to say that these relations have reached their lowest point in the past 25 years. There have been many disagreements between Russia and the West in the past – Kosovo problem, Iraq, Caucasus crisis, Libya, human rights, energy deals etc, but it is security orientation of the post-Soviet states and the Russia-NATO/EU rivalry in this space that constitutes the crux of the fallout.

The divide on the macro level of the international relations has a strong impact on the regional cooperation, which is why there is a strong dialectical link between Ukraine and Syria or security in Eastern Mediterranean at large. Russia’s strategy in the region as its foreign policy at large is defined by three factors – post-imperial syndromes, security concerns and negative experience of the Russia-West cooperation after the collapse of the USSR. With the loss of the great empire and status equal to the US status rebuilding has become the guiding star of the Russian foreign policy. As for security concerns, the biggest threat to Russia, as it seen in Kremlin, is regime change through the so-called export of democracy and orange revolutions. Sovereignty in its traditional Westphalia meaning has become a sacred cow for Moscow, which is why Russia’s support of Assad is not so much about Assad himself but rather a matter of principle – no regime change for the sake of democracy. And which is why the mess in Libya is a reminder of the evils of the regime change policy.

The conflict in Ukraine resulted in the sanctions war and Russia’s exclusion from the main international forums. Russia’s isolation from the West left her no choice but to seek new allies and exploit any gap or flaw in the regional strategies of her opponents. Nowadays Russia is present in the Mediterranean region on an extended scale. It is enhancing its political, economic and military involvement both in Eastern and Southern Mediterranean through regular political contacts with the authorities of the largest countries in Levant and North Africa, arms sales, trade and energy cooperation, renting military bases and conducting military exercises.

The EU-NATO-US relations are also in flux although the nature and substance of the crisis between Europeans and Americans differ from the former. “There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump not only sent shockwaves around the world but has increased the risk of an unsettled future US relationship to the world and its European allies. Europeans and Americans alike worry about the future transatlantic relationship …”.[1] The US as a main security provider of the West is rethinking its foreign policy becoming a less reliable and predictable partner for Europe, which has strong implications for security in Eastern Mediterranean, first and foremost for Syria. Although it is not clear what will happen in the Mediterranean with Donald Trump as president of the United States, some of the American analysts argue that despite the different style of the new administration, it is unlikely to see a radical change in US policy to date in the Mediterranean. A US withdrawal from the Mediterranean in terms of politics and security would not even be possible. The Mediterranean region remains an important asset, even essential for the United States especially with the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, Turkey or Egypt. The key question is not whether the US will be active – it will be – but whether this activism, and the strategy behind it, will be pursued in a more unilateral way.[2]

The possibility that the European allies in NATO or the European Union will fill the American role in the East Mediterranean is not feasible. EU is not a real strategic actor, it is in the process of rethinking its strategic autonomy and presently it lacks the necessary military assets, a clear strategic vision, as well as the political will to take a lead as a security provider for the East Mediterranean.

China is asserting herself as a new global power, although her global ambitions are more about economics than politics at least for the time being. China is “neither a missionary culture nor a values superpower… Clan-focused Confucianism and the fear bred by communism have persuaded the Chinese to mind their own business”.[3] However the very fact that Chinese are showing their flag in an area far from their traditional area of operations undermines the wide spread assumption that the Mediterranean will became a purely Western sphere of influence.

The regional balance is even more complicated due to the fact that the main regional actors – Turkey and Iran – are reconsidering their regional strategies on the basis of big-power nationalisms. And even within the socalled allied coalitions like the Astana peace process on Syria there exist differing interests and competing regional strategies of the actors – Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Despite the complexity and multidimensionality of the security landscape in the Mediterranean, the main challenge to the regional security is the deep divide in the relations between Russia and the West, since neither Russia, nor the West can stabilize the region without each other. Russia‘s expansion in the region is widely perceived in the West as a threat to the global and regional stability. However it is not Russia’s expansion but rather her isolation that presents a threat to the regional and global security.

Nadia Alexandrova-Arbatova

Head, Department of European Studies
Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO)

Russian Academy of Sciences

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 5, November 2017″