Since the end of World War II Soviet policy and strategy in the Mediterranean has undergone several major changes. After the defeat of Nazi Germany the Soviet position in the Black Sea was greatly strengthened by the establishment of the communist-led rebellion in Greece. Turkey’s geostrategic position in the Aegean would have been considerably weakened in the case of a communist victory in Greece. Hence, the ability of the US and its allies to come to Turkey’s aid would have been made considerably more difficult and costly. However, Moscow’s strategic aims during Stalin’s era seem to have been focused on acquiring a foothold in the straits, or at least to modify the Montreux Convention to secure complete Soviet dominance in the Black Sea. Accomplishment of that strategic aim was a prerequisite to the projection of Soviet military power into the Mediterranean.
For the first two years after the end of World War II the Soviets tried to obtain the acquiescence of the United States and Great Britain to change the straits regime. Moscow also exerted strong pressure on Turkey to agree to a shared control of the straits. All these efforts ultimately failed because Stalin did not dare to risk a conflict with the West. By 1948-49 the open rift between Moscow and Belgrade and the failure of the Greek communists in the civil war led to the dramatic weakening of Soviet influence and power in the Balkans. For the remainder of Stalin’s rule the Soviets did not conduct any active policy to spread their influence and power in the Mediterranean.
The first major change in Moscow’s policy and strategy toward the Mediterranean came in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953. The new collective leadership in Moscow initiated several major changes in domestic and foreign policy. Initially, Moscow intended to improve its hitherto bad relations with the US and the West in general. By the mid1950s the Soviets began to court selected `progressive’ regimes in the Third World to undermine the US and Western position and to enhance Soviet influence and prestige. The Mediterranean seemed an ideal place for the Soviets to conduct their new policy and strategy. The key elements in Moscow’s strategy were arms sales, economic aid, and diplomatic and propaganda activities in support of Arab states. However, the Soviets were well aware that their objectives could not be accomplished without a credible military presence in the area. The problem for the Soviets was how to project military power into an area that is geographically close, yet difficult to reach due to the inherent weaknesses in the USSR’s maritime position. For the Soviets a major and essentially insoluble problem was how to maintain and sustain a military presence in the area, given the limitations imposed by the Montreux Convention and the long distances between the Mediterranean and the operating areas of the Soviet Baltic and Northern Fleets.
After a brief and bitter experience in Albania, the Soviets began intensive efforts to obtain access to naval facilities in Egypt and Yugoslavia. The perceived threat from US Polaris submarines was only one, not the sole reason for Moscow’s decision to deploy naval forces permanently in the Mediterranean. The principal reason for that decision was the change in Soviet policy and strategy in general that occurred in the mid1960s. The Soviets decided to implement the policy of force in the Third World that ultimately aimed to weaken dramatically US and Western influence and power world-wide. The principal Soviet aim in the Mediterranean was to bring about the withdrawal of the US 6th Fleet.
By 1965-66 the Soviets adopted a local-war doctrine as the foundation for their then evolving diplomacy of force in the Third World. The first practical test of the new activist policy came in the Middle East during and in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967. The Soviet ability to support `progressive’ Arab regimes rested from the outset on two factors: their naval presence in the conflict zone and a quick-reaction capability to resupply their clients with war matériel, and with troops if necessary.
Although viewed with considerable alarm by the West, the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean was not a completely new phenomenon. Whenever Tsarist Russia was strong and unopposed or co-operating closely with other European powers, it conducted assertive policies in regard to the straits and the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Soviets, after starting to build a `blue-water’ navy and laying the groundwork for more forceful policies in the Middle East, would deploy naval forces in the Mediterranean. However, perhaps too many Western observers and the public at large have taken at face value Moscow’s repeated assertions that the Soviet presence in the area was based exclusively on the need to defend the southwestern part of the `homeland’. In Moscow’s propaganda vocabulary, every Soviet military action was declared to be `defensive’. Yet it cannot be denied that in the post-Stalin era there was a dramatic expansion of the areas in which Soviet `defensive’ interests were to be found and in the number of interests considered in need of protection. This is not to deny that the former USSR had legitimate interests in the Mediterranean, specifically, to spread its influence and enhance its prestige among the riparian states and to protect shipping in the eastern Mediterranean, to name but a few.
The peak of Soviet influence in the Mediterranean was in 1972 and in the short time following the end of the October War of 1973. The Soviet naval presence and the apparent willingness to use force on the behalf of Arab states played a powerful restraining role in the Jordanian crisis of 1970 and during the October War. However, Moscow’s constant push to enlarge its foothold in Egypt came to an abrupt end in the mid1970s. Afterwards Soviet ability to influence events in the Mediterranean steadily declined. The Soviets achieved some success in obtaining access to naval facilities in Syria, Libya and Yugoslavia. However, none of these countries offered the advantages of the position and facilities of Egypt.
Soviet policy and strategy changed in the mid-1980s, when the focus shifted to improve the ties with moderate Arab states and Israel. Moscow sought in general to be accepted as a partner in the ongoing peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Soviets continued to provide economic aid and security assistance to a number of radical regimes. Some of the weapons and equipment delivered to Syria and Libya were more advanced than those provided for close allies in the Warsaw Pact. However, the Soviets ultimately did not accomplish their stated strategic goals in the area because of their inability to provide a sound economic model for the Arab states. The Arabs also perceived that in the several crises that erupted in the area Moscow’s support was mainly political and propagandist. Moreover, the prestige of Soviet weapons and equipment suffered whenever they were used against their Western counterparts.
Since 1991, the geopolitical and geo-strategic position of the new Russian Federation in the Black Sea has dramatically been weakened in comparison to the one enjoyed by the former USSR. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is a much smaller and far less effective force than the Soviet Russian Black Sea Fleet. The ultimate fate of the fleet is uncertain because of the still unresolved problem of basing on the Crimea and division of the fleet between Russia and Ukraine. Russia is also confronted by a true `arc of crisis’ (largely aggravated by Moscow’s policies in the area) along its southern borders that is unprecedented in its modern history. Central Asia and Transcaucaus, the areas once completely under the control of Moscow, are today the scene of clashes of interest among some 20 nations and several major external powers. Russia, Turkey and Iran are major factors in this still evolving struggle for regional power and influence. For Russia, the Black Sea remains the linchpin for its links to overseas regions. A major part of Russia’s trade, especially in crude oil, passes through the straits. To influence events and strengthen its influence beyond the confines of the Black Sea Russia must be able to use and sustain its military power projection capabilities effectively, especially its naval strike forces. The current military and naval weakness of Russia is transitory and will not last. Sooner or later, Russia will emerge again as a major player in Eurasia. However, as long as Turkey possesses full control of the straits and the Montreux Convention remains unchanged, Russia will find it as elusive as in the past to try to project and to sustain its military power in support of its policy and strategy in the Mediterranean.