The good news is that so far, everyone is containing himself in the Eastern Mediterranean, at least in terms of actual confrontation or shooting.
The rest of the story can be summarized as follows. On 19 September, Houston-based Noble Energy “spudded” an exploration well with its Noble Homer Ferrington drilling rig in the “Aphrodite” oil-and-gas field off Cyprus’ southern coast (you can’t make this stuff up).
Shortly thereafter, Turkey concluded an overnight agreement with the “nation” of Northern Cyprus – created by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and recognized by Turkey – for Turkey to begin seismic exploration south of Northern Cyprus’ coast, in the waters next to the Noble Energy drilling area.
The Turks got their seismic exploration vessel, the K. Piri Reis, underway, and dispatched three naval ships for escort. Piri Reis has reached her operating area and begun exploration. The three-ship task force doesn’t have as much firepower as it might: it is reportedly composed of one frigate – the actual warship – a training ship, and an ocean tug.
That said, the Turks issued a NOTAM for a maritime exercise in the vicinity of the drilling area last week, within a day of the Noble rig’s arrival. According to Greek sources, the NOTAM was rejected, but the Turks conducted a naval exercise there anyway, with warships and fighter jets. The Greeks emitted a rhetorical high-five because the Turks didn’t approach the Noble drilling rig any closer than 50 nautical miles during this event.
The Turkish aircraft did, however, operate inside the Nicosia Flight Information Region (FIR) without following correct safety procedures, and managed to incommode at least one Cyprus Airways aircraft taking off from Larnaca.
Greek sources are now reporting – because it’s important to keep the fire stoked, I suppose – that Israel has requested authorization for the IAF to use the airfield on the island of Paphos, in exchange for “ensuring the air defense of the Republic and changing the military balance in the region.” The quid is believable here; the quo is not. Israel might well seek an agreement with Cyprus to use the Paphos air base, but deploying the IAF to patrol Cypriot air space is something Israel would save for a later decision point, presumably if Turkey escalated maritime tensions.
It would be a mistake to think Turkey is weak and is acting silly. For Turkey, the drilling off Cyprus (and the Turkish exploration) is, in part, a pretext for keeping warships on patrol in the Eastern Med. The warships are not going to pack up and go home any time soon. Turkey has already announced a more active naval posture, and Erdogan will make good on that. Look for Turkish warships to start patrolling further and further abroad. Having ships in place to “escort flotillas” heading for the Gazan coast is likely to be a matter of warships already on-scene for “routine” patrols. Turkey is changing her baseline naval posture, not merely responding ad hoc to random priorities.
The Turks are hardly driving out into a traffic jam: the naval stalwarts of NATO – the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands – don’t make it over to the Eastern Med nearly as much as they used to. Cash-strapped Greece has just announced a drawdown of participation in NATO naval operations because she really can’t even afford to patrol her own waters. The vacuum being left by an inattentive United States and a lackadaisical NATO is becoming apparent.
In the middle of all this, Turkey has announced the delivery of her navy’s first homegrown frigate. The timing, dovetailing with a repulsive comment by Erdogan about Israel and the Holocaust, generates something uncomfortably close to an Ahmadinejadian vibe. (Turkey continues to deal quite pragmatically with Iran, cooperating on the project of suppressing the Kurds while intercepting Iranian arms shipments to Syria. Turkey and Iran will not be forming a BFF Club any time soon.)
Who, incidentally, is coming to the rescue of Cyprus’ faltering financial situation? That would be Russia, of course, which continues to have an interest in beefing up ties with Greece and Cyprus – geopolitically “flanking” Turkey – and establishing stakes in both Mediterranean frontage and oil-and-gas deposits.
I am unconvinced that Russia has dispatched “two nuclear submarines” to patrol the Eastern Med; I consider it a better assessment that no more than one has been deployed to the Med, if any. A Russian nuclear attack submarine (SSN) would have to come from the Northern Fleet, in the Barents Sea, which has only 11 SSNs in the current order of battle. (There are no nuclear submarines in the Black or Baltic Sea.) No more than 6-7 of the Northern Fleet SSNs are in “constant-ready” status at a given time. I regard 5 as a better estimate. Assuming the 6-7, however, and assuming the Russians hope to keep their SSNs in service, they can’t generate more than 4-6 long-range patrols per year with the number they have operational.
The Russian submarine force is naturally the naval element whose patrol patterns we know the least about today, but the Russians were at pains to make clear the resumption of a global presence starting in 2007, and the operation of an SSN off the US East coast in 2009. A Mediterranean presence would be one among several priorities, and would be likely to result in about two total Med patrols per year (with about 45-50 days on-station), probably done as single patrols and spaced over time.
There may well be a Russian SSN in the Eastern Med right now, but I would be surprised if there’s more than one. Russian nuclear subs almost never make port visits, as US and other NATO subs do when on deployment. A Russian diesel-powered attack sub, a Kilo-class SS from the Baltic, participated visibly in a NATO submarine exercise off Spain’s southeastern coast this summer, and diesel-powered subs are more likely in general to make port calls. The older ones in service have to expose their masts to snorkel anyway, and require refueling during deployments; they can’t maintain stealth on long-range deployments as nuclear-powered submarines can.
So the Russians can make claims that may or may not be true about deploying nuclear submarines, as a means of influencing the political situation. It will be interesting to see if Russia lets the region glimpse, however briefly, a submarine that may be in the Eastern Med. The implied long-term outcome of the Russian push with Cyprus (and Greece), coupled with the announcement of the sub deployments, is Russian use of their ports. Making an SSN visible, even if only for half an hour, would reinforce that implication most effectively – especially assuming the SSN carries the SS-N-21 Sampson (RK-55 Granit), or “Tomahawkski,” land-attack missile.
Meanwhile, Russia will be reinforcing the general message about seapower and land influence in the Med with the deployment this fall of an amphibious landing ship to the Balkan Peninsula. Ropucha LST Tsesar Kunikov will deploy from the Black Sea in October and November to conduct port visits in Greece and Montenegro (a Serb region of former Yugoslavia, located on the Adriatic Sea, where the port of Tivat, long used by the Soviet Navy, is situated). The landing ship will participate in a ceremony on 20 October to commemorate the Battle of Navarino, a key confrontation of the year 1827 in the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. (The Russians were on the side that defeated the Ottoman fleet.)
Such commemorations of history are typical of Russian policy, and never more so than when they make a strong point with modern rivals – in the present case, Turkey. At this point, there is little reason to refer any longer to a Pax Americana. The linchpin of the Pax Americana, the NATO alliance, is precisely what is being undermined by the migration of NATO allies Turkey and Greece away from common strategic objectives. Russia – once the motivating factor for NATO – is now sought and cultivated by one ally out of concern about the other. All things old are new again, we’re not in Kansas anymore, and peace in our time has some tough innings ahead of it.