Russia and NATO Locked in High-Risk Standoff in Mediterranean and Black Seas

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 8

Varyag Russian missile cruiser (Source: Military Review)

On Wednesday, January 26, the United States’ ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, personally delivered a memorandum to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs containing the official US reply to earlier Russian demands on security guarantees. Simultaneously, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) handed over to Moscow its separate written response. Both Washington and Brussels refused to deny countries like Ukraine or Georgia the right to seek NATO membership, though it is clear such membership is not pending anytime soon in either case. The US and its allies are ready to engage in a dialogue with Moscow on security issues and seek arms control agreements. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly responded to Washington’s memorandum in a cautious manner: “The document may become the basis of serious negotiations, but on secondary issues.” The US and NATO memorandums do not meet, according to Lavrov, Russia’s main concerns: a total official ban on further NATO enlargement or possible deployments in Europe of weapons Moscow may see as threatening. According to Lavrov, Washington asked Moscow to keep the contents of the memorandum confidential, and “we agreed.” But since US allies and the Ukrainians have been briefed, “someone will surely soon leak the document,” Lavrov told journalists (Interfax, January 27).

Moscow will probably respond to the memorandums in the coming days; but the foreign ministry is not the prime decision maker in Moscow. Lavrov likely does not yet know whether his government will declare the US and NATO documents to be provocations by Western “warmongers” or whether Moscow will officially accept them as a basis for future negotiations on regional security and arms control, or something in between. The two Western responses will be considered in detail by a multitude of Russian ministries, departments and security services, under the chairmanship of the Kremlin administration, in order to build an interdepartmental consensus—a discussion in which the foreign ministry is only one voice out of many. The end results will be presented to President Vladimir Putin, who, according to Lavrov, will make the ultimate decision. Most likely, this will come at a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, chaired by Putin himself (Interfax, January 27).

While the diplomatic maneuvers continue, the Russian military is running an increasingly massive series of military exercises on land, in the air and on the sea. Troops from the Eastern Military District (Vostochny Voyenni Okrug) are deploying from the Russian Far East by air and train to Belarus. Russian forces will stay in Belarus at least until the end of February 2022 and run the joint exercise Allied Resolve 2022 (Souznaya Reshymost 2022), officially focused on preparing to repel “possible external aggression and suppress terrorist activities” (see EDM, January 26). The Sothern and Western military districts (Yuzni Voyenni Okrug—YVO; Zapadny Voenni Okrug—ZVO) are in a heightened state of military alert, deploying forces in winter to field camps in combat formation (see EDM, January 20). Contract volunteer reservists of the National Combat Army Reserve—the newly formed Russian equivalent of the US National Guard—have been called up for service in the YVO; reportedly, some 9,000 of these part-time soldiers have already been recruited (, January 26). Fighter jets and bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ 4th Army of the YVO have been deployed in exercises as have the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla (both under YVO command). The Baltic Sea Fleet (which falls under the ZVO) has sent some 20 warships at sea, as has the Northern Fleet. The Russian navy has begun a series of large exercises in different locations, reportedly involving “over 10,000 men and over 140 ships” (Interfax, January 25).

The Russian Ministry of Defense has put into motion a complex plan to concentrate two large naval task forces in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The missile cruiser Varyag, together with a frigate and a tanker of the Pacific Fleet, left Vladivostok in December, sailing to the Indian Ocean. By January 18, 2022, the ships reached Iran and carried out exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea with Iranian and Chinese warships. From there, the Varyag group plans to sail through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, six large Russian assault ships (three from the Northern and three from the Baltic fleets) are approaching Gibraltar to enter the Mediterranean (see EDM, January 24). Last April, Russia assembled more than 20 land-assault ships in the Black Sea and practiced an amphibious landing from air and sea by marines and airborne paratroopers, with some 10,000 troops with heavy weapons going in the first wave on a Crimea training ground beach (see EDM, April 13, 20, 27, May 3, 2021). Today, the assault ships may again possibly concentrate in the Black Sea, while the Varyag, armed with guided anti-ship missiles, will be augmenting the submarines and warships of the permanent Russian Mediterranean naval task force, together with the missile cruiser Moskva, as well as frigates and corvettes of the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian flotilla. Russia does not have a single battle-ready carrier; but in the Black Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean, its naval forces enjoy air cover and support from airbases in Crimea, the Caucasus and Syria. Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, specifically designed to attack US carriers, may be deployed to Syria, together with MiG-31K jets carrying hypersonic Kinzal missiles (Izvestia, January 27).

The Pentagon has deployed the USS Harry Truman carrier group to the Mediterranean, which, in a shooting war, would presumably become the main target for the Russian task force assembling in the same waters. Amidst a possible escalation with Ukraine, Russia will consider it crucial to prevent NATO naval power from intervening, so it will seek to block USS Harry Truman from projecting airpower into the Black Sea region. So the Russian naval task force and airpower can be expected to shadow USS Harry Truman, ready for a surprise assault if given orders to sink or disable the flattop. The United States’ super-carrier, in turn, will be protected by both US and allied destroyers and frigates; tensions between them and the Russian force in the Mediterranean basin could heighten dramatically. A single mistake might result in an exchange of fire, with dozens of warships hit, thousands of sailors dead or injured, and, since major Russian warships carry nuclear weapons onboard, the encounter could go nuclear almost immediately. Nothing of this sort or on such a scale looks possible on the Russo-Ukrainian border or in Belarus or the Baltic Sea. Whereas, the crowded Mediterranean could become a central world hotspot in February 2022.