Butterfly Effect: The Next U.S.-Russia Conflict Theater Could be the Mediterranean
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A new theater of confrontation is opening up between the West and Moscow, in the Mediterranean.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Nicosia rarely figures on the itinerary of world leaders. Yet last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo, both visited the capital of Cyprus. It was no coincidence. As America’s growing tensions with China hog global headlines, a new theater of confrontation is simultaneously opening up between the West and Moscow: the Mediterranean.
On the surface, it’s a triangular tussle involving Turkey, Greece and Cyprus over potentially giant gas reserves deep under the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil lie under the eastern swath of the sea. The region’s nations have all had their eyes on the prize since the discovery of gas there a few years ago.
But over the past month, tensions have dramatically escalated. In August, Turkey sent an exploration vessel accompanied by warships into a part of the sea that falls within the Greek and Cypriot exclusive economic zones — parts of the ocean that only they can exploit economically. Greece responded by sending its own ships to trail Turkey’s vessels. And Cyprus, an island already divided between Greek- and Turkish-majority regions, fears it could get caught in a conflict between its larger neighbors.
Enter Washington, Moscow and Brussels — all claiming to play peacemaker, but each actually looking to either carve out a new arena of influence, or defend existing ones.
Greece and Cyprus, members of the European Union, are pressuring the bloc to impose sanctions on Turkey, an important trading partner for the grouping. At a time the EU wants to impose sanctions on Belarus over the crackdown on peaceful protesters there, Greece and Cyprus are quietly holding that plan to ransom — insisting they’ll only sign on if Turkey too is placed under sanctions. The EU has threatened sanctions against Ankara, but Germany — the current president of the grouping — has historically been reluctant to impose such trade embargoes, which it feels only further reduce the prospects of negotiations.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has partially lifted a ban on the sale of weapons to Cyprus that it had instituted in 1974 to prevent an arms race during the Turkish-Cypriot war. And last Saturday, Pompeo flew to Nicosia in a show of support for Cyprus. America, he said, was “deeply concerned by Turkey’s ongoing operations.”
But Lavrov had beaten him to Nicosia — by four days. The Russian foreign minister also called for calm diplomacy, and offered mediation between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. In a sign of Moscow’s growing influence, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades in August requested that Russian President Vladimir Putin intervene in getting Turkey to avoid provocations.
Both Lavrov and Pompeo used their visits to Cyprus to underscore the broader proxy battle at play. Pompeo told his hosts the U.S. was unhappy about a growing number of Russian warships docking at Cypriot ports. And Lavrov accused the U.S. of fanning tensions through its decision to partly lift the weapons embargo on Cyprus.
For the moment, Russia holds a decisive edge — without the dilemmas that are hobbling the American and European response. Greece and Cyprus are part of the EU, while Turkey is central to Europe’s efforts to curb the flow of migrants. Both Greece and Turkey are a part of NATO. For the U.S. and EU, picking either side could lead to a fracture in crucial alliances.
Russia, a new player in the region in a post-Cold War era, has no such worries. Instead, it is busy bolstering its military presence in the Mediterranean, using its military gains in Syria as a stepping stone. Since 2017, Moscow has managed a permanent military base in Tartus and an air base in Khmeimim — both on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russia has also entrenched itself along Libya’s coast through its support for the rebel leader Khalifa Haftar, who controls the region.
Ultimately, this isn’t about gas or oil. The Mediterranean Sea is the gateway to some of the world’s most important maritime trade routes, including the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Greater Russian strategic heft in the region leaves its rivals vulnerable. Equally, Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing America’s commitment — and that of Europe — to a region that has been a part of the Western sphere of influence since the start of the Cold War.
To be sure, Russia’s economic ability to sustain its expansionism is questionable. But we’ll only know the limits of Putin’s plans if an inward-looking America and a Europe beset by own challenges decide to shelve their uncertainties and smartly help Turkey, Cyprus and Greece resolve their dispute. If they don’t, the Mediterranean might soon be aflame. And the region will turn to Russia for the fire extinguisher.
- Charu Sudan KasturiContact Charu Sudan Kasturi