Arc of Steel: Russia’s Strategic Shift from the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean and its Implications for US Foreign Policy

This past June, forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) massed in and around the Baltic Sea in a war game called Allied Shield, preparing to repel a hostile takeover of a member state by an enemy with a large conventional military, presumably President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Amphibious operations were launched in Sweden and Poland, while conventional forces deployed in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. NATO leaders surveyed the battlefield and came to a shocking conclusion: their forces might lose.

The outcome of Allied Shield is concerning in presenting the possibility that the United States (US) and NATO are unprepared for war with Russia in the Baltic. But it is increasingly clear that further incursions into Eastern Europe are not a Russian priority. The US should actually be concentrating its efforts to counter Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, rather than the Baltic, where Russia is refocusing its military and strategic efforts. Russia’s commitment to the Eastern Mediterranean can be demonstrated through its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and arms development.

According to US Admiral Mark Ferguson, who commands US Naval forces in Europe and Africa, Russia is constructing an “Arc of Steel” in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. From a military perspective, the Arc of Steel enables Russian power projection in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. From an economic perspective, a strong foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean will allow Russia to channel oil and natural gas through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. The Arc of Steel begins with Russia’s armed outposts in the Arctic, and continues down the Baltic Cost to Kaliningrad. When Russia regained control of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin added another segment of the Arc by reclaiming the port of Sevastopol, the former base of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. This can partially explain Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

In addition to its actions in Ukraine, Russia’s aggression in Syria indicates its increasing commitment to the establishment of the Arc of Steel. The terminus of the Arc of Steel is the Port of Tartus in Syria, 100 miles north of Damascus, Russia’s only naval base on foreign soil. The instability of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria in the midst of a civil war lasting over four years jeopardizes the survival of Russia’s Tartus base. One of the reasons for Putin’s deepening support for the Assad regime, conducting of bombing campaigns against both its moderate and radical opponents, and redeployment of Russian special and irregular forces from Ukraine to Syria is the need to provide insurance for the Tartus base. Russia’s unilateral action in Syria demonstrates that US and NATO focus on the defense of the Balkans was misguided. Russia’s economic and military interests now lie in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Finally, the nature of Russia’s military build-up also indicates its transition to an Arc of Steel strategy. Russia has been developing air defense and cruise missile systems, which will allow Russian forces to adopt a “sea denial strategy” against NATO maritime forces, according to Ferguson. Furthermore, Russia reestablished its Mediterranean task force in 2012, for the first time since the final days of the Soviet Union, and has begun conducting naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The success of the Arc of Steel has clearly become a foreign policy priority for the Kremlin, one that they will not hesitate to achieve through military force. In pursuit of this goal, increased Russian involvement in Syria and exercises in the Mediterranean is the logical continuation of aggression in the Ukraine. The US must therefore stop carrying out obsolete exercise in the Baltic and refocus its attention from the Baltic to the Eastern Mediterranean in order to counter a projection of Russian power in that theatre.