Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
"The Russians seem to me more bent on taking ports in the Mediterranean than in destroying Bonaparte in Egypt." So wrote Horatio Nelson in 1799. Whether "Bonaparte" is regarded as a synonym for President Nasser or for the Sixth Fleet, these words could hardly be improved upon as a reflection of the present state of Western consternation about Soviet objectives in the Mediterranean. Do the beginnings of a Soviet naval presence there mark the end of an era during which the Mediterranean has been dominated by a succession of single powers?
The Mediterranean, the meeting place of three continents and the melting pot of even more civilizations, has, unlike continental Europe, never enjoyed a lasting power balance, The Pax Romana was followed by centuries of Islamic rule, which in turn was gradually replaced by an uneasy relationship between the Porte and the emerging British Empire, occasionally challenged by France. The opening of the Suez Canal changed the Mediterranean from an inland sea to the main link between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans, and thus made it an important commercial and military artery. After World War II the importance of the Mediterranean as a strategic nexus between East and West was further enhanced. As a key area in the Western system of deterrence which encircled the communist world from the North Cape to Okinawa, it remained under the influence of the Atlantic powers; for the first time it was an external power, the United States, which provided the principal instrument of dominance, the Sixth Fleet.
It now seems that this fourth phase of one-power predominance in the Mediterranean may also be the last. Since the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967 the Soviet Union has established a political and military presence on a larger scale than before, and shows no intention of withdrawing. It has thus succeeded in escaping from the role of a distant observer who could defend or promote its interests in the area by verbal declarations only. Much of the West's alarm seems either excessive or premature; but it would certainly be shortsighted to deny that the new Soviet presence will have considerable political and military effect.
The importance of the new Soviet engagement in the Mediterranean is magnified for two reasons: it can be related to a change in Soviet strategy and it is taking place in an especially sensitive area of the world. Quite apart from the third Arab-Israeli war, a number of other recent developments make the Mediterranean vulnerable to a Soviet challenge. They include the imminent British withdrawal from "East of Suez;" the military coup in Greece; the still unsettled Cyprus crisis, with its attendant Greco- Turkish tensions; Britain's dispute with Spain over Gibraltar; France's withdrawal from NATO, her withdrawal from naval bases in Tunisia and Algeria, and her attempt at "reengagement" in the Middle East; the uncertainties of Italian domestic politics; and the manifold tensions between the West and the Arabs. In theory each of these situations could be exploited by the Soviet Union. But this is to assume that the Mediterranean littoral is a political and strategic unit which a great power like the U.S.S.R. can influence according to its own will. At present there is no evidence that such a possibility exists, as the United States found out in the 19505 after bitter experience.
The fifteen Mediterranean countries have little in common. They have widely different political backgrounds and are at varying stages of economic development. Consequently, they are less likely to form a distinct community of interest than almost any other constellation of states, except perhaps the countries bordering the Indian Ocean. It is, therefore, doubtful if any external power could hope for more than a modest degree of influence in the entire Mediterranean area. It is true that there are communist observers who see events like the fall of Ben Bella, Sukarno or Nkrumah, the Arab defeat of June 1967 and the military putsch in Greece as part of a "CIA conspiracy," aimed at weakening the "progressive" forces in the world, and more especially in the Mediterranean area. President Tito seems to have been influenced by this theory when he came out so strongly for President Nasser during the June war. Fearing that his last and best friend in the nonaligned world was in danger, Tito took the unusual step of urging the Soviet leaders to come to Nasser's defense. To achieve this, he was even prepared to grant overflight rights to the Russians and accept an almost complete alignment with their Middle East policy. In so doing Tito may have helped to save President Nasser. At the same time he undoubtedly helped to bring the Soviet Union into the Mediterranean even more quickly and on a larger scale than he could have wished and the Russians could have expected.
The Russian drive for warm-water ports and outlets to the oceans, including the Mediterranean, has a long history. Although the recent rapid build-up of the Soviet presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is more the result of exploiting a series of accidental events than the execution of a master plan, this is not to say that the Soviet Union came to the Mediterranean by accident. Its present policy had its origins in the mid-fifties when, after several years of relative inactivity, it resumed, but with different methods, a policy unsuccessfully followed by Stalin both during and shortly after the war. The Russian Navy had, in fact, a submarine base in Albania until 1961; and the present naval build-up goes back to 1964 when a special Mediterranean unit was formed as a part of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet.
More important than the much publicized build-up of the Soviet navy is the fact that the U.S.S.R. has obviously decided to commit itself to the Mediterranean on both a politically and strategically important scale and to stay there for good-with all the consequences this may entail. It seems to reflect an important change in Soviet strategic thinking. Following World War II Soviet strategists were confronted with "worldwide Western encirclement." For almost two decades their strategy was designed for the defense of their "inner front." Western, and especially American, defense policies relied on a series of distant bases that were both politically and militarily vulnerable, while the Soviet Union could organize its defense on its own territory or within its immediate sphere of influence. Humiliating experiences in Cuba and during the June war demonstrated the importance of having a naval force that was both mobile and credible. This may have convinced Soviet strategists that the long-term advantage of an "inner front" had gradually changed into a net disadvantage. For concentration on the "inner front" had prevented the Soviet Union from developing a powerful navy, which in the light of the growing importance of both seaborne strategic deterrence and a capability for long-range intervention has now become an essential attribute of great-power status.
There are many indications that the U.S.S.R. is now developing a strategy better suited to its ambitions as a superpower and to the support of its friends in time of crisis. A consequence may be that it will feel increasingly tempted to deploy its newly acquired military capabilities in areas where it has not previously made its presence effectively felt. By breaking the American naval hegemony in most maritime areas, including the Mediterranean, the Soviet Union may try to establish regional balances in strategically important areas so as to complement, at lower levels, the existing global balance between itself and the United States. In this way, the Soviets would hope to prevent their opponent from taking unopposed actions against what they could consider their own interests or those of their client states. Clearly, the United States today could not, with the same equanimity, undertake an action similar to its intervention in the Lebanon in 1958, even if it wished to do so.
Before examining the political and strategic implications of the Soviet effort to establish a strategic balance in the Mediterranean we may appropriately look at the three forms which the Soviet military presence has assumed in the eastern part of the Sea and the adjacent Middle Eastern area.
First, there is the remarkable expansion of Soviet arms deliveries to the Arab and other Mediterranean countries, ranging from such "traditional customers" as the United Arab Republic, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Algeria to South Yemen, the Yemen Republic and, surprisingly, Morocco, which (to Algeria's embarrassment) is reportedly to receive light weapons from Czechoslovakia. Further, the Soviet Union has since 1958 replaced the United States as Jugoslavia's main source of supply. The case of Jordan, which briefly appeared on the list of new Soviet customers, shows, however, that Moscow is more cautious than it sometimes appears. In refraining from delivering arms to Jordan it was moved less by ideological reasons than by a sober assessment of the undesirable consequences such a step could have: Israel and Saudi Arabia would find themselves hemmed in by countries dependent on Soviet assistance, while the United States would lose one of the few remaining possibilities of exerting influence on Israel's neighbors. This could lead only to a further polarization of forces and thus render still more difficult a viable coexistence between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Second, the Soviet Union has noticeably increased its technical-military assistance to certain Arab countries, particularly as regards the number of instructors, technicians and engineers sent to the U.A.R. Exact figures are not available, but estimates vary from 1,000 to 2,000 men. More important than the correctness of these figures, however, is, as we shall see, the way this Soviet commitment is affecting relations between the two countries.
Finally, the Soviet Union now has a navy of some 45 ships in the Mediterranean, which constitutes its most conspicuous presence in the area and is intended to have the greatest possible psychological effect. In mere numbers it may be compared with the 50 to 60 ships in the U.S. Sixth Fleet. But it has nothing to compare with the two powerful American aircraft carriers, each with 100 strike aircraft, or with the Polaris submarines. (Incidentally, it is often overlooked that the Italian navy exceeds the Soviet Mediterranean fleet in terms of both numbers and modern ships.) Above all, the Soviet fleet in the Mediterranean still lacks any kind of sustained air cover, having neither an aircraft carrier nor an airfield sufficiently near. In the Mediterranean, with its relatively short distances, this may not be as disadvantageous as it could be elsewhere; however, it is an unsatisfactory situation which the U.S.S.R. will probably try to rectify.
One way of achieving this is to establish permanent naval and air bases in friendly countries. The Soviet Union has made some progress in both respects. At present, it uses three ports of call-Alexandria and Port Said in the U.A.R., and Latakia in Syria. There is no evidence, however, that it has taken over the Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir from the French, and, barring a major change in the politico-military situation, there is little likelihood of this occurring in the foreseeable future. One cannot say that the Soviets are using the above ports as permanent military bases or are in fact pressing to take them over. The term "base" has often been misused in this context; given the greater mobility of modern navies and their increasing self-sufficiency both in terms of supply and communications, the importance of highly complex bases has decreased. Therefore, it is more appropriate to talk about technical facilities. And no doubt the Soviet navy is increasing its use of these harbors for refueling, refitting and repairs. In so doing it has been careful to avoid assuming the appearance of a neo-colonial power. But it is difficult to see how it can escape this charge if it simultaneously reëquips its client states with modern weapons and acts as their overall protector.
At this early stage the greatest effect of the Soviet build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean is psychological. Looking further ahead, however, we can see a number of developments which may affect the political and military situation of the entire area. The Soviet presence is likely to arouse diametrically opposite reactions on the part of the countries involved. They may readjust their foreign and defense policies, either because they see the Soviet presence as a threat to their own position or because it seems to strengthen it. Whether such a polarization will actually take place will depend on Soviet behavior, as well as on the reactions not only of the local countries but of the external powers to what could become another area of great-power confrontation. NATO or some of its members may well react or even over-react to a further growth of Soviet influence by increasing their own forces, by reinvigorating the present alliance systems or creating a new inter-allied force.
The fear that the Soviet Union could "outflank" NATO seems exaggerated, for it is difficult to see what the U.S.S.R. would achieve by such an attempt, let alone how it could carry it out with the present capability of its Mediterranean fleet. One could, however, argue that during a crisis its present position would make it easy for it to cut important supply lines to Europe. Thus the possibility of a new front in the south of Europe cannot be altogether dismissed. In particular it is a contingency that Turkey must take into account; it has always had the Soviet navy on its northern coast, but now it must reckon on being threatened also from the south. The U.S.S.R. might also be able to interfere, in time of crisis, in Western air communications between NATO and CENTO. And so long as there are British troops East of Suez, this could also affect British positions in Asia.
Thus the U.S.S.R. is in process of obtaining new strategic options, which it may be able to use better once its presence in the Mediterranean has become firmly established. How far it can get is a different question. The Soviet navy will for a long time remain vulnerable in at least two respects: its inferiority to NATO's Mediterranean fleets and the vulnerability of its supply lines. The Sixth Fleet, originally linked to the American strategic deterrent and gradually turned into a powerful instrument of American diplomacy, is well equipped to check a Soviet threat. It is difficult to see what the Soviet Union might expect to achieve under these circumstances without risking a major confrontation.
A further consideration is that the Soviet Union has no direct control over Gibraltar and the Dardanelles. The new Soviet presence in the Mediterranean does lend added importance to the question of who controls these two main access routes. Precisely at this moment, too, Britain and Spain are at odds over the future status of Gibraltar, with the United States as an uneasy observer wishing to maintain its close relationship with the former and also anxious to prolong its base rights in Spain. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, made no secret of its preference when it joined the curiously mixed group of countries which supported Spain's case in a U.N. resolution violently critical of British policy on Gibraltar.
In the case of the Dardanelles, Moscow has shown considerable restraint since its two abortive attempts to obtain a revision of the Montreux Convention at Yalta in 1945 and again in 1946. As long as the passage of its ships is in no way obstructed, the Soviet Union obviously prefers to improve its relations with Turkey rather than press for a change in the present status of the Straits, however inconvenient and unsatisfactory this may be. It even may not feel absolutely sure of retaining its hitherto unchallenged control over the Black Sea, where until now it has been able to use Bulgarian and Rumanian ports at will. Present developments in Rumanian policy suggest that this facility may not last forever. Although a further disintegration within the southern tier of the Warsaw Pact may not seriously affect the Soviet naval posture in the Black Sea, it may considerably hamper Moscow's further build-up in the Mediterranean.
Here, then, lies the other weakness of the Soviet position in the Mediterranean. As long as the U.S.S.R. has no military control over the two entrances to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and the Dardanelles, and slight hope of ever getting it, Soviet supply lines remain vulnerable. Equally, political changes in Southeastern Europe may in one way or another weaken the Soviet position in the Black Sea.
The greatest factor of uncertainty for the Soviet Union will be the future policy of her Arab client states. Though Jugoslavia's policy of nonalignment has lost much of its strength, being largely neutralized in the Mediterranean countries by Soviet presence, it would be wrong to pretend that the days of nonalignment or noncommitment in the area are over. If the Arab-Israeli conflict is ever resolved into a mutually acceptable coëxistence, the desire for a better-balanced relationship with each of the two superpowers may revive once more. There is already a growing uneasiness in some Arab countries about their one-sided relationship with, or even dependence upon, the Soviet Union. Algeria, the Sudan and the U.A.R. have reestablished diplomatic relations with Britain, and Cairo is cautiously moving toward a rapprochement with Washington. Nasser may also be willing to resume diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany if this does not raise the awkward question of recognizing East Germany-something the Soviet Union would no doubt press for. But no Arab country, and least of all the U.A.R., dares to antagonize the Soviet Union, let alone dispense with its support. This dependence is, of course, a function of their conflict with, and fear of, Israel. As long as this conflict lasts the Soviet Union has a welcome pretext for continuing both its presence in the Mediterranean and its influence in the Arab world.
The main focus of the Soviet objectives is the U.A.R., not only because it is the leader of the "progressive" Arab States, but because it provides a key to Africa and, via the Suez Canal, to the Indian Ocean. Without Cairo's consent the Soviet Union would otherwise find it much more difficult to maintain a permanent influence in Africa, and practically impossible to exert an influence in the Indian Ocean. Moscow is no doubt exploiting its present advantageous position to secure its rights to use Egyptian naval and air bases, which are also important for reaching destinations like Nigeria or Aden.
This brings us to the Suez Canal as the third door to the Mediterranean. Its closure has brought home different lessons to the various parties concerned. The European countries, with the possible exception of Britain, have realized that the Canal has lost most of its strategic and much of its economic significance for them; it will lose still more as long-range transportation costs around the Cape decrease, as the sources of oil become more diversified and as the increased size of both tanker and dry cargo vessels make their use of the Canal impossible. With the obvious exception of the U.A.R., the other Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, also appear to be little affected by the closure; some of them may even profit from it.
If, on the other hand, our assumptions about Soviet long-term strategy are correct, then the Canal must become an increasingly important factor in Moscow's future ability to implement it. Its attempt to build up a long- distance capability to intervene may point to still more far-reaching objectives. The Soviet Union is already seeking closer relations with South Asian countries, in particular with India. Especially after Britain's withdrawal East of Suez, this could become an important Soviet asset if China's influence grows as a consequence of the changing politico-military constellation in Viet Nam. But besides the potential strategic threat from China, the Soviet Union seems increasingly worried about the possibility of Chinese infiltration of various liberation movements (such as Al-Fatah in Palestine and the newly created NLF-type underground organization in Kashmir) which are active in some of its client states.
As its ports on the Pacific coast are too far away and ice-blocked for several months each year, the Soviet Union will find it difficult to fulfill its commitments without freedom of man?uvre in the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. The Soviets thus seem about to repeat British history, which has shown that whoever wants to have a strategic relationship with India must ensure passage across the Middle Eastern landbridge-that is to say, through Suez. More than this, in order to secure both its supply lines and the permanence of its presence, the Soviet Union will have to dominate or seek good relations not only with Egypt, but also with the littoral states of the Red and Arabian Seas, and possibly also of the Persian Gulf. There are already indications that Moscow is in fact making its first probings in precisely that direction. For example, it has dispatched substantial air support to aid the Republican régime of Yemen against the Royalists. It has built a harbor at Hodeida on the Yemeni coast, and it is helping the Somalis to build a new port at Berbera. At the same time it is giving substantial military assistance to the newly created South Yemen Republic. It has also improved its relations with Iran and Pakistan, thus turning an area which used to be the northern tier of Western defense into an open field of East-West competition.
The realization of these far-reaching Soviet objectives still seems rather remote, if only because there is little chance of an early reopening of the Canal. Surprisingly enough, the Soviet Union has done little to change this situation, which, after all, must run against its own interests as well as those of the U.A.R., for which every day of closure means a financial loss. While Moscow may not be able or even willing to enforce a quick settlement of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict, the present situation would certainly enable the U.S.S.R. to press for negotiations on the future of the Canal, perhaps offering its navy as "guarantor" of free passage; Israel would find difficulty in challenging such a proposal and many countries, above all Egypt, might welcome it.
But the realization of Soviet objectives may be obstructed by other obstacles. On the basis of available evidence we must assume that there are sharp differences within the Soviet leadership itself. The more cautious elements no doubt realize that pursuit of so far-reaching an aim as a permanent presence in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean will put a heavy strain on the Soviet economy, while adding many unknown risks and long-term commitments which no government can easily take upon itself without compelling reasons. In addition, such a policy develops its own momentum, which later Soviet governments might find difficulty in controlling, as the British and American governments have found. Armed with the recent lessons of American over-commitment in Asia, with Eastern Europe in ferment and with immense economic problems at home, the advocates of a cautious and pragmatic policy possess strong arguments. They can also point out that such wide commitments could easily be counterproductive: the Soviet Union might find itself with responsibilities it never sought, and whose only reward would be alienation from the countries it has tried to support. By now it may already have found out that tensions between Soviet instructors and Egyptian soldiers are the inevitable side-effect of its presence there-magnified by an Ambassador in Cairo who behaves like Lord Cromer in the 1890s.
Much, then, will depend on how Moscow defines and pursues its interests in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Perhaps the Soviets merely want to have the best of all worlds, namely to gain influence by exploiting conflicts, to expand their presence and forward their own interests without taking on more responsibilities for the area itself; they may discover, however, that in a region as diverse as the Middle East and with partners as emotional as the Arabs they will get the responsibilities without the influence. Or their endeavor may generate a new cohesion in Western policy and evoke old resentments in the nonaligned world. But whatever Moscow does, it will find that taking over the British sphere of influence is hardly possible without also assuming the imperial burden.
The Soviet presence in the Mediterranean opens a new era for this region as well as for Soviet policy. It expands the confrontation of the superpowers beyond Europe, but on a different level and in a different way. There are various reasons why one must doubt whether this confrontation will eventually evolve into a more or less durable coexistence. In fact, the opposite could happen.
First, the Mediterranean area lacks the political, economic and ethnic homogeneity which is essential for a process of stabilization. There is no clear delineation of spheres of influence that either side might feel obliged to respect.
Second, the Arab-Israeli conflict is particularly dangerous because the nature and extent of the Soviet and American commitments are different. It is precisely this asymmetry and the imbalance in their influence which could lead to a serious miscalculation in times of crisis. As a result of the June war Soviet influence in Egypt has grown far beyond that of the United States in Israel. On the other hand, the Soviet leaders make no secret of their intention to keep careful control over the use of offensive weapons which they supplied to the U.A.R. With Soviet instructors throughout the Egyptian armed forces, it may be assumed that the Soviet Union demands a say in the planning of Egyptian strategy and diplomacy. This makes it difficult to see how the Russians could allow President Nasser to undertake a major military action against Israel without making sure in advance that such action, first, is successful and, second, does not lead to a direct confrontation with the United States. It may well be that when the reëquipment and reorganization of the Egyptian forces has been completed, Soviet direct control will again be reduced. But it remains true that for the foreseeable future the U.S.S.R. will exercise incomparably more influence on Egypt and, to a lesser extent, on Israel's other Arab neighbors than the United States can ever expect or indeed want to have vis-à-vis Israel. In such circumstances the danger of miscalculations as to the intentions and actions of the other side is considerable.
Third, there is no such thing as a "naval balance of power," as was shown by the experience of the European powers earlier in this century. Two rival navies must no doubt constitute a serious deterrent to one another, but because they do not establish a physical presence within the littoral countries they cannot exert a significant influence there. Consequently, none of the Mediterranean countries feels either restrained or fearful of being dragged into a great-power conflict.
From this follows the fourth and probably most important difference between the superpower confrontations on the European continent and in the Mediterranean: now that the two superpowers confront each other on the sea they are partly neutralizing each other's influence on the surrounding territory. They must thus deter each other, but as long as they pursue conflicting interests they will hardly be able to deter the client states of the opponent. In consequence it is the small states of the area which gain a greater freedom of man?uvre in the pursuit of their interests.
So, paradoxically, the confrontation of the superpowers in the Mediterranean could well have the opposite effect from that in continental Europe. The greatest danger in the Mediterranean is not a direct clash between the superpowers but their lack of control over local conflicts, and the possibility of their eventually being drawn into them. Even more than in Europe they will sooner or later have to evolve a modus operandi based on the understanding that neither side is ever likely to have as much control over events as it has had for the last twenty years on the European continent, and that their control will become even smaller if they fail to coördinate their basic interests.