Just days after planting the white-blue-and-red Russian flag under the ice of the North Pole, the Russian navy is planning another expansionist expedition.
“The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea fleet,” the head of the Russian fleet Admiral Vladimir Masorin said last week as he toured the Russian base at the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol. “I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian Navy should restore its permanent presence there.”
Russian military experts say the intent is to return warships to a Soviet-era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which is still open though largely in disuse. (The base is said to currently consist of three floating docks - of which only one is operational - a floating workshop, storage facilities, barracks and other facilities.)
Admiral Masorin's statement - reported prominently by the state-run RIA Novosti newswire, a sure sign he wasn't speaking strictly for himself - has caused major ruffles here in Jerusalem. Israel's mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper's front-page headline yesterday was right out of the movie Red Dawn: "The Russians are coming."
“A Russian flag on Syrian soil has significant strategic implications. Firstly, it challenges the US and the dominance of the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean. Secondly, with its actual presence in Syria, Russia is announcing that it is actively participating in any process and conflict in the Middle East, that it has a stance of its own, and that it must be reckoned with,” the article read.
It's not just the idea of a Russian fleet in Tartus that has the Jewish state and its American backers concerned. It's the wider pattern of Kremlin backing for those the U.S. and Israel consider to be enemies in the region.
- Russia has continued to sell its technology to Tehran for use in in Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
- Russia’s relations with Syria have warmed even as Washington has sought to isolate Damascus over its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq. Two years ago, Moscow wrote off a nearly $10-billion Soviet-era debt owed to it by Syria. Now it’s reportedly in the midst of selling medium-range missiles and MiG-31 fighter planes to Damascus.
- The Kremlin has also happily bucked the White House line when it comes to dealing with Hamas, the Islamist movement that recently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the American and Israeli-backed Fatah movement. "The level of relations with Russia is excellent," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said recently.
As I wrote in an article in today's The Globe and Mail, much of the motivation for backing Syria and Iran can be attributed to crass commercialism – there are few markets these days for Russian military hardware – the underlying policy increasingly appears to be that Russia supports whatever America is against, and will throw its lot in with anyone willing to stand up to U.S. hegemony.
Sounds, uh, a little like the Cold War.