Seven weeks after the FIFA World Cup concluded in Russia, Moscow is “uncoiling” in several strategic directions simultaneously. This is a term used to describe moving from a curled position to straight and can be applied to inanimate or animate objects. In the context of Russian foreign policy, the term has been used to denote the Kremlin’s strategic actions. In the wake of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia’s “Novorossiya” experiment in Eastern Ukraine erupted violently, with Moscow uncoiling after another major international sporting event.
In the wake of the 2018 World Cup, Moscow’s military and naval activity is at an all-time high across a broad swath from Eurasia to the Mediterranean Sea. Russia uncoiling across a number of different theaters is a display of armed forces prowess. Optics are important for Moscow and there is much to see in terms of displays. More interesting, however, are the strategic and tactical aspects of what is uncoiling.
Vostok 2018, scheduled for Sept. 11 to 15, will see Russia host its largest military exercise since 1981. The war games in Siberia and the country’s Far East will involve nearly 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, and vessels from the Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet and the Barents Sea-based Northern Fleet. Some 900 tanks will also be mobilized for the exercise. In addition, China will participate in Russia’s Vostok exercises for the first time by sending helicopters and 3,200 troops, while Mongolia will send a smaller but balanced contingent. The Russian Pacific and Northern Fleets are equipped to carry nuclear weapons, which means that part of the exercise is to practice nuclear warfare operations. Importantly, China’s participation further illustrates a Russo-Chinese military alliance.
Simultaneously, Moscow is uncoiling by striking at Eastern Ukraine. Notably, military equipment destined for Vostok 2018 is being diverted toward the Russian-Ukrainian border, where Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, died in a blast a few days ago. Many see the assassination as a provocation for Russia to again enter Ukraine and take care of the Kremlin’s geographical necessity of capturing the Sea of Azov and the lands that feed water and electricity into the Crimean Peninsula.
Full control of the Sea of Azov is a major strategic objective for the Kremlin. In March, Ukrainian authorities detained a Crimean-registered fishing vessel for illegally sailing in the Sea of Azov under the Russian flag and arrested its captain and crew — a move one Russian official likened to that of “Somali pirates.” Since then, Russia is claiming the Sea of Azov. In mid-May, following the Kerch Strait Bridge’s completion, Russia moved naval vessels, including warships, from its Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of Azov to step up security around the new bridge. The move only sought to further control maritime commerce and is evidence that Russia is aiming to annex the Sea of Azov. Moscow has detained more than 148 Ukrainian and foreign merchant ships and interrogated crew members and local shipping companies.
Uncoiling toward the Mediterranean Sea is another major strategic objective for the Kremlin, and it has been ongoing since the build-up to the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. This week’s Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean are the biggest such deployment since the end of the Cold War. The size of the naval force — with more than a dozen vessels including destroyers, frigates and submarines, some armed with Kalibr cruise missiles — demonstrates that this deployment is not only for military drills, but also optics. Russia aims to create a shield with its naval and air forces against possible strikes by the US and other air and submarine forces in the region. The move is to show that Russia is a strategic peer in the Eastern Mediterranean.
To be sure, Moscow’s exercise is part of the creation of a never-before-seen Russian Mediterranean Sea Fleet. Despite the fact that Russia needs more time to establish supporting infrastructure to sustain a permanent presence in the Mediterranean Sea besides Syria’s Tartus port, it wants basing rights in Egypt and Libya to name just a few.
Decisively, Russia’s naval exercise is not only being conducted off the coast of Syria, but also off the coast of Egypt, directly over the Zohr natural gas field. Moscow is illustrating that it intends to protect Egypt’s natural resources in times of maritime insecurity and necessity.
Russia is using these uncoilings to arch its geostrategic reach from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean. Opening up before the Kremlin is not only an opportunity to partner with China in a large conventional and nuclear exercise, but also the chance to carve away at Ukraine and present the Russian Navy as a possible deterrent force against any Western alliance actions in the Mediterranean. In other words, Moscow is showing it can deploy vast numbers of personnel and equipment in various strategic directions.
Meanwhile, Russian military activity will occur at the same time as the Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders convene in Tehran to discuss the Syria situation. Moscow is uncoiling rapidly.