OpinionMiddle East

The implications of Russia’s new maritime doctrine for Israel

Russia intends to expand its footprint in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Israel must tread carefully in response.

Russian naval vessels off the coast of Syria. Credit: Mil.ru.
Russian naval vessels off the coast of Syria. Credit: Mil.ru.
Daniel Rakov
Daniel Rakov

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new maritime doctrine on July 31. This high-level strategic-planning paper elaborates Moscow’s official maritime strategy. The latest edition differs significantly from the previous one in 2015, with a greater emphasis on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, which could have significant repercussions for Israel.

The revised text emphasizes worldwide conflict with the West, the primacy of the security prism in defining national goals and a reorientation of Russia’s foreign policy toward the global south in the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine.

The doctrine describes Russia as a “great continental and naval power” with national interests in all of the world’s seas and oceans, the will to maintain that status and “sufficient naval-military might” to “guarantee” its ability to protect its national interests.

The revised doctrine, like the 2015 text, divides the world into six geographical regions. However, the arrangement has changed. The Arctic and Pacific regions formerly ranked second and third in the order of importance. They have been upgraded to the first two spots, while the Atlantic region is now ranked third. One of Russia’s key goals in these three regions is to “ensure strategic stability” (a euphemism for mutual nuclear deterrence), which is declared more forcefully and urgently than in 2015.

Compared to a brief section in the 2015 edition, the reference to the Mediterranean basin is significantly more explicit. Moscow wants to enhance its ties with Syria, where it has a naval base that ensures a permanent Russian military presence in the Mediterranean, is planning to establish more techno-logistical outposts in the region and wishes to take a political role in ensuring Middle Eastern regional stability.

Moreover, Moscow is eager to increase its collaboration with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. It intends to keep a naval presence in the Persian Gulf “based on techno-logistical outposts in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and to use the infrastructure of the countries of the region for Russian naval military activity.”

These ambitions will be difficult to realize. Nonetheless, Russia can surprise on occasion. The 2015 doctrine introduced the idea that Russia needs a permanent naval and military presence in the Mediterranean. This became a reality that same year with Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war.

In developing its long-term strategy, Israel must consider Russia’s intention to expand its military footprint and political activities in the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.

The extensive references to the Middle East in the doctrine are unparalleled in Russian national security documents. They close the gap between the region’s fundamental importance to Moscow and its absence from policy texts over the previous 10 years. It regards the eastern Mediterranean—and thus the Middle East—as an “important area” and declares Moscow’s willingness to use force to safeguard its interests there.

Given that the doctrine shows that Iran is becoming more important to Russia, the question is whether Moscow can keep its ties with Jerusalem and Tehran separate. This is important not only for the area around the Indian Ocean, where Iran is relevant, but also for the Caspian Sea and Russia’s presence in Syria. In the doctrine, Iran is referred to as a “partner” rather than a “strategic partner” (a term used only for India).

Saudi Arabia has been touted as a possible counterweight to Iran. Due to the importance of oil prices for Russia, Israel may utilize its leverage to prevent Russia from allying with Iran by exerting pressure on the Kremlin through the Sunni Gulf monarchies. However, reports of Russian procurement of Iranian UAVs are unsettling, as it might indicate deeper military and security cooperation between the two.

While Russia recognizes that Europe is expected to transition away from Russian gas, it wishes to postpone that scenario. As a result, promoting eastern Mediterranean gas supplies to Europe as an alternative to Russian gas is likely to provoke Russian concern and perhaps cause it to meddle in Israel’s operations.

Under these conditions, Israel’s maritime activity, which is now more closely coordinated with the U.S., will have to consider deconfliction with Russia and its advanced collection capabilities, which will presumably affect Israel’s freedom of action, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. These challenges are likely to grow if Russian-Iranian ties are improved and Russia takes concerted steps to limit Israel’s actions, especially in the context of Israel’s “campaign between the wars” in Syria.

Lt. Col. (res.) Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great power competition in the region. He had served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in Israeli Defense Intelligence (Aman). From 2019-21, he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

This is an edited version of an article originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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