Beyza Unal
Research Fellow, Nuclear Weapons Policy, International Security Department
NATO’s mission in the Aegean Sea seems aimed as much at deterring Russia as saving lives. It could lead to confrontation.
The German Navy ship Bonn along the coast of Lesbos on 9 March 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

Early last month NATO launched a new maritime security mission, ostensibly to prevent people smuggling across the Aegean Sea. This mission, however, was not originally a reaction to the humanitarian catastrophe at sea. Instead, it was a response to growing Russian assertiveness.

A maritime patrol unit was first discussed in the North Atlantic Council in December 2015, when the Alliance agreed to provide a ‘tailored package of assurances’ to Ankara in a period of heightened tensions after Turkey shot down a Russian jet. The package included measures such as early reconnaissance planes (AWACS), air policing, naval presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, provisions for Maritime Patrol Aircrafts (MPA) and Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR), and port visits. None of the discussion at the time linked it with protecting refugees. Now framing this decision in that light creates a new mission for NATO’s Maritime Command (MARCOM), a mission that it has never conducted before.

Neither NATO’s founding documents or the most recent 2010 Strategic Concept provide for this type of mission, and NATO units are not trained to carry out an actual rescue mission. Protecting strategic assets and goods, such as oil tankers, escorting naval vessels providing food into conflict zones, deterring piracy and monitoring the Mediterranean for terrorist activity have been the main priorities for MARCOM in the post-Cold War period. These activities and maritime exercises were aimed at defence against non-state actors.

The positioning of NATO’s maritime fleet in the Aegean Sea to save refugees, however, has the potential to be used as a deterrent against Russia’s Anti Access/Anti-Denial capacity in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia, meanwhile, has increased its naval presence at the Tartus naval base in Syria, which it has used to support its air campaigns in Syria. This level of reciprocated military build-up is hard to sustain in the long-run.   

NATO−Russia tensions

Over the past few years, Russia’s assertive policies – its multiple military operations, the continuing modernization of its army and ‘simulated attacks’ such as the one in 2013 that tested Sweden’s air defence response mechanisms − have increasingly worried the Alliance and its partners. Clashing interests over Syria’s future and Russia’s attacks against the Western-supported rebel groups have also served to increase tensions between NATO member states and Russia. Recent analysis logged 60 dangerous incidents in the Euro-Atlantic area between Russia and NATO counties in the period between March 2014 and March 2015. NATO’s preparedness has been severely tested by these incidents, and has led the alliance to strengthen its presence on Europe’s southern flank.

Such increased tensions could create a situation whereby accidents and miscalculations lead to escalation. NATO forces and Russia are already engaged in further force posturing − the decision to accelerate Montenegro’s accession to NATO and the increased conduct of wartime exercises, such as NATO’s search for submarines in open waters (Dynamic Manta 2016), reconnaissance operations (Cold Operation 16) or Russia’s simulated exercises, for instance – which could undermine global stability. Three weeks after the Russian jet was shot down, a Russian patrol ship fired warning shots at a Turkish vessel to attract attention and avoid a collision. This event did not escalate but given the heightened tensions, similar events may spiral out of control.  

The tentative cease-fire in Syria is a confidence building measure that could normalize and rebuild relations. But further steps should be taken to establish political dialogue, open up the channels for potential meetings at the NATO−Russia Council, and increase transparency and risk mitigation in exercises and activities. The longer both sides wait, the more likely a confrontation will be.

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