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Russians Drink Sangria as Ukraine Burns

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Cease fire violations are a part of the daily routine in the no man’s land of Eastern Ukraine. Rifle fire, automatic weapons and exchange of mortar rounds between Ukrainian government forces and rebel militias is a matter of course, with up to 100 violations in a day[1]. For the moment, that is all there is: both sides have mostly observed the requirement to withdraw heavy weapons, so there is no field artillery or tanks. Yet the situation remains tense as the summer drags on. For the moment, the tense balance holds. The Ukrainian government realizes that it lacks the strength for a military solution, while Russia has the military strength to beat Ukraine but not to hold a rebellious population of 40 million.

So there is no war, but there is no peace either. Ukraine burns, and citizens of the new borderland suffer acute shortages of everything: food, medicines, gasoline, money. They, like their nation, are pawns in a power game between Russia and the West. Neither side truly wants war; but neither side is yet willing to negotiate. The Russians believe that “losing Ukraine” to Europe and the US would be a mortal threat to their own security; while Europe and the US are convinced that “losing Ukraine” to Russia would be tantamount to a second Munich Agreement. It would only convince Vladimir Putin of Western weakness and encourage him to test NATO in a more sensitive area, like the Baltic States.

NATO has responded as much as its limited means allow: air patrols over the Baltic allies have been intensified and interceptions of Russian aircraft by Western fighters are now too routine to report. Military training and exercises have been intensified, with US forces very publicly visiting key Eastern European states like Poland and Romania. Even non-NATO nations like Sweden have been disturbed enough by the rumblings of the Russian bear to begin quiet coordination of their military staffs with NATO counterparts. Even the normal laissez faire and independent French, who are perfectly happy to sell nuclear components to Iraq and advanced weaponry to anyone with a sufficiently large bank account, have been convinced to first suspend and finally cancel the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. These vessels would have given the Russian Navy a significant boost in their power projection capabilities, especially in the highly sensitive Black Sea, where the RFS Sevastopol was destined to be stationed. This will cost the French a significant amount of money, approximately 1.2 billion dollars – at least until they can find another buyer[2].

Far from dividing the normally fractious nations of Europe, Russian actions have enhanced their cooperation and reinvigorated a moribund North Atlantic alliance. From Cape Svalbard to Cape Matapan, Vladimir Putin is faced by a determined and united front opposed to Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea and barely concealed invasion of Donestk and Lugansk. Well…almost united. While Ukrainians die in defense of their lands – on both sides of the front lines – and Europeans suddenly remember what their militaries are for, there are Russian sailors stuffing their gobs full of paella and sangría in the Spanish port of Ceuta.

russians

The RFS Novorossiysk, a Russian Kilo-class diesel attack submarine, arrived at the Spanish North African port this morning along with its tender[3]. Both Russian vessels are taking on water, fuel and victuals while their crews enjoy a week of shore leave. Besides seamen, the Kilo carries the SS-N-27 “Sizzler” a supersonic anti-ship missile as well as SA-N-10 Gimlet missiles for air defense. This lethal package is docked next to one of the busiest shipping choke points in the world and an hour’s easy steam from the Royal Naval base at Gibraltar and US Naval Station Rota.

The submarine visit is not an isolated incident: this year alone there have been 13 port calls by Russian naval vessels to Ceuta and over 50 since 2010. In April it was the Udaloy-class ASW destroyer, the Severomorsk and in February another ASW frigate, the Yaroslav Mudry. The city fathers are happy to have 2,000 lonely sailors spending their rubles on “shore leave” and local businesses benefit too. Nothing to comment on in normal times; except that we’re not living in normal times. NATO aircraft aren’t intercepting Russians over allied airspace because relations are warm and fuzzy.

welcome

Spain is not alone in welcoming Russian ships, it is in good company: the Russian Navy regular makes port calls in Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, and Iran too. Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam is still a welcome destination for the Pacific Fleet, but in Europe only Cyprus[4] make Ivan feel as home as often as the Spanish do. Russian sailors are no longer a common sight even in Saint-Nazaire where they were training to take possession of the two Mistral-class vessels the French were constructing. Meanwhile, the Spanish sharpen their military skills by having their Coast Guard vessels fire at Gibraltar-flagged pleasure boats[5]; all part of the “successful foreign policy” being promulgated out of Madrid[6], one of harassment, illegality and disregard for the democratic rights and unanimous wishes of the actual inhabitants of the Rock.

The harassment has become far worse since the investiture of the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy Brey, in December 2011. The current government is acting in a fashion more in keeping with the various stand-offs instigated by the fascist Franco regime during the 1970’s than as a NATO ally and European partner. Spain routinely refuses to allow NATO vessels and aircraft traveling to or from Gibraltar to also visit a Spanish port or airfield while in transit. Yet the Spanish government is happy to welcome large numbers of warships from the Russian Navy. With friends like this…

incursions

The State Department and Pentagon should not remain indifferent to the sight of the Russian Navy growing old within shouting (and shooting) distance of RAF Gibraltar and an easy sail from Rota. The United Nations estimates[7] that the 14-kilometers of the Straits handle 3,000 vessels per day, 25% of sea-transported oil shipments, and 30% of all tonnage entering or leaving the Mediterranean. It is not only a critical military and economic choke point; it borders critical states in North Africa and the Sahel. For this reason the United States maintains, with Spain’s permission, both a naval presence in Rota (near Cádiz) and the 3,500-man Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa at Morón de la Frontera[8].

Thus it is not irrelevant that Marine V-22 Ospreys flying out of Morón would not be able to land at Gibraltar outbound or inbound while executing vital missions; the Crisis Response force is not there to take pictures of the Andalusian countryside. This is not an idle scenario: given the close cooperation between our military and that of the United Kingdom, a mission involving US and Royal Marines could be easily imagined.  Which ally has shed blood with the United States in every one of our wars of last 100 years? It is high time we demand an end to the stupid and damaging policies that are pitting two NATO nations against each other and complicating US interests in the region.


Sources and Notes

[1] “Cease-fire violations in eastern Ukraine cause concern,” Associated Press, 14 August 2015

[2] Pierre Tran, “Mistral Dispute With Russia Settled, France Eyes Exports,” Defense News, 09 August 2015

[3] Antonio Sempere, “El submarino ruso ‘Novorossiysk’ atraca en el muelle España, donde permanecerá hasta el Viernes,” Ceuta Actualidad, 26 August 2015

[4] Damien Sharkov, “Cyprus Agrees Deal to Let Russian Navy Use Ports,” Newsweek, 26 February 2015

[5] Alistair Dawber, “Tensions rise as Spanish customs boat fires shots at pleasure craft in Gibraltar’s waters,” The Independent, 27 August 2015

[6] “Spain’s Action On Gib is ‘Bearing Fruit’ – Margallo,” The Gibraltar Chronicle, 25 August 2015

[7] United Nations Environment Programme, Mediterranean Action Plan for the Barcelona Convention

[8] Sam LaGrone, “Spain and U.S. Sign Permanent Basing Agreement for up to 3,500 U.S. Marines,” USNI News, 18 June 2015

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