The base in Tartus may be less valuable than its counterpart in Sevastopol, but the location of the former matters. As the sole Russian naval base beyond the Bosporus—which is controlled by Turkey, a NATO member—Tartus helps establish Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean. “A big part of their continued interest in Syria and in [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has to do with” the Tartus base, Mankoff said. “I think Russia does have a bigger geopolitical view of the world, regards the eastern Mediterranean as an area of importance, and wants to be sure that it can secure its interests there.” According to General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top commander, Tartus may also be part of a Russian effort to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble over Syria, designed to prevent NATO forces from taking offensive action against Russia and its allies in the region. As Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, succinctly put it, “This base is essential to us.”
Both Sevastopol and Tartus play a role in compensating for Russia’s geographic deficiencies as well. “Russia’s always had the challenge of not having great maritime access, just as a result of its geography, and so to the extent that it wants to be an active player in [the Mediterranean] … it has to have some ability to operate outside of its own coastal waters,” Mankoff explained. This ambition is enshrined in Russia’s new maritime strategy, detailed in the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2020. The strategy places particular emphasis on the Atlantic Ocean due to “NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean,” according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. The doctrine also stresses the importance of the Arctic, given its mineral resources and the easy access it offers to both the Atlantic and Pacific.
All this isn’t to suggest that naval strategy is the primary motivation behind Russia’s interventions to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Assad in Syria. In the case of Syria, Putin has a track record of opposing Islamist movements like ISIS (in fact, that track record is one of the factors that brought him to power in the first place). Mankoff suggested that Russia’s Syria policy could be a mix of the personal and the political, saying, “If Putin believes that Assad is his guy and that he has a personal obligation to him, then that may play a role above and beyond what the professional diplomats and strategic thinkers believe is going on here.” Additionally, Mankoff argued that the Russian government might be deliberately trying to draw a comparison between its unflinching support of Assad and America’s brittle support of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, which dissipated during the Arab Spring.
But even if Russia isn’t exclusively mobilizing its military to secure naval bases, the Kremlin has clearly demonstrated that restoring a strong presence on the high seas is a priority. And Vladimir Putin tends to act on his priorities.