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NATO’s increasing presence in the Aegean Sea with its Standing NATO Maritime Group-2 has the potential to generate brand new “dangerous encounters” with the Russian Navy trespassing up and down the international waters between Greece and Turkey, as it is the sole passage to rotate and reinforce, if needed, Russian armada in Mediterranean, effectively utilized to support the Assad regime in Syria. And yet, NATO is even expanding its maritime patrol activities in the Aegean with British contribution to the fleet already consists of combat assets from Germany, Canada, Greece and Turkey.

Background

February has been a busy month for NATO. During its Defense Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, NATO pledged to expand its military footprint in eastern Europe, made new commitments in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and agreed to deploy warships in the Aegean Sea to deter the people-smuggling networks that ferry migrants from Turkey into Europe. Although the first two pledges bolster NATO’s existing efforts, the Aegean operation represents an unusual and wholly new type of mission.

The NATO mission to slow migrant influx to the European Union via the Aegean Sea and monitor smugglers was first announced by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Feb. 8 in Ankara. In the following days, the plan was accepted by the NATO foreign ministers.

SNMG-2, the NATO task force in Aegean, currently consists of German Navy flagship FGS BONN, Canadian Navy frigate HMCS FREDERICTON, Turkish Navy frigate TCG BARBAROS and Greek Navy frigate HS SALAMIS. The units are patrolling in the assigned areas and conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities. Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Royal Navy had dispatched the MOUNTS BAY — an amphibious landing ship — as well as two border force cutters to join the NATO Maritime Group in the Aegean.

Analysis

Beginning March 2016, NATO decided to provide support to the international efforts to stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean. Based on a proposal by Germany, Greece and Turkey, the decision was taken practically overnight. Within the following 48 hours, NATO deployed a Standing Maritime Group to the Aegean. It is an unprecedented event in the history of NATO with respect to its “lightening-fast” implementation, which is notoriously cumbersome given the “consensus based” decision making process.

To help curb and control the illegal migration over the Aegean can be seen as a legitimate activity under NATO’s one of three core tasks; “Crisis Management”, in addition “Collective Defense” and “Cooperative Security” in line with NATO Strategic Concept adopted in 2010 Lisbon Summit.

However, patrolling the Aegean international waters with an almost indefinite mandate can provide a significant leverage to NATO on monitoring, if not “loosely controlling” the critical choke point between Russian Naval presence in Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea fleet, something which can be flammable when things get really serious between two actors performing to win on the same stage of the theatre.

Zeleny Dol

Zeleny Dol Guided Missile Cruiser while crossing the bosphorus, heading down to Mediterranean, escorted by Turkish Coast Guard

It is noteworthy here to mention that Russian Zeleny Dol corvettes equipped with “Kalibr” cruise missile capable of penetrating complex air defenses and hitting targets at a supersonic speed at a distance of some 2,000km will be permanently deployed in the Mediterranean according  to Russian MoD. The Zeleny Dol Buyan-M class missile corvette of the Russia’s Black Seas Fleet will conduct tasks under continuous rotation in the Mediterranean sea according to the Russian Defense Ministry’s head of Black Sea Fleet’s information department.

Implications on Turkey’s Risk Indicators

As per Turkey’s risk indicators, growing tensions in the Aegean between Russia and NATO would significantly increase the risk factors affecting Armed Aggression and Political Instability risk indicators. A naval version of “SU-24 Downing” with Russia could cause irreversible “military miscalculations” if not managed properly, as have witnessed in the air.

 

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