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NATO in the Mediterranean Sea: between reset and roll back

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The conflict in Libya and tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have been the premises for a sea-change in a region in which encroachments by assertive regional players or ambitious international powers are now more and more visible. For long, the US and the EU have not been receptive to this changing regional landscape. Nevertheless, the end of the Trump presidency and the inauguration of the new Biden administration in Washington represented a turning point. The first moves of the new US President are broadly in line with a return to multilateralism pledged during his electoral campaign, a response to the power politics that has created havoc in Libya and destabilised the Mediterranean Basin.
After the end of Trump’s muscular isolationism, NATO is now in a peculiar position to benefit from the new administration’s reset and roll back Russia’s adventurism in the Mediterranean Sea. From 22 February to 5 March 2021 NATO Maritime Command (MARCOM) held its annual Dynamic Manta (DYMA21) military drill to enhance interoperability and proficiency in anti-submarine warfare (AWS) and training anti-surface warfare skills. The exercise, which involved five submarines, five surface ships, five maritime patrol aircrafts, one aircraft carrier and support vessels from Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the US took place off Sicily. The Catania harbour and helicopter base, the naval air station Sigonella and the Augusta naval base were the main logistic hubs for the operations, held under the command of the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2).
According to Rear Adm. Andrea Petroni, head of the Submarine Division of the Italian Navy, the location of the exercise on the southern flank of Europe represented a ‘realistic and valuable training opportunity’. The comment indicates increasing concerns about Russia’s expanding military foothold in the region, given not only Russian submarine activities from the naval base of Tartus, Syria, but also reports about Moscow’s plans to set up another military base, possibly in eastern Libya. In this context, the continuing presence of Russian Private Military Companies (PMCs) such as the Wagner Group there, as well as the deployment of Russian military aircraft (including MiG-29s and Su-24s) in the Jufra airbase last year, are clear signs of Moscow’s renewed ambitions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Military exercise such as the DYMA21 represent useful steps to address common challenges stemming from Russia’s hybrid threat in the Mediterranean, while also laying the groundwork to reunite a scattered Western front and heal the rift between partner countries after the end of the Trump years. In this context, the participation of the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the DYMA21 together with the Turkish frigate TCG Kemalreis is noteworthy. Alongside a recent phone call between the French President Macron and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it suggests a possible détente in French-Turkish ties, less than one year after the naval incident between the French frigate Courbet and Turkish vessels off Libya strained relations between NATO allies.

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