The Greater Mediterranean is a single geographic area where threats and opportunities are shared from coast to coast. Viewing it as such exposes the overall impact of instability and influence in the region on U.S. interests and the space for action.
The Mediterranean basin sits strategically at the intersection of three continents, where events on one shore often shape those on the other. In recent years, geopolitical tensions have risen in this narrow region, along with instability caused by conflict, governance failures, and economic strife.
The United States’ goal of maintaining favorable regional balances of power in Europe and the Middle East depends on developments around the Mediterranean. Traditionally a theater of U.S. and European activity, the Greater Mediterranean has seen a rise in Russian and Chinese influence. This risks jeopardizing the space for U.S. and NATO action.
In addition to the recent influence activities, an increasing number of transnational threats emanate from NATO’s Southern Flank. Yet the U.S. government still lacks a comprehensive approach to the region that can overcome organizational silos and account for both influence and instability drivers. These silos create blind spots in which adversaries can grow their influence. This in turn blunts the United States’ ability to project power and influence in the Mediterranean.
CSIS analyzed the 19 littoral Mediterranean states shown below for this mapping study.1
It overlays internal factors of instability and external factors of influence. This offers a more comprehensive picture of threats and opportunities in each country for the United States and its allies. For example, one country’s level of external influence could be moderately high while its internal situation remains stable, thus limiting the negative impact of this influence. Conversely, countries in which instability is high may be at greater risk of being exploited by external actors.
These two categories were then processed through the lens of U.S. interests, relationships, and alliances to determine where the United States can best leverage its influence in the region, and where action is least productive.
Instability factors are divided into three categories, with an additional assessment of existing territorial disputes that can suddenly push countries toward instability (e.g., Western Sahara):
- Security: ongoing conflict, displaced/refugee population, migration, terrorist activity
- Political: unrest threatening regime stability or legitimacy, governance indicators (e.g., political stability, government effectiveness), civil liberties assessments
- Economic: GDP growth, poverty ratio, unemployment (total and youth), corruption levels
Influence factors vary according to the influencing country:
Chinese Influence exists primarily in the economic sphere through Belt and Road investments in transportation and energy infrastructure; notable mergers and acquisitions; and the technology sector. The importance of such investments is heightened when they are located near major access points (e.g., Suez Canal) or along major trade routes.
Russian Influence is multifaceted. This study includes (1) political ties (e.g., support to parties or groups that create parallel structures and undermine government authority); (2) military presence (e.g., troops, basing, arms sales); (3) trade indicators (e.g., FDI, energy, tourism); (4) diplomatic ties (e.g., visits and agreements); and (5) cultural and religious ties (e.g., sizeable diaspora, Orthodox minority).
The overlay of instability and influence yields several categories for classifying the littoral states’ relationship with the United States and the U.S. ability to influence the situation:
- Anchor state: A country with an enduring relationship with the United States with long-established military and diplomatic ties; exporter of security.
- Foothold state: Regional example of a positive relationship with the United States or NATO with room for improvement, yet short of being an anchor state.
- Tipping point: Existing relationship with the United States but current or near-term developments could push it in either a positive or negative direction.
- Closing space: Complex political or security situation involving outside actors. Affecting change is possible but requires targeted, potentially high-risk investment.
- Closed space: Domestic or external factors (influence) make U.S. action unlikely to change the situation on the ground; low ability to influence the country’s direction.
Several instability factors are common to all 19 Greater Mediterranean littoral countries, underscoring the importance of approaching the region as a whole. These common factors include high degrees of unemployment (youth unemployment in particular), fragile government coalitions, uncontrolled migration (including dangerous sea crossings), and structural economic challenges. Many of these vulnerabilities are exacerbated by transnational security threats such as terrorism and trafficking. However, there is a range of stability found across the Mediterranean.
Anchor states have low or low-to-moderate levels of instability risk across the board. This bodes well for U.S. interests in countries such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, which host significant U.S. forces and NATO bases. It is also reassuring for future cooperation with France and Israel, who are key to managing instability in North Africa and the Middle East, respectively.
Many anchor states are European countries. Their membership in organizations such as NATO and the European Union provide a degree of stability not enjoyed by their African and Middle Eastern counterparts. NATO provides a security umbrella for its members and can act as a conflict mitigator. Likewise, the European Union can shield its southern members from the worst effects of global events such as the 2008 financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Though European littoral states of the Mediterranean experience stagnation and frequent changes of government, these stabilizing factors mean fewer cases of total government collapse and more peaceful transitions of power.
The one exception among anchor states is NATO member Albania, where citizens are increasingly demanding an end to endemic corruption and ineffective institutions. Taken in the context of wider instability in the Western Balkan region—such as Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter Bosnia), Montenegro, and non-littoral state Serbia—deterioration in Albania’s political situation could have broader consequences.
The picture is more mixed in terms of stability for foothold states. On the positive end of the spectrum, Croatia (together with anchor state Slovenia) provides much-needed stability in the Western Balkans. Morocco and Tunisia could play a similar role as regional security providers in North Africa: they have been designated by the United States as “Major non-NATO allies” and signed bilateral defense cooperation roadmaps with the United States in October 2020.
Foothold island nations Cyprus and Malta are also of increasing importance to the United States. The United States recently waived non-lethal arms export restrictions for Cyprus for one year, which reflects a desire to improve maritime security and anti-trafficking and counterterrorism cooperation. Yet the divided island has its share of internal problems that could hinder its ability to be an effective partner, including corruption and security tensions with Turkey. Malta, while perhaps more stable internally, is a major arrival country on the Central Mediterranean migration route and a main transit point for money laundering and trafficking from Libya to Europe. Left unaddressed, the stress of these transnational threats coupled with increasing corruption could move Malta in a negative direction.
Perhaps the most difficult foothold state to navigate in terms of instability is Turkey. As the second-largest army in NATO and host to more than 1,000 U.S. and other NATO allied forces, Turkey is in many ways an anchor state. Unfortunately, forms of political, economic, and security instability are growing. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an authoritarian figure who has amassed considerable power, jailed his political rivals, and cracked down on the media. He has also driven Turkey’s economy into the ground. Turkey’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in the region has created tensions with almost all of its neighbors. It has gone from a security exporter in the Eastern Mediterranean to a security challenge for other littoral states. At times, Erdogan’s actions have even undermined Turkey’s own interests and its responsibilities as a NATO ally.
The two tipping point countries, Lebanon and Montenegro, are in an even more precarious position. The internal instability of each country is so high that the wrong combination of internal or external pressures could gravely intensify the situation. In Lebanon, government paralysis over necessary reforms has led to sustained protests and financial crisis. Economic risk was high before Covid-19 and has only worsened since the pandemic and the Beirut explosion (a crucial port). The situation is made even more volatile by Lebanon hosting the largest per capita number of refugees in the world and the ongoing tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.
Similarly, Balkan NATO ally Montenegro struggles with entrenched government actors, high levels of corruption and unemployment, and being on a main migration route. Montenegro’s new government coalition highlights the tipping point nature of the state: it could undo years of state capture or push the country entirely off its Euro-Atlantic alignment.
Even further down on the spectrum are the closing spaces of Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Bosnia. While not so far from their tipping point cousins, the toxic mix in this group comes from the combination of external influence and existing internal instability.
However, this category contains opportunities to push the relationship into more positive territory. For example, until recently Algeria would have been considered a closed space, but reinvigorated defense contacts and security cooperation with the United States have cracked that door open.
Another example is Syria, where Russian presence and the absence of a legitimate central government suggest a closed space. However, a concerted U.S.-EU effort to deliver humanitarian aid and basic security could help win hearts and minds, making Syria a “closing” space instead.
Russian and Chinese influence has grown significantly in the Greater Mediterranean region. In countries where there is internal instability, external influence can fuel the fire. Conversely, in countries where there is relative stability—or checks such as EU and NATO membership—external influence can be present with little adverse effect. This is evidenced by the anchor states, including Italy, where EU sanctions successfully slowed or halted Russian investment despite some government parties’ ties with Moscow.
While Chinese influence is largely in the economic sphere, Russian influence is multifaceted. The two countries’ motivations also differ. China’s investments are focused on obtaining strategic economic assets such as ports and communications networks that create the potential to grow the economic relationship in the future. While there are a few examples of Russia using influence to gain strategic access (e.g., the port of Tartus in Syria), its influence efforts appear focused on finding new markets for Russian energy and arms exports, sowing discord among NATO and EU members, or complicating the situation on the ground in ongoing conflicts in order to limit U.S. freedom of maneuver.
China’s main investments in the Greater Mediterranean are concentrated in transport and energy infrastructure and in the technology sector. While many investments—solar energy, power plants, and container terminals—are benign or fill a domestic need, others are more concerning. These include assets located at major access points and along trade routes. For example, once complete, the El Hamdania port in Algeria (49 percent Chinese ownership) will be the second-largest in North Africa and connect with European and Southeast Asian shipping routes.
Similarly, China has an agreement to operate the strategic Haifa port in Israel for the next 25 years. Potential Chinese tracking activity and surveillance presents a security risk to the U.S. Navy, which conducts exercises and port visits in the area. In NATO ally Greece, China’s COSCO owns 51 percent of the port of Piraeus, which is regularly used by NATO. This investment raises questions about whether Greece’s blocking of EU statements on the South China Sea and Chinese human rights is mere coincidence.
While not an immediate concern, Chinese investments in the technology space in Europe (including 5G) could create security vulnerabilities for NATO and the European Union and complicate either’s ability to work with partners in North Africa and the Middle East.
A final concern with Chinese economic influence is the dependency created by unsustainable debt levels. Funded by China’s Exim Bank, the loan for the Bar-Boljare highway in Montenegro pushed public debt over 80 percent of GDP. In Albania, China owns 100 percent of Tirana airport and 95 percent of the country’s crude oil fields. These investments take advantage of internal elements of instability, such as patronage networks and corruption, and could impact stability and government spending in the long term.
Russian influence in the region is more complex.
Russia exerts political influence by supporting strongman leaders (e.g., Haftar in Libya, Assad in Syria) in exchange for the promise of future economic gain. Russian political influence in Bosnia is taking on a spoiler role due to Republika Srpska’s leaders’ links to Russia and to Russian-backed nationalists in neighboring Serbia. These elements have contributed to blocking the country’s NATO membership and much-needed constitutional reforms.
Russia is also adept at using historical, religious, and cultural affinities to gain favor. This is particularly effective in Bosnia, Montenegro, Cyprus, and Lebanon, all places where the Orthodox Church provides leverage.
Economically, Russia is the biggest player in foreign direct investment, banking, real estate, and tourism in Cyprus and Montenegro. This economic influence provides potential leverage that could be exerted to influence Cyprus and Montenegro’s actions within the European Union and NATO given their respective memberships in these organizations.
Energy is another key sector for Russia. Algeria is the third-largest gas supplier to the European Union. By securing dominance over Algeria’s energy assets, Russia can increase its leverage over Europe. Russia’s interest in Libya’s oil reserves is another step on this path.
The military is the final piece of Russian influence. Russia arms sales, mercenaries, deployment of equipment, and provision of military support have changed the balance of the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Russian military influence has limited the space for U.S. action in those countries and could ignite future conflicts in Lebanon and Algeria as well. Much of this military cooperation has resulted in mutual access agreements for airspace and bases. Russia’s multiple footholds in the Greater Mediterranean region will have long-lasting impacts on access and freedom of navigation for the United States and NATO.
Viewing the Greater Mediterranean as a single geographic space makes the overall impact on U.S. interests more apparent. For example, while Russian presence at the port of Tartus in Syria is concerning, it becomes even more of a problem if Russia is able to use its significant economic leverage over nearby Cyprus (an EU member state) to establish a base there.
Laying out a straightforward, empirical assessment of the instability and influence at play in the region offers a clearer view of U.S. interests that are either buoyed or threatened across the Mediterranean. Those interests are:
- Governance, including ensuring democratic development and securing alliances
- Force protection at bases and in missions around the Mediterranean
- Access and freedom of navigation to critical installations, sea lanes, and choke points
- Market access and standard-setting to prevent dominance by China or others
- Stability of allies and partners and their ability to export security
- Hard security, by mitigating threats from terrorist networks or Russian military presence
Safeguarding these interests is difficult given the transnational nature of many of the region’s challenges. Moreover, many pressing challenges such as economic vulnerability or migration (particularly post-Covid-19) are not hard security issues. As such, Southern Flank crisis management and stabilization efforts cannot always rely on NATO or other security actors. In the words of the NATO parliamentary assembly, “in many cases, NATO is not—and should not be—the first responder.” Addressing these challenges will require creative thinking and unconventional solutions.
One such solution is using anchor and foothold partners more productively by assigning each a clearer piece of the Mediterranean puzzle, whether economic or military. For example, getting support from anchor state France in places such as Libya and the Sahel—where France is already a strong partner—can both stabilize North Africa and secure NATO’s Southern Flank without involving the entire alliance or the direct support of the United States. In some cases, the United States can take a supporting, rather than leading, role.
Another solution will be recognizing the limitations of U.S. security assistance. In Egypt, the amount of Russian and Chinese influence suggests that high levels of U.S. security assistance do not necessarily guarantee alignment with U.S. priorities and may require a rethink.
By analyzing the internal causes of instability in littoral Mediterranean countries and external influence, the United States can craft a more effective strategy for the Mediterranean. Identifying common threats and opportunities throughout the Mediterranean and enhancing the ability of the United States and NATO to compete along the Southern Flank will be vital for continued success in this region.
Deputy Director, Europe Program
Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Her research focuses on the future of NATO; the transatlantic relationship; U.S.-European Union relations; and regional security and defense dynamics, particularly in Northern Europe and the Arctic. Before coming to CSIS, she served as principal director for European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the U.S. Department of Defense. From 2009 to 2012, Ms. Ellehuus was based in London, assigned to the Strategy Unit in the UK Ministry of Defense. Prior to her work at the Department of Defense, Ms. Ellehuus was a researcher at the Danish Institute of International Affairs and lived in Prague, Czech Republic, where she worked at the EastWest Institute. She holds a B.A. in international relations and German from Colgate University and an M.A. in political science and European affairs from the College of Europe (Bruges/Natolin).
Associate Fellow, Europe Program
Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe Program, where she oversees the program’s research portfolios on political developments in the European Union (including EU policy and Brexit), Russian influence in Europe, and Southern Europe and Mediterranean issues. She supports the program’s grant-writing and fundraising efforts for those portfolios and manages the Europe Program’s European Election Watch platform. She has co-authored such reports as The Kremlin Playbook 2, Restoring the Eastern Mediterranean as a U.S. Strategic Anchor, and Crossing Borders: How the Migration Crisis Transformed Europe’s External Policy. Ms. Ruy previously worked at the World Bank on disaster risk financing and insurance, drafting situation reports on natural disaster preparedness in francophone African countries. Ms. Ruy received her B.A. in political science from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and her M.A. in global affairs from the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University.Full Bio Here
Special thanks to:
- Will Todman, Fellow, Middle East Program, CSIS
- Maesea McCalpin, Associate Director, Economics Program, CSIS
- Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program, CSIS
- Sarah Grace, Producer and Multimedia Content Lead, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Serven Maraghi, Developer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Christina Hamm, Associate Web Designer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Emily Tiemeyer, Senior Designer, Graphics Lead, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Laurel Weibezahn, Multimedia Producer, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Alfredo Basurto, Design Intern, CSIS iDeas Lab
- Reconnecting Asia and Middle East Program interns
This project is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
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