By Billy Bunn
“For a thousand years, Russia has had a vision of Constantinople as the centre of Russian power. Her first descent upon it was made in the ninth century, while still a heathen nation; and her latest in the nineteenth. Can any parallel instance be found, in which a nation has held fast to one great idea for a thousand years, through all vicissitudes of fortune, and all changes in government, religion, and civilization? It has been called the dream of Russia, – is it not a marvelously prophetic dream?”1
—Cyrus Hamlin, “The Dream of Russia,” The Atlantic, December 1886
September 23rd, 2024
Events at the Tactical Level of War
0446 (GMT+3), Eastern Mediterranean Sea
It was a clear dawn in the warm waters east of Cyprus. Even heading into the fall, the Eastern Mediterranean is one of the most serene bodies of water in the world; this day was no different. The weather was clear, the water was still, and the feeling was calm.
Looking through the periscope of the Kilo-class submarine Kolpino, Kapitan Vasily Kastonov2 was struck by the irony of the peaceful scene; he was about to issue an order that could unleash a nuclear world war. Kastonov lowered the periscope, checked the clock, and at precisely 0450 issued the order: “Fire.”
One word. Even as it left his lips, the captain shuddered at the implications.
From various positions in the control room of the Kolpino, keys were turned and buttons pushed, and a volley of Kalibr land attack cruise missiles were launched. Simultaneously missiles from six other Russian submarines, including a massive Severodvinsk nuclear-powered sub, were fired.3
Suddenly, the waters of the Mediterranean convulsed as three dozen objects broached the surface. The 20-foot-long missiles began racing eastward, yellow flame and white contrails making them easily visible against the blue sky. Ten seconds into flight, the missiles’ liquid-rocket-fueled boosters separated from the main body, and solid-rocket-fueled turbojet engines kicked in.4
Three minutes later, twenty Russian Federation Navy surface ships launched over a hundred additional Kalibr from locations in the Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas.
In 2015, for the first time in its history, Russia had employed precision-guided munitions from the sea, striking ISIS in Syria. This day, however, upon reaching Syria, the missiles turned north. Covering hundreds of miles in thirty minutes, they soared low along the coastline. They found their targets: early warning radars, missile defense sites, and command posts across Turkey were damaged or destroyed. Kastonov knew the implication of the sites they targeted: the destruction of Turkey’s air defenses paved the way for the Russian Air Force.
Aboard the Kolpino, Kastonov and his crew had already moved on to their next mission: proceed west towards Crete, positioning outside of Souda Bay, Greece, and wait for further orders. As the largest NATO naval base in the Mediterranean, he prayed those orders didn’t include engaging hostile American ships. But Russia had just unleashed a surprise attack on a NATO member, and he knew that Article 5 impelled a response. Hopefully, his superiors had crafted a plan that would keep the U.S. and her allies from fulfilling this commitment.
“When Peter the Great ascended the throne in 1689, the Baltic was almost a Swedish lake, the Black Sea Turkish, the Caspian Persian. The struggle for a seaboard which then began has since been the ruling motive of Russian policy, and has already graven deep marks upon the history of nations. ‘We work,’ wrote Peter, when on his western travels, to the patriarch Adrian, ‘to effectually conquer the art of the sea, in order that, on our return to Russia, being completely instructed, we may be victorious over the enemies of Christ.'” 5
—Sir George Sydenham Clarke, Russia’s Sea-Power Past and Present, 1898
0610 (GMT+3), Southern Black Sea
Sergeant Pavel Komarov had been involved in eight combat missions during his time in the Russian Naval Infantry. He had been wounded twice in Ukraine, once in Aleppo. Still, this was his least favorite part of the job: sitting, waiting, occasionally throwing up, as the amphibious vessel cut through the water. Unlike combat, he felt helpless. At any moment a NATO submarine could launch a torpedo and his ship would disappear in minutes.
The war had started an hour ago, he knew. Pavel had made his way topside hoping the fresh air would quiet his nerves. In the light of dawn, he could make out the contrails of dozens of missiles flying south, the same direction his ship was heading. Minutes later a hundred Russian jets screamed low over their position, followed by a roll of thunder that seemed to last forever. Turkish coastal defenses were being methodically eliminated, clearing the way for him and ten thousand of his compatriots to hit the beach.
Pavel knew his history; the last time someone attempted an amphibious invasion of Turkey was the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, and that did not end well for the invaders. Still, he had faith in he and his comrades’ ability to control the beachhead and fight their way to their ultimate objective: seizure of the Turkish Straits. Over a decade of ground combat had given them confidence that can only come from success on the battlefield.
At that moment, the coastline of Asia Minor came into view, and a claxon began to sound, warning the soldiers to prepare for disembarkation. “Just get to the beach,” he thought. Once there he and his comrades would control their own destiny, and the fight for Constantinople – the city the Turks called “Istanbul” – would begin.
“But Catherine, without dissolving her alliance with the Austrians, proceeded to a unilateral violation of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarci, annexing in 1783 all the Crimean Peninsula and founding in Sevastopol a large military base, whose purpose was the advancement of the ‘Greek Plan’, i.e., the advance of the Russians through the straits to the Mediterranean.”6
—Rozakis and Stagos, The Turkish Straits, 1987
Events at the Operational Level of War
1850 (GMT+3), Southern Command HQ, Rostov-on-the-Don, Russia
Kapitan General Sasha Orlovsky couldn’t help it; a feeling of optimism had begun to creep into his mind. Twelve hours since the attack began – undoubtedly the riskiest attack in world history – and still no indication of a NATO response. The earliest moments were the most dangerous, as Western intelligence began to realize that what was supposed to be a large-scale Russian exercise was actually a disguise for the invasion of Turkey. The question became: would Turkey’s allies respond?
As the Southern Military District’s Chief of Staff, Orlovsky knew that the success or failure of the plans they had developed over the past two years would answer that question. A strategy that Russia had successfully employed 10 years earlier in Crimea was being employed: fait accompli.8 They needed to achieve their military objectives in Turkey so quickly that NATO would decide it was too late to reverse the outcome. An enabler to that strategy was deception.
Even after the USSR fell, Maskirovka—military deception ranging from camouflage to disinformation—remained an important Russian strategy. The timing of the invasion of Turkey was driven by the exercise Kavkaz 2024 (Caucasus 2024). For nearly two decades, Russia had been holding annual exercises with the focus rotating every year between their four Military Districts – East, West, Central and South. Though each exercise focused on one region, participating forces came from all four of the districts. Since Kavkaz 2020 was the last time the Southern Military District had led the exercise, the only way to bring in large-scale Russian forces without raising suspicion was to wait until 2024.
In the intervening years the Southern MD had begun district-wide combined arms exercises including bases in Armenia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia (to Turkey’s east), and southern Russia and the Crimean Peninsula (to Turkey’s north).8 Beginning in 2022, Russian forces in Syria and the Mediterranean were included. By the time large scale Russian forces began deploying to these areas in the spring of 2024, the West had been desensitized.
Now two combined-arms armies were on Turkey’s eastern border, with another army on the Crimean Peninsula, elements of which were embarked on amphibious ships heading to Turkey’s shore. The massive blow, however, would come from their southern flank, where 300,000 Russian and Syrian troops attacked across multiple fronts stretching from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border. Turkish forces on the Syrian border had been shaped to fight Kurds, and it was assumed they would not be prepared for an attack from conventional armored forces. As Turkish infantry positions melted away, this assumption proved true.
Realization took hold; battle damage assessments from the front indicated Russian and Syrian forces were exceeding their initial objectives. Russian cyber attacks wreaked havoc in the nation’s communication grid, followed by thousands of precision strikes from land- and sea-based cruise missiles and attack jets. These attacks isolated Turkey’s strategic leadership in Ankara, severing communications to its military commanders across the country.
The attack from the Caucasus was designed to freeze Turkish forces in the east, and to sow confusion and panic in the regime. The specter of motorized rifle divisions pouring across Transcaucasia appeared to have the desired effect. Even as the combined Russian-Syrian force moved in from the south – a much more direct threat to the capital – Turkish divisions in the east stayed in place.
Russia’s strategic objective was limited: annexation of the Turkish Straits. To accomplish this, however, the Turkish leadership had to believe that the entire nation was at risk. This appeared to have worked, and Turkey ordered their forces to take up positions to defend the capital. As those movements began to unfold, General Orlovsky approved the invasion’s final order.
From the Black Sea, naval infantry troops began to land at Turkish beaches, establishing bridgeheads on the European and Asian sides of the Bosporus. Simultaneously, airborne brigades seized airfields in the region while severing lines of communication. Istanbul would soon be isolated from the rest of the country, and follow-on Russian forces would pour in from the Black Sea. With Ankara at risk and enemy forces coming from literally every direction, Turkey would be offered a cease-fire. Faced with a fait accompli in the Turkish Straits and potential siege of the capital, it was hoped Ankara would relent.
Of course, this would all be academic if NATO came to the aid of Turkey, but Orlovsky had no control over that. No matter, the operational plan appeared to be working. Orlovsky smiled as an entire wave of optimism rolled over him.
Aide-Memoire FROM RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TO BRITISH AND FRENCH AMBASSADORS AT PETROGRAD, 19 FEBRUARY/4 MARCH 1915.
The course of recent events leads His Majesty Emperor Nicholas to think that the question of Constantinople and of the Straits must be definitively solved, according to the time-honored aspirations of Russia.
Every solution will be inadequate and precarious if the city of Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and of the Dardanelles, as well as southern Thrace…should henceforth not be incorporated into the Russian Empire.
BRITISH Aide-Memoire TO THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT, 27 FEBRUARY/12 MARCH 1915
Subject to the war being carried on and brought to a successful conclusion…His Majesty’s Government will agree to the Russian Government’s aide-memoire relative to Constantinople and the Straits, the text of which was communicated to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador by his Excellency M. Sazonof on February 19th/March 4th instant.9
—Secret memos between Great Britain and Russia granting the latter Constantinople and the Turkish Straits upon entering the war against Germany
Events at the Strategic Level of War
2330 (GMT+3), Ministry of Defence Headquarters, Moscow, Russia
General Mikhail Antonov squinted his eyes as he tried to read the cable that had been handed to him. Even with his glasses, the letters blurred; it had now been more than 48 hours since he last slept. He handed the note to his aide and ordered him to read it.
“Although NATO forces remain on highest alert, the Intelligence Directorate has observed no indications of mobilization orders being issued. All forces remain in garrison, apart from Greece, which has begun deploying to the Turkish border.”
Antonov allowed the words to sink in, then sat down in his leather chair and drew a deep breath. He had been the Chief of the General Staff of Russia for a year, yet had known about this operation much longer. He was “read in” to the program in late 2021, and the months had flown by. Still, this most fateful day in the history of Russia seemed to be unfolding according to plan. Reports from the battlefield were optimistic, and the response from the West had been mostly limited to diplomatic apoplexy.
Antonov had been given a simple mission: keep Russia out of a nuclear war, following the attack against a member of NATO. In order to accomplish this, he had focused on three overarching strategic tasks: deception, division, and deterrence.
Surrounding one’s enemy while convincing him there is no threat is not easy. The regional tensions and conflict afforded Russia abundant opportunities, however, and they exploited them. The drift towards the West became the casus belli that led Russia to occupy Georgia, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict led the Armenians to request Russian forces be stationed in their country as a defense against Azerbaijan.
Ukraine’s move toward NATO membership gave Russia the cover to seize the Crimean Peninsula. Moscow allowed NATO to frame that conflict as a potential threat to Western Europe, instead of what it really was: the successful transformation of the Black Sea back into a Russian lake, brimming with cutting-edge military forces pointed at Turkey.
The biggest turn of events came during the Syrian Civil War. Syria became a testing ground for a new generation of Russian weaponry, and over the next ten years the Syrian Army was transformed into the largest and most experienced force in the Middle East. The “Syrian Express” – a nearly continuous seaborne supply operation from the Black Sea to Tartus10 – continued well after combat operations had come to a halt, yet NATO did not seem to notice. By 2023, the equivalent of a Russian Combined Arms Army had taken up residence on Turkey’s southern border, operating daily with the Syrian Army. What’s more, Russia had been able to forge a military alliance with Syria, Iraq and Iran – the southern and eastern flanks of Turkey.
Still, even as they encircled Turkey, Russia would find ways to draw Europe’s attention to the west. Large exercises near the Baltic states, operations in eastern Ukraine, and submarine deployments off the U.S. coast, were all designed to mask Russia’s true objective.
The effort to divide Turkey from the NATO alliance, Antonov had to admit, was a stroke of genius. The Syrian Civil War once again presented a historical opportunity. The U.S. alliance with Kurdish fighters greatly troubled Ankara, and Russia was quick to exploit the division. This resulted in Russia selling Turkey new surface-to-air missile systems, leading to the U.S. cancellation of the sale of F-35 strike-fighters to Turkey. Russia and Turkey’s warming relations eventually led to the 2023 decision to close American air bases in the country, attesting to how far the wedge had been driven.
Dividing U.S. combat forces from Europe, to a large extent, occurred organically, the general opined, thanks to rising American concerns over China. The watershed moment was the Obama Administration’s 2011 “rebalance to the Pacific,” signaling a change after 200 years of America’s European-focused grand strategy.
Russia and China shared an enemy: dividing U.S. forces benefitted them both. This had been the impetus to begin, in 2005, a series of annual combined exercises. China could do what Russia couldn’t: draw U.S. naval forces 8,000 miles away from the Mediterranean. Following a state visit by China’s president to Moscow earlier in the year, China began conducting a series of no-notice exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The Americans reacted predictably: the USS Gerald R. Ford, on station in the North Arabian Sea, was directed to move toward Japan. As Russian forces emptied onto the beaches of Turkey, the closest U.S. aircraft carriers were pierside in Norfolk.
That led to the riskiest task: strategic deterrence. As part of Kavkaz 2024, three Severodvinsk-class nuclear-powered guided missile submarines left the Arctic and transited through the English Channel; however, instead of moving into the Mediterranean, two of the subs disappeared into the Atlantic. The Kalibr-equipped submarines presented a unique tool for Antonov: strategic ambiguity. In an interview in 2015, President Putin had revealed that Kalibr could contain either conventional or nuclear warheads.11 America, in deciding how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Turkey, would have to consider the fact that there were 40 warheads under the waters of the Atlantic, well within range of Washington. Furthermore, the possibility existed that some of those missiles were nuclear. Even with conventional warheads, they could easily destroy $30 billion worth of aircraft carriers sitting in Norfolk.
To reduce the chance of miscalculation, the Russian president had called the American president at the onset of hostilities, assuring him that Russia had no designs to move against the U.S. nor any other NATO ally; this was a one-time operation with limited objectives in Turkey. With most of their naval forces deployed to the Pacific, an existential threat off their coast, and what appeared to be a fait accompli in the Turkish Straits, America had few good options; the U.S. would sit this one out.
It appeared to General Antonov that the gambit had worked. Without a move by the U.S., no European country seemed willing to “go it alone,” especially in support of a pariah regime like Turkey. Though he knew Russia was entering uncharted territory, the most dangerous phase of the operation was behind them. The Russian Federation was in control of the access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean; nothing was beyond their reach now.
Billy Bunn is an assistant professor at the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., and a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently pursuing his PhD in International Studies from Old Dominion University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and themes presented are offered in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of any U.S. government department or agency.
1 Hamlin, Cyrus. “The Dream of Russia.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, December 1886. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1886/12/the-dream-of-russia/522855/.
2 All names are fictional and any resemblance to any person, living or deceased, is purely coincidental.
3 Sutton, H I. “Russia Increasing Submarine Cruise Missile Capacity as US Navy Decreases Its Own.” Royal United Services Institute, August 19, 2021. https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/russia-increasing-submarine-cruise-missile-capacity-us-navy-decreases-its-own.
4 Haaretz.com, “Russian submarine launches cruise missiles toward Syria targets,” YouTube Video, 1:09, December 9, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2twAIAftMc.
5 Clarke, Sir George Sydenham. Russia’s Sea-Power, Past and Present; or, the Rise of the Russian Navy. London, UK: J. Murray, 1898; pp. 1-2.
6 Rozakis, Christos L., and Petros N. Stagos. The Turkish Straits. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987; p. 21.
7 Hakse, Bastiaan Freark. “By Fait Accompli: The Russo-Ukrainian War,” 2019. https://studenttheses.universiteitleiden.nl/access/item%3A2628002/view.
8 Barros, George. “Russian Military Begins Month-Long Combined Arms Exercises across Southern Russia.” Institute for the Study of War, August 11, 2021. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-military-begins-month-long-combined-arms-exercises-across-southern-russia.
9 Hurewitz, J. C. Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1956.
10 Voytenko, Mikhail. “Syrian Express Study.” FleetMon.com, November 3, 2015. https://www.fleetmon.com/maritime-news/2015/10031/syrian-express-study/.
11 “Meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.” President of Russia. The Kremlin, Moscow, December 8, 2015. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50892.
Featured Image: “Lone Warrior” by Adam Jarvis via Artstation.