Russia’s borders stretch from the Baltic Sea in the West to North Korea, China, and Japan in the East. Despite Russia’s continental presence in both Europe and Asia, it still suffers from a lack of warm water military ports. A warm water port will remain open all year, because its water are not subject to freeze-over in the winter time. Acquiring such a port has been difficult to Russia throughout its history. The Russian empire has repeatedly fought wars in order to expand into Western ports. Although today, wintertime does not stop Russia from having military ports in the Baltic Sea, it does however make keeping these cold water ports open a very difficult and tedious task in the winter.
Today Russia relies on the warm-water ports in Sevastopol (Crimea) and Tartus (Syria) as its primary means of access to the Mediterranean Sea. The port in Tartus was created in 1971 and remained open to Russia after the fall of the USSR because of an agreement to forgive all of Syria’s debt in 1991. And before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Moscow arranged leasing agreements with Kiev to maintain ownership of the shipyard.
All warm water ports are not created equal. Russia’s port in Crimea is considerably more important than the one in Syria because the port in Tartus lacks the ability to support large navy vessels such as the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier.
But there is a problem for Russia. After a quick look at a map it is clear that Russia has a major obstacle between its warm-water ports – Turkey, a NATO ally. The only way Russia can sail its navy from southwestern Russia into the Mediterranean is through the straits of Istanbul. Such a precarious position requires special attention by the Kremlin. As such, it comes as little surprise that relations between Moscow and Ankara have been improving despite recent upsets like the shoot down of a Russian aircraft over Syria in 2015, or Turkey’s opposition to al-Assad in Syria.
None of this is to say that Russia prioritizes its access to warm-water ports as its top security interest. But it is just another factor to consider when analyzing Russian foreign policy.