Renaissance of the Russian Navy?

By Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn, U.S. Navy (Retired)

A nation’s grand strategy rarely changes quickly. In 2000, however, newly elected President Vladimir Putin made it clear that in the 21st century, Russia would once again be a global leader. The strategic documents issued shortly after his election insisted on Russia’s pride of place in the international order. However, words and attitude alone were insufficient to improve and modernize Russia’s armed forces. The mineral-based Russian economy continued to lag behind the West, and the hoped-for transformation of the Russian military sputtered without strong budgetary support.

After economic expert Dmitry Medvedev became president in 2008 (with Putin staying on as prime minister), the world witnessed both a nuanced change in official Russian strategic thought and budgetary priorities. While Russia still strove to be a “world leader,” its new strategic guidance, Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020 , reflected maturation in the understanding of all elements of national power. 4 In particular, the new strategy viewed military power increasingly as a means to a new end: economic well-being and prosperity. Indeed, it made the following noteworthy points:

• Russia’s development will follow the path of globalization and the interdependence of the international system; Russia intends to join the ranks of the top five countries by size of GDP

• International politics will focus on energy resources, particularly in the Arctic Ocean and Caspian Basin

• Russia’s top two national interests are to enhance the competitiveness of its economy and to regain standing as a world power

• National defense will be provided on the principle of reasonable sufficiency and will include public diplomacy, peacekeeping, and international military cooperation

• Terrorist organizations remain a threat to national security.

The Russian national security strategy’s emphasis on economics and quality of life as principal issues, as well as its insistence on not matching the American military dollar-for-dollar, suggests a competitive, but not confrontational, Russia. In this strategy, Russia portrays itself as no longer a prisoner of the Eurasian landmass by emphasizing the Arctic, Caspian, and Far East (Pacific) regions of growing importance, along with those of global trade and interdependence. Moscow willingly volunteers to engage in international peacekeeping operations worldwide and to vigorously pursue terrorist extremist groups.

Economics Trumps Bellicosity

While the Russian equivalent of our national military strategy, The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation , always was notoriously hard-line on defense issues, its most recent version (February 2010) is decidedly less confrontational. The publication’s “main tasks for the military” include: multilateral cooperation with partner states, combating piracy, ensuring the economic activities of the Russian Federation, participating in international peacekeeping activities, and combating international terrorism. 5

Over the past decade Russian naval strategy has been considerably harder to distinguish than its more general and far-reaching national security strategy. In fact, Russia has not produced a formal and comprehensive naval strategy since 2001. 6 Given the navy’s historically inferior position in the Ministry of Defense, it is more useful to consider ministerial guidance as well as official pronouncements and news releases to understand the thrust of contemporary Russian naval policy.

As early as 2004, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s blueprint for a future navy revolved around eliminating a blue-water or “ocean” capability and focusing instead on the 500-kilometer zone of territorial waters. 7 The 2010 Russian National Maritime Policy , published together with the Ministries of Trade and Commerce, touched on naval strategy, since its central theme was unfettered use of the world’s oceans to support the growth of the Russian economy. The navy’s role in this national strategy is mentioned, but only after lengthy discussions of shipping, fishing, minerals and energy, and scientific activities. While naval roles include the obvious missions of deterrence and protection of sovereignty, there is even more extensive discussion of peacekeeping, humanitarian missions, mineral exploitation, maintaining freedom of the seas, and showing the flag.

The section on regional naval priorities makes clear that the Arctic and Pacific theaters, followed closely by the Caspian Sea, matter most. The discussion focuses on providing access to the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean and on ensuring complete control of the Northern Sea Route through an Arctic Ocean that has become ice-free for longer periods each successive year. Not surprisingly, maintaining superiority in the development and deployment of nuclear-powered icebreakers remains a priority. Discussion of the Pacific also revolves around sea-based economic activity and the intensification of exploitation of mineral resources. This, in turn, calls for the development of coastal-port infrastructure in the Kuril Islands, an area of contention with Japan.

The Caspian regional priority can be summed up in one word: oil. For Russian national maritime policy, economic issues—mineral exploitation, maritime transport, and pipeline security—represent Russia’s principal interests.

Two themes characterize Russian strategic guidance to its military. First, all branches of the military will be reformed through downsizing and professionalization. Those most in danger of severe cutbacks are those not optimally responsive to the ends of Russian grand strategy. Second, Russia’s economic interests require a complementary military force to provide security and expansion. These considerations shape Russia’s thinking about its navy.

From ‘Irreversible Collapse’ to Accelerated Construction

Russian naval leaders saw the fleet degrade over the generation following Admiral Sergey Gorshkov’s death in 1988. With the advent of the Putin administration in 2000, some began to talk—only talk—of how Russia would restore its former naval greatness. Then came two setbacks. First, political leaders decided that the Russian Infrastructure Fund, amassed after the turn of the 21st century, would not be used to rebuild the Russian military. Next, the global recession led to a sharp drop in the price of oil—the source of most of Russia’s wealth. Western naval analysts dubbed the Russian navy the “fleet that has to die” citing a study by the Moscow-based Independent Military Review , which saw Russian naval shipbuilding in a “situation of irreversible collapse.” 8

Soon after (and in some cases simultaneously), however, there were more positive developments as well. First, the new Russian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, known primarily for his business expertise, called for wholesale reform of the armed forces. This included the elimination of the Russian navy’s aging and obsolescent platforms—along with a large portion of its officer corps. Further, Russian shipbuilding corporations were consolidated in an attempt to reduce redundancy and make the surviving shipyards more efficient, enabling the skilled shipbuilders to concentrate. Finally, the Medvedev administration announced an expanded investment plan for the Russian military and allocated 25 percent of its military investment budget to the navy, a percentage vastly exceeding that of the past generation. 9 This proposal should be considered realistic, as the price of oil is once again hitting record highs. Russia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, natural gas, and numerous precious minerals, will be a principal beneficiary of what some economic analysts see as an inexorable cost-growth of all extractive commodities. 10

Russia’s streamlined shipbuilding capacity is beginning to show progress in the construction of several types of warships. The most publicized project is the development of the new Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN), planned to initiate eight hulls by 2017. The class leader, the Yuri Dolgorukiy , was commissioned in 2009 in St. Petersburg, following 25 years of sporadic construction, but follow-on building is adhering closely to original schedule. This class will replace the obsolescent Delta III and IV classes of SSBNs as the navy’s contribution to Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. The Yasen class of up to ten nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) is led by the Severodvinsk , which was commissioned in 2010 after a 16-year building process. The Kazan , the second of the class, is scheduled for commissioning in 2013, only four years after construction began. Accelerated construction times for both classes of submarines are attributed to the “resumption of regular funding of defense contracts and newly established industrial cooperation.” 11

Surface-combatant construction is following the same trend. The 2007 launching of the Steregushchiy , a 2,100-ton corvette touted for her low-observable design along with a high degree of automation and combat-systems integration, signaled Russia’s return to developing its own surface-warfare fleet. While the lead ship took more than six years to deliver, her successors, the Soobrazitelniy (recently commissioned), Boiky , and Stoiky , are expected to follow in considerably less time. The plan is for 10–20 ships of this class, intended for coastal patrol and escort duties. Further, Russia has built frigates for the Indian Navy and is now beginning to produce three identical Project 11356 frigates for itself, scheduled to be homeported in the Black Sea. More formidably, Russian shipyards have just commissioned the first Admiral Gorshkov –class frigate. This 4,000-ton warship is equipped for modern antisubmarine and antisurface warfare as well as escort duties.

Arctic, Pacific, and Caspian Concerns

The Russian icebreaker inventory is a special case, dwarfing the rest of the world’s fleets. Her six nuclear icebreakers (four oceanic, two coastal) are designed to maintain the Northern Sea Route for commercial as well as military purposes. The aging Russian fleet will be augmented by a third-generation nuclear-powered vessel, capable of operating near the coast as well in the deep waters of the Arctic Ocean. Russia expects to build three or four of these icebreakers, the first of which will be operating in 2015.

Development of offensive strike platforms—aircraft-carrier strike groups—is the lone area where Russian actions do not match Russian words. For several years, Moscow’s official policy has stressed the importance of aircraft carriers, maintaining that they are a staple of all great navies. In early 2008, former Russian naval commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin ordered Russia’s design bureaus to draw up plans for nuclear-powered carriers displacing 60,000 tons. 12 President Medvedev even announced a goal to build “five or six aircraft carrier task forces” designated for operations in the Pacific and Northern Fleets regions. 13 However, in striking defiance of earlier pronouncements, Defense Minister Serdyukov confirmed that their construction will not begin until at least 2020, and that there was no longer any discussion of building new ocean-class cruisers. 14

In all likelihood, the Russian nuclear aircraft-carrier striking fleet will remain an expression of future aspiration, and its only cruisers will be repaired versions of its four aging capital ships. The more realistic naval-aviation scenario is that Russia will maintain this capability through its purchase of French Mistral -class large-deck amphibious platforms. Russia hopes to buy two and then construct two more of these platforms, whose specialties include troop deployment as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

As important as what the Russians are building is how and where they intend to operate these ships. The Northern Fleet, always preeminent in the Russian navy, will continue to receive a disproportionate share of new warships. However, beyond the ballistic-missile submarines dedicated to strategic deterrence, most strategic discussion centers around Russia’s need to exploit Arctic mineral and trade resources. Russia’s second-biggest fleet, in the Pacific, is being similarly tasked. Given the country’s simmering confrontation with Japan over the Kuril Islands, most experts expect that at least one of the first two Mistral s—to be named the Vladivostok and Sevastopol —will be homeported in the Pacific, able to both deploy Russian naval infantry and perform missions of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The Baltic Fleet probably will continue to shrink but will increasingly be called on to safeguard Russian undersea gas and oil pipelines. While Georgia will occupy the Black Sea Fleet’s attention, this too is a region of growing Russian trade and oil commerce. The Caspian Flotilla, always a stepchild in strategic discussions, is being fortified with impressive Astrakhan -class patrol boats to ensure that Russia has the premier naval force in this oil-rich region. In an effort to gain more worldwide visibility and support for its antipiracy operations, Russia was actively engaged with Vietnam, Syria, and Venezuela (and up until March 2011, Libya), for logistics and repair services in their principal ports.

Russian naval strategy—like all strategies—can be discerned through analyzing the allocation of defense resources. Several conclusions emerge as Russian naval activity is evaluated. First, the navy’s relative stature is growing in Russia. Ships are being built at a markedly faster pace and these ships are increasingly joining the Russian fleet, not only being sold to foreign countries. Thus, Admiral Roughead was correct in his assessment: The Russian navy is on the move again. Second, Russia is relying more on its navy to provide an invulnerable strategic second-strike capability, the seaborne deterrent SSBN force. Third, however, Russian shipbuilding projects (other than perhaps the Yasen-class SSGN) are not principally designed for countering other navies or for projecting offensive military power beyond territorial waters. Instead, their weapon systems allow them to conduct independent operations and to inter-operate with other navies, but not challenge them. Most new Russian ships are smaller than their forebears and designed to be multimission rather than to specialize in one warfare area.

Naval Convergence Theory?

Finally, Russian naval strategy, as manifested in its operations, pronouncements, and budgets, is becoming well aligned with Russian national-security strategy—perhaps as its principal military tool. This strategy, as noted earlier, seeks to enhance both national prosperity and Russia’s stature. Military power is aimed primarily at preventing war, but otherwise is considered another element of national power, used principally in support of Russia’s economic growth. This same message is repeated throughout our own guidelines, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower . 15

While Russian and American strategies refer to regional warfighting capability in concert with allies, both nations’ military forces primarily exist to foster stability, trust, prosperity, and cooperation. Both strategies also acknowledge that, while sovereignty disputes and natural-resource competition may spark future conflict, each navy’s most likely principal challenges are terrorist networks, criminal elements, and natural disasters.

This logic could likewise underpin the argument for the relative importance of American naval power, enabling us to become an “offshore balancer” after we withdraw from ground wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, it almost certainly argues for major changes in the size, shape, and composition of the future Russian military, and particularly in its navy.

The historic Russian obsession with large standing armies of conscripts created an unaffordable military tool without a credible mission. Even the technologically sophisticated portions of the Russian military aimed at offensive operations against large nation-states have become problematic, and this leaves the need for a smaller, professional, military capable of defending Russian borders and combating domestic disruptions caused by terrorists and nationalist movements. It also calls for a military force whose principal role is to project the Russian image abroad and ensure the security of all Russian economic expansion. This is the strategic and ever-widening niche for the future Russian navy.

These trends may result in a rise back into the upper crust of the world’s navies. However, we are more likely to see Russian warships operating in multinational antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden than trailing American carrier strike groups in the Pacific or the Mediterranean. These antipiracy patrols will increasingly be carried out by small, fast, stealthy multimission platforms. The very likely increased Russian presence in the Arctic Ocean will have more to do with global trade and oil security than it will with bastion defense of ballistic-missile submarines. Russian task groups in the Caribbean will be increasing Russia’s international stature as well as selling arms to Latin American nations, rather than threatening American military exercises. The U.S. task is to be able to discriminate those military activities required by an expanding economy from those that challenge vital U.S. interests as our national-security strategy moves into the second decade of the 21st century. The U.S. Navy’s maritime strategy just might have struck a resonant chord in Moscow.




1. “Roughead says Russian, Chinese Navies Growing,”, www.navytimes.com/news/2011/03/defense-navy--cno-assesses-russian-chines... .

2. LTCOL John A. Mowchan, “Russia’s Black Sea Threat,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 137, no. 2 (February 2011), pp. 26–31. Lee Willett, “The Navy in Russia’s Resurgence,” The RUSI Journal , vol. 154, no. 1 (2009), pp. 50–55.

3. Vladimir Petrov, “Medvedev orders construction of aircraft carriers for the Russian Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly , 14 October 2008.

4. “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” 12 May 2009, http://rustrans.wikidot.com/Russia-s-national-security-strategy-to-2020 .

5. “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation Approved by Russian Federation Presidential Edict on 5 February 2010,” http://www.sras.org/military_doctrine_russian_federation_2010 .

6. “Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation 2020,” approved by Vladimir Putin, 27 July 2001, www.oceanlaw.org/downloads/arctic/Russian_Maritime_Policy_2020.pdf .

7. Andrei Kislyakov, “Will Russia create the World’s second largest Navy?” RIA Novosti , 13 November 2007, http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20071113/87843710.html .

8. Reuben F. Johnson, “The Fleet That Has To Die,” The Weekly Standard , 15 July 2009.

9. Keith Jacobs, “Russian Navy: Quo Vadis?” Naval Forces , vol. 30, no. 3 (2009), pp. 56–64.

10. Jeremy Grantham, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever.” GMO Quarterly Letter , April 2011.

11. “Nevsky and Novomoskovsk: Two Submarines for Putin,” RIA Novost , 15 December 2010.

12. Milan Vego, “The Russian Navy Revitalized,” Armed Forces Journal , May 2009, pp. 34–47.

13. Vladimir Petrov, “Medvedev orders construction of aircraft carriers for Russian Navy,” Jane’s Defence Weekly , 14 October 14 2008.

14. “No New Russian Aircraft carriers until 2020,” Agence France-Presse , 10 December 2010.

15. While the document comprehensively addresses all potential naval missions including large-scale warfare, its immediate and lasting impression is its emphasis on “soft power.” See Ann Scott Tyson, “New Maritime Strategy to Focus on Soft Power,” Washington Post , 17 October 2007.

Captain Fedyszyn is director of the Europe-Russia Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College. His military assignments included command of the USS Normandy (CG-60) and U.S. naval attaché to Russia.
 

Captain Fedyszyn has been a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College since retiring from the Navy in 2000. His active duty assignments included command of the USS Normandy (CG-60) and naval attache to Russia.

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