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The Putin–Roosevelt Connection

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

The Navy as ‘Big Stick’

Ken Burns’ recent PBS series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History portrays Theodore in a flattering light, particularly his domestic policies of trust-busting, progressive social legislation, and conservation. He helped transform the presidency and the federal government into a force designed not merely to get out of the way, but to actively help Americans achieve security and prosperity. While his foreign-policy initiatives were considered equally successful, Burns did not show TR as a charitable, well-meaning, jovial, avuncular figure looking for politically acceptable solutions. In fact, the most memorable term used by the television series was “bloodlust.”

A hard and physically rugged man, TR was known for his boundless energy and his need not only to win, but to be the leader of the winning side. While a student at Harvard, he wrote The Naval War of 1812 , glorifying the exploits of the U.S. Navy and the virtues required of those who served. As he began his life in politics, he never ceased to stress the need for “soldierly virtues” and the pursuit of a “strenuous life.” Romanticizing the military, he maintained that “the victories of peace are great; but the victories of war are greater.” 1 A regular speaker at the U.S. Naval War College, Roosevelt gave a lecture justifying war and territorial expansion in 1897 in which the “word war is uttered throughout every minute of the presentation (a total of sixty-two times).” 2 His vacations found him either vigorously exploring the untamed “wild West” or big-game hunting in Africa.

Roosevelt’s appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the end of the 19th century marked the beginning of his collaboration with Alfred Thayer Mahan, America’s leading navalist, and thrust him into the business of preparing his Navy for war. 3 He not only pushed Congress to buy what the Navy needed for a potential conflict, but also got involved in generating war plans and scheduling gunnery drills. He demanded that the Navy be ready for any eventuality, and he welcomed the 1898 war with Spain, a notably inferior naval power.

Roosevelt’s terms as President (1901–09) demonstrated that he relished employing his Navy as both a military and diplomatic tool, more so than virtually all of his predecessors. In command of the world’s second largest fleet, he showed deference to the Royal Navy, yet made America’s Navy relevant to many international crises and incidents. With his fellow strategists at the U.S. Naval War College, he articulated a theory that America’s greatness depended on sea power, and then fortuitously found himself in position to exercise this theory.

The “Big Stick” of his increasingly aggressive and ambitious foreign policy was the Navy. 4 While never engaging in a major war at sea, Roosevelt dispatched the North Atlantic Squadron to the Mediterranean, which had a salutary effect on Franco-American relations in 1903. He followed this with a show of force off the Azores, warning the German fleet to steer clear. Then his ships visited Portsmouth, England, and Kiel, Germany, to show off American naval proficiency as well as “up-to-date naval technology.” 5 Working closely with the Department of State, he directed expeditions off the Turkish coast to obtain better treatment for American citizens. The Asiatic Fleet made numerous port visits, designed to demonstrate superior American technology to China, Korea, and Japan. American warships also paid visits to Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Kronstadt (Russia) to support the expansion of American trade, which later came to be known as “dollar diplomacy.”

‘Always a Man of Action’

It was in the Western Hemisphere—his sphere of influence—where Roosevelt’s Navy made its most impressive mark. TR made the United States the policeman of the Caribbean, denying military presence to all European powers. In a 1904 message to Congress, he claimed the right to act unilaterally and preemptively, to maintain order in the Western Hemisphere, and to protect American interests—his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine.

The logical culmination of this Caribbean policy was to expand America’s share of world trade and unite its Atlantic and Pacific fleets with a trans-isthmian canal. Brazenly inciting Panamanian rebels to revolt against the legitimate Colombian government, Roosevelt then positioned American military forces (battleships) to ensure the success of this secession. This violation of Colombia’s sovereignty rewarded Roosevelt with the opportunity to begin canal construction. Always a man of action, he told a University of California at Berkeley audience in 1911, “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate and while the debate goes on the Canal does too.” 6

Roosevelt’s crowning naval initiative may have been the Great White Fleet’s 1907 cruise. From the piers of Hampton Roads, Virginia, TR reviewed a long, majestic column of 16 U.S. battleships and various escorts beginning an around-the-world voyage. Plans were to visit countries on all continents and to conduct the entire spectrum of peacetime naval activities. The Fleet would demonstrate the U.S. Navy’s forward presence to Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. America’s Philippine colony would find these battleships reassuring; Japan would note with awe their armament and firepower. In Sydney, Australia, 250,000 visitors happily turned out to offer a warm welcome. China was honored by the Fleet’s presence, even though half the ships were conducting gunnery training in Manila. In what is now Sri Lanka, local officials exchanged complimentary tea with the American sailors. Steaming through the Suez Canal, the voyage commander, Admiral Charles Stillman Sperry, got word of an earthquake in Sicily and dispatched a humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief force. After eventually showing the flag in Algiers, Tripoli, Naples, Marseille, Athens, and Malta, the Fleet returned to Hampton Roads in 1909. These combined ambassadors of good will and carriers of the “big stick” symbolized growing U.S. economic and industrial might and increased American influence throughout the world.

A Russian Monroe Doctrine?

Images of Vladimir Putin are easy to find. Seemingly always in the news, Rooseveltian pictures of Putin flood the media almost daily. As chief executive of a major nation, his most common portrayal on Google is that of a politician in the Kremlin, looking fit in well-tailored suits. Except for some bare-chested photos showing Putin engaged in either martial arts or big-game hunting in Siberia’s “wild East,” his next most common pose is wearing the winter fur–covered uniform cap of an admiral in Russia’s Northern Fleet.

Putin’s most recent headlines stem from Russia’s role in the Ukrainian crisis, following the uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Square. In moves reminiscent of Roosevelt and Panama, Putin poised troops near the Ukrainian border then welcomed the Crimean peninsula’s vote to secede from Ukraine. Putin then encouraged the Russian Duma to annex Crimea directly, declaring that “Russian citizens in Crimea turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives.” 7 A man of action, Putin added that Russian unilateral and preemptive military moves were further legitimized by the presence of the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Crimea, he declared, is part of Russia, and all of Ukraine is clearly in the Russian zone of influence. If Russia had a Monroe Doctrine, this was certainly its corollary.

Though not a writer like Roosevelt, the Russian president still takes every opportunity to associate himself with the pageantry and patriotism of the Russian Federation Navy (RFN). It should therefore come as no surprise that Navy Day typically finds him at some naval base congratulating sailors on their valor and promising budget increases. This past July he told his audience at Northern Fleet Headquarters that “the might and glory of our fleet will only increase. Its readiness and mobility will be strengthened. . . . New ships will be built.” 8 On Victory Day (9 May), Putin energized his newly annexed Crimean citizenry in the shadow of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, where his keynote speech celebrated Russian power, heroism, and nationalism. Even without a former affiliation with the navy, he never misses an opportunity to associate with it.

While Putin’s rise from a KGB official stationed in East Germany to the seat of Russian power in 2000 did not suggest that he was a conscious “navalist,” his sense of Russian national strategy drove him in this direction. Like TR, he envisioned expanding Russia’s stature and influence in the world. His national-security strategy exudes confidence and optimism, claiming that Russia has stopped its 1990s decline and offering a vision for a dramatically improved 21st century. 9 Items that stand out on its first page include the importance of strategic deterrence, territorial integrity, trade and economic expansion, and increased influence in global affairs . The remainder of the strategy also focuses on the need to secure energy resources, engage in public diplomacy , and to improve the presence of Russian armed forces in global conflict zones . 10 Many of these “Putinesque” national interests are not commonly found in previous strategic documents of either Russia or the Soviet Union. However, consciously or not, Putin could not have failed to realize that the pursuit of such interests required the use of naval power.

Revamped Navy a Putin Priority

And his first order of business was to revitalize his navy—not just in quality and quantity, but also in strategic utility. Previously low on defense-budget priorities, the RFN will receive a record share—25 percent—of Russia’s growing arms-procurement budget of 20 trillion rubles ($621.31 billion) by the end of the decade, an echo of Theodore Roosevelt’s provisioning of the U.S. Navy as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. A navy once in disarray and disrepair is finally beginning to reap the rewards of this capital investment. For example, The Barents Observer reports that Russia has put into service 26 warships over the last year and has an additional 60 under construction. 11

Russia’s growing fleet is now poised to act as vanguard in supporting Putin’s vision of Russia’s national interests. The modernization of Russia’s strategic deterrent is being led by the construction of eight Borey-class ballistic-missile submarines. Two are already commissioned, and the third is in the water. The Arctic is fundamentally a maritime theater, and Putin’s Arctic policy is reminiscent of TR’s attitude toward the Caribbean. Not only is Russian territorial integrity enforced with his navy, but the Putin administration has put NATO on notice that its warships would be considered intruders, like German and British warships near Venezuela in 1902, early in TR’s first term.

In fact, the Russian militarization of the Arctic has proceeded at a breathtaking pace. For the past two years, the Northeast Passage adjacent to the Russian coast has been traversed by a flotilla led by the nuclear cruiser Pyotr Velikiy . Russia is also rebuilding naval bases on Kotelny and Wrangel islands in the Arctic Ocean, ensuring (as TR did with the canal) the security of enhanced trade between Russia’s two oceanic littorals, along with free flow of its fleets between oceans. A large portion of Russia’s future energy resources are located in the Arctic basin and can only be secured with a maritime-oriented military.

In the Pacific, Russia intends to expand its economic zone in the Sea of Okhotsk, claiming exclusive rights to 29,826 square miles of the continental-shelf seabed. Russia made a similar application in 2001, but now an expanding Pacific fleet, to be bolstered shortly by the French-made Mistral -class amphibious-assault ship Vladivostok , sends the message that this claim can be enforced. 12 (The fate of the Mistrals deal, suspended by France in September over the Ukraine crisis, remains in limbo at press time.) China, Russia’s counterpart in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, is put on notice that the RFN will be present in this potential global conflict zone , should the Chinese navy be faced with challenges from Japan or the U.S. 7th Fleet.

Once considered low priority, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has become a designated target of naval growth, owing to Russia’s perception of a NATO naval threat to the south. Along with major improvements to the pier facilities in Sevastopol and Novorossiysk, the Black Sea Fleet will get “some 80 new surface ships by 2020, bringing its total to 206 ships.” 13 Putin is famous for calling “no-notice” readiness and weapons drills in this fleet and, like TR a century before, is particularly keen on his fleet honing its ability to sink enemy warships. 14 Material readiness and gunnery training are also central to these exercises.

Like TR’s Great White Fleet, Putin’s navy also supports his larger military strategy by advertising Russian military technology and conducting public diplomacy through forward presence. The RFN has made itself visible in far-reaching corners of the globe. In 2012, the RFN is reported to have conducted 70 friendly port visits, a number that jumped to 120 in 2013. Ports such as Singapore, Colombo, and Karachi now regularly see the Russian naval ensign much as the Great White Fleet carried the American banner a century before. Soviet warships in Havana Harbor were a commonplace during the Cold War as a signal of reassurance and support for the Castro regime. Today, ships bristling with missiles and radars are reappearing in the Western Hemisphere to display Russian military technology , with an eye toward global sales. Using its fleet, Russia has been able to market its naval technology to Cuba, Algeria, India, and Vietnam. Russian news agencies report that around 15 percent of all defense exports are naval vessels and that Russia now holds 27 percent of the world market. According to Putin, Russian shipbuilders, designers, engineers, and workers “can design and produce the most sophisticated and highly technological products,” which are now in combat service in 27 international defense establishments. 15

Putin’s call for the Russian Navy to yield greater Russian influence in world affairs could not have come much more serendipitously than in last year’s crisis involving Syria’s chemical weapons. Having been given an ultimatum to turn over his chemical weapons arsenal or face certain attack, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “rescued” by a compromise plan devised by Putin, allowing Assad to avoid air and missile strikes by Western powers. Putin’s rhetorical competence aside, his military influence in the region was almost totally dependent on his ten-warship Mediterranean naval force, reminiscent of TR’s 1903 foray into the Mediterranean. 16 In addition, the RFN is making its global presence felt in its aggressive counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

‘Precisely the Other Direction’

Finally, it is worth noting what Putin’s navy is not . First and foremost, it is not capable of destroying a first-class naval adversary at sea (and neither Putin nor the Russian press claim otherwise). Ships best suited for this task would be aircraft carriers assisted by long-range aviation and augmented by large numbers of stealthy nuclear-powered attack submarines. While the Yasen-class submarine fills the latter role, it is being built in such small numbers as to be of minimal significance. As for aircraft carriers, there has been a steady background noise on the subject, but never a commitment to a building program. Projections for the development of this force always seem to be a decade away. The RFN will expand Russian influence in world affairs up to, but not including, engaging a more formidable adversary at sea. TR did not challenge Britain at sea, and Putin shows no interest in challenging the United States.

This striking congruence of the personalities of Putin and TR and their use of naval forces—separated by a century—suggests an interesting and previously unrecognized historical comparison. However, application to the current geopolitical situation as a predictive tool is probably limited. There is no Russian Great White Fleet on the horizon. The larger and more important reason that Putin’s and Russia’s immediate future is unlikely to follow that of TR and America of the 20th century goes well beyond personality traits and nationalist ambitions. Russia and the United States may have commanded the world’s second-biggest fleets a century apart, but there the similarity ends. A century ago, the United States had both a burgeoning industrial economy and was gradually developing an international reputation as a nation of integrity with respect for international law. The robust American economy made it far easier to expand its navy to become the world’s premier naval force. Later, as the century progressed, a majority of the world’s nations learned to trust American leadership in international affairs.

Russia is headed in precisely the other direction. The Ukrainian crisis, which Putin largely inflicted on himself, might be producing short-term domestic popularity bursts in Russia but is proving a strategic, economic, and image catastrophe. Russia’s international reputation is in tatters. A recent U.N. General Assembly vote on the Russian annexation of Crimea was rejected by 110 members. Russia received support from an international rogues’ gallery of ten: North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Sudan, Venezuela, Syria, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Belarus, and Bolivia. More significantly, the plummeting price of oil, along with U.S./EU sanctions, is creating financial havoc in Moscow. 17 Foreign investment in Russia is down 50 percent. Capital flight in 2014 is already over $100 billion. Russia’s financial reserve fund (largely from oil export) has already disbursed $51 billion to stabilize the falling ruble.

Putin has recently taken personal ownership of the Russian defense budget, which signals near-term continued growth for his navy. However, it is very likely that these increased defense expenditures, combined with a projected zero-to-negative GDP growth, could lead to a panoply of problems affecting domestic social programs, Russian public opinion, and, ultimately, regime legitimacy. Perhaps the more appropriate comparison for the future of Putin’s Russia can be seen in more recent history. In 1989, the world got to witness the results of the Russian (Soviet) desire to maintain power, prestige, and influence in the world based solely on military might. Mr. Putin should check the final score.

1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 222.

2. Greg Russell, “Theodore Roosevelt, Geopolitics, and Cosmopolitan Ideas,” Review of International Studies , vol. 32, no. 3 (July 2006), 548.

3. See Richard W. Turk, The Ambiguous Relationship: Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987); and Peter Karsten, “The Nature of ‘Influence’: Roosevelt, Mahan and the Concept of Sea Power,” American Quarterly , vol. 23, no. 4 (October 1971), 585–600.

4. Theodore Roosevelt Association, “The Naval Strategist,” .

5. Seward W. Livermore, “The American Navy as a Factor in World Politics, 1903–1913,” American Historical Review , vol. 63, no. 4 (July 1958), 867.

6. Russell, “Theodore Roosevelt, Geopolitics, and Cosmopolitan Ideas,” 545.

7. Vladimir Putin, “Address by President of the Russian Federation,” the Kremlin, Moscow, 18 March 2014, .

8. “Warships parade across Russia on Navy Day,” Russia Today , 27 July 2014, http://rt/ .

9. “Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020,” Russian Federation Presidential Decree No. 537, 12 May 2009, .

10. Ibid.

11. Andrey Shalyov, “Russian Navy Day: From Sevastopol to Severomosk,” Barents Observer , 1 August 2014, .

12. “Russia to Take Okhotsk Sea Under Control,” Voice of, 20 August 2013, .

13. “Russia Faces Obstacles to Bolstering its Black Sea Fleet,” Stratfor Global Intelligence , 24 September 2014.

14. “Putin Flexes Russian Military Muscle in Naval Exercise,”, 28 March 2013, .

15. “Russian Naval Export Should Grow,” ITAR-TASS, 7 July 2014, .

16. CAPT Thomas R. Fedyszyn, USN (Ret.), “The Russian Navy ‘Rebalances’ to the Mediterranean,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 139, no. 12 (December 2013), 20–25.

17. Nikolas Gvosdev, “The Bear Has No Claws: Is Russia’s Massive Military Modernization Over?” The National Interest , 10 October 2014. “Conversation: Russia Can Weather Economic Problems,” Stratfor Global Intelligence , 9 October 2014.

Captain Fedyszyn, a frequent contributor to Proceedings , is director of the Europe-Russia Studies Group at the Naval War College. He received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University while on active duty. His 31-year naval career included assignments as the U.S. naval attaché to Russia and two tours at NATO Headquarters. A former surface-warfare officer, he commanded the USS Normandy (CG-60) and William V. Pratt (DDG-44). The author thanks Maia Crawford Fedyszyn, Fred Borowski, and Marshall Hoyler for their insights and observations.


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