Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Our erstwhile adversary the Soviet Union would disappear a few years later as well. For the next decade, the United States enjoyed the unique position of being the world’s only superpower. While some raised eyebrows greeted the news that a former KGB colonel, Vladimir Putin, was elected president of Russia in 2000, the larger world took little immediate notice. Certainly from 2001, the attention of the United States was focused elsewhere, first on Afghanistan after 9/11, then Iraq, and on the growing military capabilities and occasional aggressive actions of China.
But the United States and the rest of the world would get to know Vladimir Putin soon enough. Whether sending Russian naval vessels to the Mediterranean, increasing military activity in the Arctic, going to war against former Soviet republic Georgia in 2008, annexing Crimea, or resuming long-range bomber flights as far as the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, it’s clear that Putin intends for Russia to once again be a major player on the global stage.
In spite of widespread condemnation of these moves, Putin has not backed down. In fact, he seems to revel in the role of the “bold man of action” and one of his preferred levers of power is the Russian Federation Navy. In this regard he is reminiscent of another world leader from a century ago who similarly valued his Navy: Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps no U.S. president was ever more enamored of his fleet and appreciative of its potential as a tool of diplomacy. Frequent Proceedings contributor Captain Thomas R. Fedyszyn brings into focus some striking parallels between the “first modern U.S. president” and the current Russian president. With their commonly shared penchants for bravado, outdoorsiness, and navy-centric geopolitical strategy, the similarities between TR and Putin are astounding. “Russia’s growing fleet,” Fedyszyn tells us, “is now poised to act as vanguard in supporting Putin’s vision of Russia’s national interests” much like TR’s Great White Fleet did for the United States in the early 1900s. But the differences between the two men and their respective navies are equally important, Fedyszyn points out. Without aircraft carriers, Putin’s navy is not capable of destroying a peer competitor’s fleet in a war at sea, nor does his nation enjoy the stature the United States held in the world during Roosevelt’s administration.
For all of Putin’s pride in his navy, the service is having trouble redefining its role for the 21st century. As former Soviet naval officer Andrei Martyanov explains, the Russian navy is lost in a “doctrinal fog.” The problem ranges from a misguided carrier-centric focus to ship acquisitions of dubious merit to an underlying nostalgia for the perceived glory days of the Soviet naval past. The planned purchase of two Mistral-class amphibious ships from France only adds to the confusion, as there seems to be no apparent mission for them. “Discussion . . . still revolves around specific ships and technologies rather than around doctrine,” he laments, “ignoring altogether the ultimate necessity to first formulate the mission for the navy and then develop the operational requirements from there.” Sound advice for all naval planners.
One area where there is no confusion for Russian naval strategists is the Black Sea, says longtime Russia specialist Dr. John C. K. Daly. Whether it’s 1853 or 1947 or 2014, Russia has always understood the importance of the Crimean region to its naval ambitions. Moscow’s recent moves there have come at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty and have rekindled the area’s status as a global trouble spot. NATO vessels entered the Black Sea in July, but the alliance’s options are limited, and the situation has devolved into a “geostrategic checkmate” as Russia has increased its Black Sea forces to counter every Western move. Dr. Daly looks at this volatile situation and offers some guidelines for a well-tempered NATO response.
As the U.S. military continues to deal with the impact of sequestration and budget cuts, it’s easy to forget that, amid all the discussions of which high-priced weapon systems might go on the chopping block, the people manning and maintaining those systems are also affected. This All-Volunteer Force has been pushed to the limit over the past 13 years of war. To maintain the quality of that force will require significant action. We’re fortunate to have Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Admiral Bill Moran with us this month to discuss some possible ways forward. “We should look at this challenge with fresh eyes,” he says. “A bold argument could be made for needed modernization of the All-Volunteer Force, in concert with the end-strength, pay and compensation, and retirement-reform debates that surely must follow.” We look forward to seeing those debates play out in the pages of the open forum.
Paul Merzlak, Editor-in-Chief