In terms of capital ships, today the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) has one aircraft carrier (the Admiral Kuznetsov—currently at sea off the coast of Syria), the sole survivor of an ambitious carrier program initiated in the 1960s. Similarly, only one of the four nuclear-propelled battle cruisers of the Kirov class currently is in service (the Petr Velikiy), although a second (the Admiral Nakhimov) is undergoing major modernization costing more than $2 billion. These ships are legacies, now intended for showing the flag and status projection, demonstrating Russia still is a great power on blue waters.
The Kuznetsov continues to suffer engineering problems, evidenced by plumes of black smoke recently seen coming from her stacks. After her current deployment to the Mediterranean, she will begin a multi-year overhaul and modernization that leaves Russia without an aircraft carrier ready for sea. Of the three Slava-class missile cruisers, typically two are available at any time while one is in long-term overhaul. Hence the Moskva and Varyag of that class have taken shifts commanding Russia’s naval squadron in the Eastern Mediterranean, leaving the Pacific Fleet without a proper cruiser-type flagship. The third ship of the class under Russian colors, the Marshal Ustinov, is scheduled to leave the Zvyozdochka Shipyard in Severodvinsk in early 2017 and may go to the Pacific Fleet.
Beyond these “capital ships,” the Russian surface fleet has a small assortment of destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, and auxiliary ships. This situation persists despite the Russian leadership’s disproportionate attention and affection for the navy, especially given that the country is a major—and historically dominant—Eurasian land power. This belief in the importance of naval power dates to the time of Peter the Great (tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725). Today President Vladimir Putin sees his navy as a means of projecting great power status and garnering attention of world leaders.
Meanwhile the Russian General Staff believes the RFN has an important role in securing maritime approaches and the vulnerable littorals on the country’s periphery, and in providing new strike options with land-attack cruise missiles. Even Russia’s dated fleet of amphibious ships and landing craft trains to shift troops around the nation’s vast borders and practices landings, as recently as during exercises in Crimea in September 2016. The Alligator and Ropucha classes of landing ships have been integral to the “Syrian Express,” Russia’s supply line from the Black Sea to support the Assad regime and to provide the logistics train for the Russian ground and air intervention in Syria.
During the campaign in Syria, a new generation of Russian Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, launched from small corvettes, frigates, and diesel-electric submarines, have made their “combat” debut. These ships and submarines are multipurpose platforms, tied more to specific families of weapon systems such as Kalibr and P-800 Oniks (NATO designation SS-N-26 Strobile) strike missiles, along with the Poliment-Redut air defense system, which is still in development.
Following the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Russian government proceeded with plans to resurrect the largely moribund Black Sea Fleet. Thus this dying naval command has been revived with an influx of new corvettes, submarines, naval infantry, aviation, and coastal defense forces. Together with the Caspian Sea Flotilla, the Black Sea Fleet has had a discernible impact on the Syrian campaign, providing missile attacks as well as local air defense off the port of Tartus.
The recent announcement that Russian troops and aviation units will be “permanently” based in Syria further enhances the significance of Tartus and the navy’s logistic support. Meanwhile, from his Crimea headquarters, the Black Sea Fleet commander can confidently project control over most of the Black Sea. With the arrival of a new series of diesel-electric submarines this fleet will increasingly make its presence felt in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The men and (a few) women who sail on board Russian navy ships and submarines are increasingly professionals. Gone are the three-year conscripts who formed the enlisted force on board Russian ships. Today the “Red Fleet” is manned primarily by career officers and warrants (the equivalent of senior petty officers in Western navies), and “contract” enlisted men. The few women who serve on board ships are assigned to civilian-manned auxiliary ships (akin to the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command); other women serve in billets of the shore establishment and headquarters staffs.
The pay, service conditions, and benefits for naval personnel exponentially have improved since the launch of military reforms in late 2008. Indeed, the most important qualitative improvement across the fleet is the new generation of better-trained and better-paid naval personnel. A regular regimen of exercises, drills, and snap checks keep this smaller force at a much higher state of operational readiness than its predecessors.
Where is the Russian navy heading? Russia’s shipyards are building submarines, corvettes, and frigates because those are the ships they can produce. These new surface ships—and submarines—are sufficient for controlling the waters of Russia’s periphery. Construction of cruisers, destroyers, and large frigates is at a standstill at this time, primarily because in the past the Russian navy’s gas turbine engines were supplied by Ukraine. While Russian factories are now developing naval gas turbine engines, existing ship designs will require major modifications for their installation.
Significant electronic and navigation gear provided by Western firms is no longer available because of sanctions imposed by Western governments after the Russian takeover of Crimea. The breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991 left several key shipyards in newly independent Ukraine and other countries. Of particular importance was the carrier-building facility at Nikolayev in the Ukraine. Significantly, all four submarine construction yards and their suppliers remained within Russian territory.
The current Russian navy, a mix of legacy Soviet vessels and new smaller ship classes, is ill suited for long-range operations, and there appears to be no planning for them—at this time. Most of the new surface ships have short endurance and are not designed for long-range operations. Large Soviet platforms, like the nuclear cruiser Petr Velikiy, can still undertake impressive voyages, such as the deployment to South Africa and the Caribbean in 2008. The principal missions of Russia’s surface forces, however, are to prevent the U.S. Navy from approaching Russia’s borders, defend strategic missile submarine bastions, provide alternative land-attack options for the increasingly joint military force, and support Russian “overseas interests” in adjacent areas, at this time in the Middle East.
The Russian navy faces limitations in the short term, and it is difficult to foresee what the distant future will hold. The Russian economy shrank in 2015 and will likely stagnate in the near future under continued low oil prices and its long-running structural inadequacies. Russia does, on the other hand, retain key shipyards and highly competent surface ship and submarine design bureaus. Given time and funding, the ingredients exist to grow the fleet into a more capable force. Russia’s naval traditions, and the historic interest of its leaders in the maritime domain suggest the St. Andrew’s flag will continue to fly over Russia’s regional seas, and, possibly in the future, the distant seas.
Michael Kofman is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C. Previously he served at the National Defense University as a program manager.
Norman Polmar, a Proceedings columnist for 38 years, is coauthor of Submarines of the Russian and Soviet Navies (1990) and Cold War Submarines (2004). He currently is updating and merging those two books for publication by the Naval Institute Press. Mr. Polmar also was the author of four editions of Guide to the Soviet Navy.