During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy was the clear rival to American sea power, but by the Soviet Union’s fall in 1990 its dominance had clearly dissolved. Twenty-five years later, numerous articles, blogs, and books still characterize the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) as effectively worthless.1 At the same time, propagandistic Russian sources suggest the exact opposite, touting technological naval breakthroughs and impressive building plans for all classes of naval vessels. Defense analyst Michael Kofman has cautioned Western naval circles to avoid extremes in our assessment of the Russian military, one of the “deadly sins” affecting Western analysis.2 With Kofman’s guidance in mind, today’s Russian Navy is neither midget nor monster, but increasingly acts as a reflection of President Vladimir Putin’s character and bolsters his more outrageous gambits. Thus, it is threatening beyond the bounds of its own capability.
Russia specialist Dmitry Gorenburg suggests that the RFN is designed basically for strategic deterrence and coastal defense.3 While this assessment is fair, we can more completely understand Putin’s navy by also seeing it as his alter ego. His 2016 photo calendar shows him in a naval hat—a common depiction—as he sends a national-security message to his citizenry. A recent Putin biography portrays him as a small but crafty, tenacious, efficient, and agile judo master.4 He uses his steely demeanor and trim physique to impress, even to cow and bluff, both potential threats and bystanders. Military forces with impressive looks do matter and can entrance and influence observers. If these forces can move with agility and deliver precise blows, similar to those of a judo master, they are doubly useful. Much like Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, such forces need not be enormous.
Putin’s use of the RFN takes us back several centuries: We are witnessing the resurrection of the Potemkin Village, but this time with some sting. That is, Putin is personalizing the development of the “Potemkin-Plus” Navy.
You have probably heard that Catherine the Great’s Minister Grigoriy Potemkin built imposing village facades along the Dnieper River to impress foreign ambassadors. The part of the story that normally does not get mentioned is that, for some time at least, they worked. Eighteenth-century diplomats were impressed and accorded to Russia disproportionate power and influence. In short, “mere” façades can have utility and should not be dismissed out of hand.
Of course, military forces cannot rely on such characteristics to win major wars. But once the foundation of a genuine warfighting force is laid, a potent image can get Russia a seat at the superpower table, or enough influence to bully or woo weak regional actors. Domestically, such appearances play well with a home audience salivating for national respect or even a global leadership role. However, in the international realm, they could become a factor that makes Russia an unpredictable and escalatory actor in crises around the world.
Russian Navy’s Steady Return
The Russian Navy’s “showmanship,” of course, is meaningless unless built on an increasingly strong foundation. Most experts date the beginning of Russia’s military turnaround to its incompetent, albeit successful, performance in the short 2008 war with Georgia. Former Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov began a military-reform program because of this embarrassing performance, and Russia’s army, navy, and air force began professionalizing along Western lines. In addition, defense appropriations began to expand and have now reached 4.3 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product. Current Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has continued to improve his military’s quality, professionalism, and technology. These reforms have made the RFN more formidable, and theoretically more threatening, than at any point since the end of the Cold War. To see why, let us consider strategy, operations, and shipbuilding:
Strategy. On Russian Navy Day, 26 July 2015, President Putin, along with Defense Minister Shoigu, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin, and then-Navy Chief Admiral Viktor Chirkov met on the newly commissioned frigate Admiral of the Soviet Navy Gorshkov (note the symbolism of ship selection: Admiral Gorshkov led the Soviet Navy through its glory days of the Cold War) and unveiled a new national strategic document. The 2015 version of the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation is similar to its 2001 predecessor in title only. Despite the use of “maritime,” not “naval,” ministers from departments of trade, science, environment, or tourism were nowhere in sight. In all, quite a contrast with 2001 when there was no public unveiling, and no presidential ownership.
In strategies, words matter. Following is a quick comparison of the 2015 national maritime doctrine’s terminologies, ideas and messages with the 2001 version. The two differ radically:
•The earlier document was predominantly non-military, emphasizing trade, environment, science, etc. This “maritime” doctrine is almost half naval strategy.
•The navy is now required to have a “significant presence” in the Arctic and Antarctic.
•Naval guidance for the Baltic, Black, and Azov seas would have used the term “anti-access/area denial” if written by an American naval strategist.
•The creation of a permanent Mediterranean flotilla is predicated exclusively on the NATO threat.
•Unified Strategic Command North, with the Northern Fleet as its foundation, is charged with restricting foreign naval activities in the Arctic.
•The Russian Pacific Fleet is charged with developing close relations with China’s navy.
•The shipbuilding industry, never before part of this document, was tasked to “support the construction of military ships.”
Hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin then held a press conference and put the Putin administration’s official spin on the new Maritime Doctrine.5 “Pugnacious” might be the best way to characterize this event. He asserted that there was now “rivalry for the world’s oceans,” generated by NATO aggressiveness. This Western posture also rationalized Russian “liberation” of Crimea and the placement of a permanent flotilla in the Mediterranean. While NATO’s actions had put Russia on the defensive, Moscow maintained the ability “to deny access to NATO aggressors in the Arctic Ocean and the Black and Baltic Seas.” Ascribing Western maritime activity to the need to “threaten Russia through world domination,” he accused the United States of developing “a major program for armaments in the Arctic.” Many American naval strategists would welcome this news if it were true.
The inescapable takeaway from these events is that the Putin regime looks at its navy in qualitatively different terms than Russian leadership did a decade ago. The RFN is now an ascendant tool of Russian national power, to be used to spread the message that Russia has returned to the world stage. It will also be the basis of a combat force.
Operations. There has been a noticeable ramping up of at-sea time since 2009. Representative of this trend is the recent Defense Ministry announcement that the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla have registered 15 percent more days at sea in 2015 than 2014, including more than 700 combat exercises and 60 missile launches. Of note, there was a 50 percent increase in the Russian submarine patrols along with the navy’s improved participation in joint and combined exercises from 2013 to 2014. While the TASS Russian News Agency probably exaggerates when it boasts that 70 Russian warships are on constant combat duty in oceans around the world, the upward trend in operational sea time is striking.6 It is not well advertised, but newly constructed ships and forward-deploying ships’ crews no longer include conscripts. So the quality of the sailor is up, and his at-sea time is increasing. These two facts bode well for the RFN. Other outgrowths of the 2008 Russian military reforms include 2015 operations:
• Joint Strategic Command North, led by the Northern Fleet, conducted a joint “Snapex” with the army and air force, emphasizing cruise-missile attacks, antisubmarine warfare, antiair warfare, and minesweeping. Naval forces are becoming more joint.
• The Caspian Flotilla reciprocated port visits with the Iranian Navy.
• Russia’s visits to Nicaragua and Venezuela prompted U.S. Southern Command to list Russia as a top regional challenge based on continuing presence and arms sales.
• The RFN conducted its largest-ever exercise with China in the Sea of Japan.
• Russia gave the guided-missile patrol cutter Molniya to Egypt and continues its support of counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
• The Russian Mediterranean Flotilla conducted combined exercises with the Chinese navy.
• The Black Sea Fleet upgraded its air and coastal defenses with a 50 percent increase in at-sea days.
Admiral Mark Ferguson, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, characterized Russian maritime forces as having made an “‘Arc of Steel’ from the Arctic to the Baltic to Crimea in the Black Sea.”7 The 6th Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral James Foggo, added that he sees “increasing movement and forward-leaning operations” of Russian naval forces in both the surface and undersea domains. He concluded that Russian submarine capabilities have become better, quieter, and more capable.8 Half a world away, Rear Admiral Frederick Roegge, Commander, Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, worried about Russian submarine activity near undersea cables in the Pacific. Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, saw these Russian naval activities as examples of “highly assertive and aggressive behavior . . . reaching backwards for the tools of the Cold War, albeit with a high degree of technical improvement.”9
The clear impression is that Russia is going back to sea with a limited but growing number of ships capable of professional, sophisticated operations in any international theater. In distant regions, the RFN has presence; in seas near Russia, it has a formidable coastal-defense capability with an increasing ability to deny access to potential adversaries.
Shipbuilding. While Russian shipbuilding has not returned to its Soviet glory days, it has made some improvements in delivering products to the fleet. Russian official sources tend to inflate ship-delivery numbers by commonly lumping small coastal vessels with major combatants. Nonetheless, even holding Russia to high standards, it remains one of the world’s top two or three military shipbuilders.10 A decade ago, the first of a class normally took more than ten years to deliver to the fleet. Today, that time is cut by more than half.
For Russia today as during the Cold War, submarines come first. The RFN focuses on strategic deterrence, so its principal shipbuilding program has been the construction and introduction of the Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine. The three Boreys in active service today will be joined by five more and will be apportioned to the Northern and Pacific fleets for strategic-deterrence patrols. Their long-range Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile has been operational since 2013.
Russia’s premier nuclear attack submarine is the Yasen class now being delivered (the Severodvinsk is the first of the class). An improved and cheaper Yasen-M class is on the drawing board. (U.S. Vice Admiral David C. Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, is so impressed he has a model of Severodvinsk on in his office.)11 Fourteen Russian shipbuilding enterprises have 35 new nuclear submarines planned before 2030. Russia is also continuing to build the improved Kilo (diesel) class along with the Varshavyanka class, touted (by the Russians) to be the world’s quietest submarine.
Surface combatants come next, emphasizing small combatants for coastal defense. Three classes of frigates, Gorshkov, Grigorovich, and Steregushschiy, are all finally coming off the ways. Russia announced a planned inventory of 45 modern frigates by 2030. In addition, large numbers of Buyan and Gepard guided-missile corvettes are joining Russia’s fleets, particularly the Caspian Flotilla. Russia is even planning a version of the U.S. littoral combat ship, hoping to build 35–40 of them.
While Russian shipbuilders have not mastered the construction of large surface ships or aircraft carriers, they are beginning to deliver on all other counts. While the Russian shipbuilders deliver only about 50–70 percent of what they promise, the RFN is beginning to grow. The Putin administration has pledged a ten-year, $700 billion weapon-modernization program, and shipbuilding is a leading beneficiary.
In sum, based on the criteria of strategy, operations, and shipbuilding, the RFN has regained its status as one of the world’s leading navies. It is better today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Based on the classic standards of capability and intent, it can be classified as a threat to Western interests—at least when employed in waters adjacent to Russia. However, because it is markedly inferior in blue-water capability, we have little reason to expect that it would conduct power projection or any form of offensive operations far from the motherland.
Potemkin-Plus: Putin’s Personal Touch
What makes this conventional assessment of Russian naval capability incomplete and problematic is Putin’s “Potemkin-Plus” factor. Like his predecessor Grigoriy Potemkin, appearances matter to Putin. His proclivity is to have his naval forces be seen whenever possible. For example, a Russian combatant appeared off the Australian coast just as Putin was besieged at a summit by G-20 counterparts for his activity in Crimea and Ukraine. A Russian warship was in Havana Harbor as the United States reopened diplomatic activity not far away. Russian Caspian Flotilla patrol boats visited Iranian ports, showing off technology and opening ships to the public. Pacific Fleet ships conducted a friendship visit to Da Nang. While these recent incidents were hardly provocative, Russian leadership has clearly mapped out a plan to be seen globally, both in friendly as well as contentious environments.
A more worrisome possibility exists: Putin might overplay a weak hand because of some combination of hubris, confidence, and certainty that the West will succumb to his bluff. The Russian Navy’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Syrian Civil War illustrates this. Witnessing the naval power vacuum in the Mediterranean left by a largely absent U.S. 6th Fleet, Russia set up a permanent Mediterranean Naval Flotilla in 2013. Later that year President Bashar al-Assad killed some 1,400 Syrians with chemical weapons.12 One year earlier, President Barack Obama had said that the Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” demanding offensive retaliation. However, a Russian diplomatic initiative to have these chemicals turned over to ships protected by its Mediterranean flotilla led to the United States backing down on its threat.13 The Putin administration’s stock not only as a world leader, but also as a problem solver, skyrocketed.
As the Russian air base near Latakia was expanded to both support the Assad regime and to combat terrorists, much of its logistic support was being provided by Russian amphibious warships and commercial ships seconded to the Russian national sealift effort. Delivering cargoes regularly from the Black Sea, they too are protected by the Russian Mediterranean flotilla en route to the recently dredged harbor at the Russian naval base in Tartus. Unsurprisingly, Russian and Turkish warships operating in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea also found themselves in close quarters and had a number of seafaring incidents.14 The former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, asserted that the Russian fleet “can easily be used to blockade the coast of Syria.”15 Following Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian jet in its airspace, the Russian Defense Ministry made it clear that the cruiser Moskva’s principal role in the region was now air defense. Then the surprise Russian cruise missile attacks from the Caspian Sea (October) and Mediterranean Sea (November) on “terrorist forces,” performed for a global audience, hit targets 1,000 miles away from their afloat platforms.16 Here we have a case of trying to impress local leaders with both technology (long-range Kalibr cruise missiles fired from patrol gunboats and diesel submarines) as well as political fortitude: Russia sticking by its ally despite the cost. Putin’s recent announcement of a Russian pullout from the Syrian intervention has been met with skepticism by some Western military analysts as its naval flotilla continues its patrol, soon to be augmented by the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov. More important, this “Potemkin-Plus” success seems to have reinforced the showman and gambler in Putin, particularly as France shortly thereafter asked to coordinate with Russian forces as the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle joined the military operation.17
The fact that the Russian Federation Navy is making a phoenix-like rebirth should give Western leaders pause. Yet traditional navies led by traditional political leaders are largely predictable. In the case of Vladimir Putin’s navy, the West is also faced with a leader obsessed with appearances and showmanship, leveraged by deadly precision technology. Moreover, in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria he has shown a willingness to overplay ostensibly weak hands partly because of this naval trump card, then to get away with it. He has comparable—if not better—naval-force ratios in the Black and Baltic seas, not to mention the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk. Thus, Putin’s “Potemkin-Plus” factor could make him an unnecessarily bold and overconfident poker player where conventional statesmen would recognize the weakness of their hands. After all, the RFN has gotten just big enough and good enough to enable Russia to influence international events in proximate theaters. It can clearly shoot straight once again. Should these attributes of appearance and precise lethality induce Putin to overplay his naval hand, we might see confrontation and violence rather than the comical qualities of the original Potemkin precedent.
2. Sputnik International regularly announces breakthroughs in Russian naval technology and forward deployments; see, for example, http://sputniknews.com/analysis/20151014/1028533965. Michael Kofman, “The Seven Deadly Sins of Russia Analysis,” War on the Rocks, 23 December 2015, http://warontherocks.com/2015/12/the-seven-deadly-sins-of-russia-analysis.
3. Dmitry Gorenburg’s blog, Russian Military Reform, is probably the most comprehensive and balanced account of the Russian Federation Navy.
4. Stephen Lee Meyers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).
5. The Kremlin, “Russian Federation Marine Doctrine,” 26 July 2015, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50060. See also “Russia’s New Maritime Doctrine to ‘Counter NATO’s Expansion’ Focuses on Crimea and Arctic,” RT, 26 July 2015, www.rt.com/news/310802.
6. Michael Kofman, “The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition,” Center for International Maritime Security, http://comsec.org/russian-navy-strategies-missions-force-transition/20144. “About 70 Russian Warships on Constant Combat Duty,” TASS, 8 December 2015, http://tass.ru/en/defense/842369.
7. David Larter, “Navy 6th Fleet Ramps up to Face Russia, ISIS,” Navy Times, 19 October 2015, www.navytimes.com/story/military/2015/10/19/foggo-russia-mediterranean-security-fleet-isis/74017748.
9. David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Ships Near Data Cables Are Too Close for U.S. Comfort, The New York Times, 25 October 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/world/europe/russian-presence-near-undersea-cables-concerns-us.html.
10. The best source for data on Russian shipbuilding is Dmitry Gorenburg’s Russian Military Reform blog. I agree with his fundamental assessment that the RFN is “not going away” and that its principal roles will be strategic deterrence and coastal defense. See www.ponareeurasia.org/members/dmitry-gorenburg.
11. Zachary Keck, “Russia Launches Quietest Submarine in the World,” The National Interest, 29 April 2015, www.nationalintere.org/blogthe-buzz/russia-launches-quietest-submarine-ni-the-world.
12. 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. The White House, “Government of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013,” www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/08/30/government-assessment-syrian-government-s-use-chemical-weapons-august-21.
13. Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, 25 May 2015, www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/articlethe-president-blinked-why-obama-changed-course-on-the-red-line-in-syria.
14. “Russian Warship Fires Shots at Turkish Boat,” The Daily Star, 14 December 2015, www.thedailystar.net/world/russian-warship-fires-shots-turkish-boat-187081.
15. Roger McDermott, “Russia’s Naval Encirclement of Syria,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 27 October 2015, www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=44526&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=b28803e0c9eaee0ab786fdba3b38d4ad#.VvQxAXqMJtB.
16. Anthony Capaccio, “Russia Deploys Advanced Cruise Missiles in Major Navy Reboot,” Bloomberg Business, 30 December 2015, http://bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-12-30/russia-deploying-advanced-cruise-missilesin-major-navy-reboot.
17. “Putin Instructs Navy in the Mediterranean to Cooperate with French ‘as Allies’” Arab Today, 17 November 2015, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/2/9/168921/World/International/UPDATE-Putin-instructs-navy-in-the-Mediterranean-t.aspx.