New Cold War at Sea Is Brewing

Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired)

While we are not quite yet in a full blown “Cold War,” the outlines of one are emerging, and an important scenario will be at sea.

In 1984, as the Cold War raged on the oceans of the world, the U.S. Naval Institute published Tom Clancy’s first and best novel, The Hunt for Red October . While the plot was fanciful (a defecting Soviet nuclear submarine), the backdrop was deadly serious. At that point in history, the massive battle fleets of the United States and its NATO allies were in daily aggressive contact with the warships of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact.

Cut to today: U.S.–Russian relations are worse than at any point since the end of the Cold War, fueled by profound and seemingly intractable differences over cyber intrusion in the U.S. election, Russian support for the war criminal Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and above all, by the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin. While we are not quite yet in a full blown “Cold War,” the outlines of one are emerging, and an important scenario will be at sea.

We have seen repeated Russian aggression against U.S. and NATO warships and aircraft operating on, under, and above international waters. This is particularly pronounced in the Baltic, Black, and the eastern Mediterranean seas. There have been dozens of close encounters over the past two years, and as tensions rise over Syria and the use of chemical weapons by Assad, Russia has been quick to use its naval forces to challenge the United States and its allies. How will a new Cold War play out at sea, and what should we do to prepare?

A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft making a very low pass close to the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Baltic Sea.

A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 attack aircraft making a very low pass close to the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) in the Baltic Sea. 

The Russians will act most aggressively in the immediate maritime sphere around the Motherland, of course. That means that the Baltic Sea (where U.S. and NATO forces conduct frequent and important exercises) will be contested space. There will be close encounters directed against U.S. ships in particular, especially this summer. In the highly complex Black Sea arena, Russia will react provocatively when NATO conducts exercises, several of which are scheduled for the coming months. Especially sensitive will be anything that includes Ukrainian participation.

The most dangerous region will be the eastern Mediterranean, where the Russians will deploy frequently. While their operations at sea thus far have largely demonstrated weaknesses, with damage to their vessels from collisions and maintenance failures, they will improve over time and use the Syrian naval bases to strengthen their logistics base. Because of the relatively confined water space and wide variety of actors (the United States, Russia, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and others), look for a confused and confrontational zone.

We also will see global challenges at sea, including exercises with long-range land-attack systems, the deployment of new and dangerous weapons (long-range nuclear-tipped torpedoes, for example, have been discussed in Russian media reports), and increased deployments off our coasts. Expect to see the Russians operating in the mid-Atlantic, the Caribbean, Alaskan coastal waters, and the Arctic Sea. The Greenland-Iceland-UK “gap” will become more active than it has been since the end of the Cold War proper.

The United States should do three things as tension ratchet up toward Cold War levels. First, we need to be prepared to defend our ships and aircraft. The old Russian proverb is germane: when you advance, use a bayonet—if you encounter mush, continue; if you hit steel, withdraw. Our ship and aircraft commanders must be able to defend themselves if hostile intent is demonstrated by truly confrontational Russian action.

Second, we need a strategic approach. We should be prudent in our own deployment patterns, considering them in the larger strategic context. This is not the time to conduct every exercise in the same way we always have without thinking through how our actions are perceived in Moscow. Naturally, we should continue to operate freely in international waters and airspace, but we need to think about the signals we want to send and be prepared for significant reactions.

Third, we should keep open communications with the Russians. Informing them of upcoming exercises makes sense, as does providing normal “notice to mariners” and airspace announcements. We should ensure we are following international law scrupulously, and should continue to press the Russians to use the Cold War “Incidents at Sea” procedures to avoid needless tensions.

The bottom line must remain one of strength, resolve, and professional competence. In one of the climactic scenes in The Hunt for Red October, the hard-driving U.S. Navy submarine skipper, Bart Mancuso, says, “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch.” As a new Cold War looms, flinching in the face of Russian aggression at sea is not an option. We face choppy seas ahead. We must be ready.

Admiral Stavridis is Chairman of the Board of the U.S. Naval Institute and Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He was Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009 to 2013.



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