Trying to understand the military behavior of nations has been a hobby of Western academics, beginning with the great geopoliticians of former centuries, such as Nicholas Spykman, Sir Halford Mackinder, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Simply, the argument is that geography demanded that insular and coastal nations such as England, Japan, and the Netherlands develop strong navies to support their national economic and political interests. Conversely, Germany, the Turkish Republic, and the Roman Empire were required to use their formidable land armies to defend and expand their territories. Russia stands out as a one-off. Situated squarely on the borders of Eastern Europe and central Asia, she endured numerous land assaults, and, accordingly built large defensive and offensive land armies. However, in fits and starts, she has also assembled naval forces equal to or greater than most of her presumptive adversaries. Why does Russia, a traditional land power, engage in such counterintuitive and unique behavior? Do recent international events shed light on Russia’s future naval activities?
When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on building a navy 330 years ago, he did so to defend the homeland from Swedish and Turkish enemies, north and south, while at the same time buying Russia a seat at the “great power” diplomatic table. Serendipitously, his navy did enable him to expand Russian boundaries and give him access to the world’s oceans. A second noteworthy Russian foray into the sea was at the height of the Cold War when Soviet Adm. Gorshkov planned and built a naval force that rivalled American supremacy at sea. His submarines alone (385) outnumbered those of the NATO Alliance and they regularly patrolled off the American Atlantic and Pacific coasts until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the surface of the oceans, it was commonplace for U.S. warships visiting exotic ports around the world to be joined by their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War.
All this ended abruptly with the implosion of the Soviet Union. The Soviet 5th Eskhadra ingloriously slipped out of the Mediterranean in the dark of night once it was determined that there wasn’t enough money left in the Kremlin’s coffers to sustain its operations in late 1989. Russian ballistic-missile submarines gradually reduced their Atlantic Ocean patrols until they reached zero in 2001.
Almost as quickly as the Russian Federation Navy vanished, it reappeared. A convenient benchmark for this turnaround is 2008, since a number of factors began to congeal. First, the Russian military (including its navy) performed deplorably while defeating hapless Georgia in a short war of annexation. This incited the Putin-Medvedev team to spur Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov to reform the defense establishment. He mimicked U.S. initiatives to become more professional and “joint.” Additionally, he also addressed the training, morale, and recruit quality in the Russian navy, since it was equally unsatisfactory. Second, the price of oil (Russia’s only meaningful export commodity) began to skyrocket, filling Russian pockets with vast reserves of discretionary resources. Third, and finally, Putin and Medvedev decided to invest much of this money building a bigger and better military, and the Russian navy got more than its fair share of the 10-year building plan.
Today, we once again are being treated to witness a land power whose sea power switch has been reactivated. For instructive purposes, let’s take a close-up look at Russia’s Syria interlude: The Russian navy had awakened from its Rip Van Winkle-like 20-year sleep and in 2013 re-established a “permanent flotilla” in the eastern Mediterranean, serviced by all four of its major fleets (Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific). After the Obama administration’s “red line” pronouncement on Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, only this Russian naval force was in position to escort the vessels carrying Syrian chemical weapons to their ultimate destruction. The world acknowledged Putin’s diplomatic lead on this navy-enabled initiative. Then, Russia’s air force required additional air defense and communications support in its operations in support of the Syrian regime. The Russian permanent naval flotilla obliged. The Russian air campaign was then augmented by the arrival of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, last fall. Finally, in an act that surprised and impressed most of the world, the Russian navy launched multiple long-range Kalibr cruise missiles on so-called terrorist positions in Syria from both small Buyan-M patrol boats in the Caspian Sea as well as similarly small Kilo-class diesel submarines in the Mediterranean. Perhaps of greatest importance, Russia provides virtually all of its logistical support for its Syrian operation with logistic ships operating from the Black Sea and escorted and defended by the naval flotilla, enroute to its base in Tartus, Syria.
Worldwide, the Russian navy has made equally impressive gains, particularly in view of its low starting point in the 1990’s. Operating jointly with the Russian Air Force, there is no point on the Russian periphery where a foreign military can now operate with impunity. This is most obvious in Russia’s northern reaches where she has militarized the Arctic with a vengeance. This initiative is led by the Russian Northern Fleet, which has once again begun deploying submarines into the North Atlantic in great numbers. Given the political focus caused by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and expansion of its base in Sevastopol, the Russian navy has also been rushing new frigates and submarines to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Former head of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, Admiral Mark Ferguson, has described this as Russia’s “Arc of Steel” from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, vaguely reminiscent of the Churchillian Iron Curtain.
What lessons might we learn about the future behavior of this land power with a hefty appetite for maritime power? Does the United States have reason for concern as it, too, launches naval cruise missile strikes into Syria, with the well-armed Russian navy observing on the sidelines?
From the perspective of the United States and its allies, the current status of the Russian navy offers both comfort and consternation. On the plus side for the West, irrespective of how much money Russia throws at its navy, no serious analyst thinks that the Russian navy can contend for control of the world’s oceans. This is eminently logical because the Russian fascination with the sea does not rest on economic necessity. Moscow never had, and still today does not have, an economy that is dependent on global trade, much less one that demands control of the seas. In addition, Russia’s stark inability to build large ships (think, aircraft carriers) ties its hands in any attempt at blue water sea control and power projection. Plus, it goes unsaid that the Russian economy is always at risk. Continued stagnation in Russian GDP growth probably is the death knell of expanding its navy.
Nonetheless, Putin’s navy continues to perform the missions outlined by Peter the Great, which should begin to offer a stew of comfort mixed with consternation. First, defense of the homeland. The Russian navy’s principal focus is on real estate close to the Russian border. Most of its operations and exercises are in waters adjacent to Russia. Think of it as high firepower potential but limited range. This, however, is comforting only if you are not a NATO member in Eastern Europe near the Russian border. Russia’s resumed deployment of ballistic missile submarines in the Atlantic could be unnerving, but is more readily construed as defense of the homeland, since these submarines, more than ever, will constitute Russia’s second strike – that is, deterrent — capability. Tsar Peter’s secondary consideration – gaining international diplomatic respect and recognition – continues to be supported by Russian Navy port visits and exercises around the world. In recent months, Russian ships have visited Namibia, the Philippines, South Africa, and the Seychelles and also conducted fleet exercises with the Indonesian and Chinese navies. While Putin has lost no ground to Peter the Great, this activity need not keep us awake at night.
Now, for the anxiety. The Russian naval mission appears to have quietly expanded to become a vehicle to sell sophisticated weaponry. Witness the salability of the Kalibr cruise missile and the Improved Kilo-Class diesel submarine, highlighted by its recent combat performance in Syria. Weapons exports follow behind the sales of petroleum products as the leading source of Russian foreign exchange. This may be of minimal concern, but even strategically important and friendly nations can unwittingly become client states as they realize weapons systems purchases addict the purchaser to follow-on supply, repair, and support contracts. Think India.
Of even greater concern is that Russia’s navy is now conducting military operations (Syria) some distance from its borders and it can apparently shoot straight. The U.S. Navy has learned over history that there is no alternative in learning to “fight the away game” than by sending naval forces beyond their security umbrella and forcing them to learn how to operate without an umbilical cord to fleet headquarters. This has never been a strong point of the Russian navy in the past. Also, should Russian national strategies be taken seriously, we might anticipate seeing the development of maritime hybrid warfare in the eastern Mediterranean, so well-perfected by Russian ground forces in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Perhaps the greatest and most serious concern is Russian national security decision making, concentrated in Vladimir Putin. He sure seems to love his navy. For unscientific proof, Google him and note the frequency with which he dons nautical fashion (hint: somewhat less often than bare-chested bear riding). At a recent press conference, he boasted that Admiral Kuznetsov’s deployment to the Mediterranean was his “personal initiative.” Based on the frequency with which he attends naval events and dresses in its uniforms, it is not unreasonable that he has a special affinity for his fleet. Further, he is a risk taker, known to overplay weak hands – and get away with it. And, finally, he is a judo master, fashioning himself along the lines of a navy destroyer: sleek, lean, lethal, vicious, stealthy and a very impressive sight to witness.