It is widely acknowledged that general and flag officers are important actors. Senior uniformed leaders are, of course, crucial in determining the trajectory of a country’s military development and in some cases even of its foreign policy. Yet, with vanishingly few exceptions, even those Americans who closely track national and international security focus little on the generals and admirals of other nations’ militaries. In the case of Russia, the U.S. national security community has an almost comical obsession with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, and his eponymous (but largely fictional) doctrine. But that’s where it ends.
American national security analysts and practitioners would be well advised to follow who is rising to the senior ranks of the Russian military. Over the decades, these leaders have been important in shaping the trajectory of a foe that was once America’s most formidable and remains, arguably, its most troublesome. From the decision to avoid developing aircraft carriers in favor of cruisers and submarines during the Cold War to the debate over the primacy of ground forces or strategic rocket forces in the post-Soviet period, Soviet and Russian generals and admirals have played critical roles. Understanding the background and preferences of those who are likely to be the next set of leaders of the Russian armed forces thus can give analysts a better idea of how it will develop over the next two decades.
Over the last decade, the Russian Navy has made a choice to focus on developing a strong conventional deterrence capability based on small ships equipped with long-range cruise missiles. In this way, it can hold adversary targets at risk from the safety of enclosed or highly protected seas, such as the Caspian and the Black Sea in the south and the eastern Baltic Sea in the north. Combined with the Russian Navy’s traditional strength in submarines — which includes an inventory of 10 ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and at least 20 nuclear attack submarines — this choice has helped to reduce the negative consequences of the difficulties Russia’s shipbuilding industry has had in building large surface ships to replace Russia’s aging Soviet-vintage destroyers and cruisers. But there remains a strong lobby in both the navy and the shipbuilding industry in favor of building large ships, including aircraft carriers. Currently, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier is indefinitely inoperable after an accident at the dock where it was being repaired resulted in damage to the ship and the sinking of the dock. The newest of its nine active large combat ships was commissioned in 1993, with no new ships larger than a frigate currently on order. The Russian Navy’s future leaders will have to choose whether to continue in the direction pursued by its recent leadership or to seek to develop a fully-fledged blue water navy that can compete with the United States in the open seas.
In May 2019, Vladimir Putin announced a transition in the senior leadership of the Russian Navy. Adm. Vladimir Korolev, having served as commander in chief of the Russian Navy for three years, retired and was replaced by Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov, who had served as commander of the Northern Fleet since 2016. Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseyev moved from his command of the Black Sea Fleet to replace Yevmenov at the Northern Fleet and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov was appointed as the new head of the Black Sea Fleet. Some commentators were surprised by the appointment, including one analyst who suggested that Moiseyev seemed a stronger candidate on paper. Now is therefore an opportune time to examine the career factors that lead to the selection of Russian naval leaders and to make some predictions about who is likely to rise to the highest positions in the Russian Navy in the coming years.
Our analysis of career trajectories of senior Russian naval officers highlights the career mileposts that increase the likelihood of promotion to the senior-most positions in the Russian Navy. These mileposts also help to explain why Yevmenov was appointed to head the service ahead of Moiseyev. In fact, our initial research, completed in early 2018, highlighted Yevmenov as the most likely candidate to succeed Korolev as commander in chief.
How to Reach the Highest Ranks in the Russian Navy
To develop our findings, we put together a database of Russian Navy flag officers who were active between 2005 and 2016. For this part of the analysis, we examined the career trajectories of 199 officers who had already retired at the rank of rear admiral or higher. Fifteen officers reached the rank of admiral (including two who made admiral of the fleet), 48 officers retired at the rank of vice admiral, and 136 officers retired as rear admirals.
Based on this analysis we found 10 factors that correlate with reaching the higher ranks:
Getting promoted to rear admiral early
We found that 46 was the average age for all officers in our dataset to be promoted to the position of rear admiral. Those promoted to rear admiral at the age of 45 or younger are almost twice as likely to be promoted to vice admiral and more than 14 times more likely to eventually be promoted to admiral than those promoted to rear admiral at age 46 or older.
Being commissioned from particular naval schools
Graduation from the Makarov Pacific Higher Naval School and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Nakhimov Black Sea Higher Naval School was correlated with higher rates of promotion to vice admiral and full admiral. The Makarov Pacific Higher Naval School in particular produced almost half of the full admirals in our dataset. Strikingly, graduation from the Frunze Higher Naval School, traditionally considered the leading school in the system of Russian naval schools, did not confer an advantage in promotion to the highest ranks, suggesting that it may no longer be the top commissioning school for senior Russian naval officers.
Attendance at mid-career military training programs
Having the opportunity to receive training at the Naval Academy, the Military Academy of the General Staff, and the Higher Special Officer Courses increased the likelihood of receiving additional stars. In particular, 100 percent of those who made full admiral attended the Naval Academy, while only 89 percent of vice admirals and 79 percent of rear admirals attended the academy. Attendance at the General Staff academy was highly correlated with promotion as well. For those who only achieved the title of rear admiral, 16 percent attended the academy. This number went up to 35 percent for those who made vice admiral, and jumped substantially, to 93 percent, for those who achieved the rank of admiral.
Starting one’s career in the Pacific Fleet
Officers who rose through the ranks in the Pacific Fleet had the highest likelihood of making full admiral and a greater likelihood of promotion down the line. This finding also fits the general perception among experts that officers in the Pacific Fleet can expect faster promotions. They argue that this is the result of a combination of the fleet’s remoteness and the tendency of Russian naval officers to spend their entire junior and mid-grade officer career in the same fleet. Because of the remote location, fewer promising officers are willing to go to the Pacific. As a result, there are more vacancies and the best candidates can rise faster among the numerically limited talent pool. Two-thirds of full admirals started in the Pacific Fleet, 27 percent started in the Northern Fleet, and seven percent started in the Baltic Fleet. No one who made admiral started in the Black Sea Fleet. Although the largest number of flag officers started in the Northern Fleet, they were more likely to retire at the vice admiral level. The Baltic Fleet had the greatest percentage of those who retired at rear admiral, suggesting that starting in the Baltic Fleet is at least somewhat disadvantageous for promotion to the highest ranks.
Serving in multiple fleets over the course of a career
The number of those who served in multiple fleets greatly increases as we look higher in the ranks. While only 37 percent of those who retired as rear admirals and 44 percent of those who retired as vice admirals served in multiple fleets over their careers, 73 percent of those who made admiral served in multiple fleets.
Starting on a submarine rather than a surface ship
While those who retired as rear or vice admirals were more likely to start on surface ships, 53 percent of those who made admiral started out on submarines.
Serving in the navy command staff after reaching flag officer rank
The number of those who held positions in the command increased at each level of promotion, and 100 percent of those who made admiral served in the command at some point in their career.
Serving in early career in junior command positions
These positions included combat unit commander, administrative officer on a ship or submarine, executive officer of a submarine or ship, commander of a submarine or ship, and/or commander of a submarine or ship brigade. Eighty percent of those who made admiral served as a combat unit commander, commander of a ship or submarine, and executive officer of a ship or submarine during their career. That means the great majority of those who eventually become admirals will first hold these positions. More than half (60 percent) of those who made admiral also served as an administrative officer of a sub or ship. Almost half (47 percent) of those who made admiral served as the commander of a ship or submarine brigade.
Graduating with distinction from one of the commissioning schools and/or a naval training course
The number of officers who graduated with distinction increased as rank increased. While less than half of those who made admiral graduated with distinction, meaning it is not dispositive of reaching the rank of admiral, a higher number of those who made admiral graduated with distinction than those who retired at lower ranks.
Receiving awards for service
Receiving medals and awards correlates with promotion to the higher ranks, particularly the rank of admiral. We looked at five types of awards, and, for all but one, the number of those who received the award went up as rank increased. For one type of award, the Order of the Red Star, the number of recipients went down slightly for those who retired at vice admiral, but then went back up. The largest percentage of recipients were those who made admiral.
We also found four factors that did not correlate with promotion and can be discounted when looking at individuals who are set for promotion in the future:
The age of attendance at mid-career training programs
For each of the three advanced training schools and courses for Russian naval officers (the Naval Academy, the Military Academy of the General Staff, and Higher Special Officer Courses), the age of attendance does not correlate with promotion, because individuals attended at approximately the same age regardless of the rank at which they ultimately retired. However, as discussed above, attendance at the schools itself does correlate with promotion.
Changing fleets in the beginning to middle of an individual’s career
Only 15 percent of flag officers changed fleets in the first half of their careers, and this percentage was relatively constant regardless of final rank at retirement.
Serving on the central command staff before making rear admiral
The data show that those promoted to the higher ranks actually tended to make rear admiral before serving in the navy staff. The number of officers who became rear admirals before serving in the navy staff went up from 48 percent for those who retired at rear admiral to 90 percent for those who made admiral. The implication of this finding is that there are two paths to positions in the central navy command staff, one conducive to further promotion and the other negatively correlated with it. Officers who get to the central command staff before reaching flag officer rank tend to be specialists on a non-command track. Officers on these tracks are not eligible to rise higher than rear or vice admiral. Officers who reach the highest positions in the navy, which go along with promotion to admiral rank, tend to do so by rising through the fleets and coming to the navy’s central command only after having already been promoted to rear admiral.
Being promoted to captain first or second rank ahead of schedule
No officers who retired as a vice admiral or admiral were promoted early to captain first or second rank, and only a small number of rear admirals were promoted early to this rank, so we cannot say this factor correlates with promotion.
How to Get to the Top
We examined the career progression of 19 senior naval officers who had served as commanders of one of the four main fleets, the Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, and Baltic, or in one of the three senior positions in the central staff. We found that certain positions were correlated with subsequent promotion to the three senior-most positions in the Russian Navy (navy commander in chief, navy chief of staff, and navy deputy commander):
Serving as commander of either the Northern or the Black Sea Fleet
Of the nine admirals who served in one of the three senior-most positions in the Russian Navy since 2005, seven served as commander of either the Northern Fleet or the Black Sea Fleet. One of the seven served in both positions. Only one each came from command of the Pacific and Baltic Fleets. Furthermore, in only one case each were the chief of staff promoted to the commander in chief position or the deputy commander promoted to the chief of staff position.
Serving a tour as chief of staff of one of the four navy fleets, especially the Baltic Fleet
All but one of the senior leaders had a tour as a fleet chief of staff before becoming fleet commander. If we expand the sample to include admirals whose highest position was fleet commander (an additional 10 people), 15 of the 19 leaders served as fleet chief of staff before becoming fleet commander, with three serving as fleet deputy commander. The Baltic Fleet was the most common fleet for these tours for officers who later rose to commander in chief or navy chief of staff. Commanders of the Pacific Fleet had always previously served as chief of staff in the same fleet, while such a progression was less common in the other fleets.
Serving a command tour at either the Primorsky Flotilla or the Kola Flotilla, as commander of submarine forces in the Northern or Pacific Fleet, or as commander of the Forces in the Northeast of Russia
A command tour at either the Primorsky Flotilla or the Kola Flotilla was common among officers who rose to commander in chief or navy chief of staff. Command of the Baltic Naval Base or the Forces in the Northeast of Russia (formerly known as the Kamchatka Flotilla but now a joint command) was common among officers who rose to command specific fleets, but was not common among those who rose to the three highest positions in the central naval leadership.
We also found some positions that were less likely to result in promotion to senior leadership. Officers who held senior positions in fleet directorates did not go on to fleet command or other top leadership roles. Commanders and chiefs of staff of the Pacific Fleet were not selected for either of the two senior-most positions in the navy leadership. Chief of staff and deputy commander of the Russian Navy were usually terminal positions.
Finally, relatively few senior officers in the Russian Navy serve tours in the general military leadership. In the last 15 years, two admirals have served tours as chief of staff of the Western Military District — One served as deputy commander of that district, and one was deputy commander of the General Staff Main Operational Directorate. These tours usually came after fleet command. The other 15 admirals in this cohort did not have any experience in senior (or for that matter junior) positions outside the navy.
To summarize these findings, based on the career trajectories of recent navy leaders, a “typical” commander in chief of the Russian Navy might have previously served as commander of the Baltic or Northern Fleet, coming to that position from a tour as chief of staff of the Baltic Fleet. Prior to that tour, he might have served as commander of either the Primorsky or Kola Flotilla with a previous tour as chief of staff of one of those formations or of the Northeast Forces in Kamchatka. This career trajectory perfectly describes the careers of Commanders in Chief Vladimir Vysotsky and Viktor Chirkov, as well as Navy Chief of Staff Mikhail Abramov.
Why Yevmenov Was Promoted
The career of newly appointed Commander in Chief Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov includes stints in several of the positions that historically resulted in promotion to the top positions in the Russian Navy, including serving as commander of the Northern Fleet, a position that had produced two of the previous three commanders in chief. He is a submariner who graduated from the Lenin Komsomol Higher Naval Submarine School and served most of his career on Delta-class SSBNs in the Pacific Fleet. His early career included tours as navigation combat unit commander, administrative officer, executive officer, and submarine commander. He was deputy commander, chief of staff and commander of the 25th Submarine Division, becoming a rear admiral in 2005 at the age of 43. He served as chief of staff of the 16th Submarine Squadron and then as commander of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine forces. In 2012, he became chief of staff of the Northern Fleet, and was appointed the fleet’s commander in 2016. He became a vice admiral in 2014 and a full admiral in 2017. Currently aged 57, he was clearly young enough to be the most likely prospect to become commander in chief after Vladimir Korolev’s retirement.
Admiral Moiseyev, by contrast, while having served in several similarly significant positions, had only recently (May 2018) been appointed to head the Black Sea Fleet and had come to that position from a tour as deputy chief of the general staff. Prior to serving in that role, he had been chief of staff of the Northern Fleet and commander of that fleet’s submarine forces. Prior to 2017, he had served his entire career in the Northern Fleet. Thus, although he was the same age as Yevmenov and had served in several positions that signify a possible future promotion to commander in chief, he had not had enough experience in other fleets to qualify for the role in 2019. Had Admiral Korolev continued to serve as commander in chief for another year or two, Moiseyev might have become a leading candidate to succeed him. As it is, in his new position as commander of the Northern Fleet, he immediately becomes a potential successor to Yevmenov should the latter have to be replaced unexpectedly in the near term. But he is unlikely to become the next commander in chief should Yevmenov serve a full term, as he is the same age and will be too old to take that position when Yevmenov retires.
The Next Generation of Russian Naval Leadership
We identify several up-and-coming young admirals who might be potential candidates to become the next generation of the Russian Navy’s senior leaders. In line with our earlier findings, we used the following 14 factors to identify them:
We identified officers who met at least 10 of these 14 criteria as likely candidates for further promotion to higher ranks and to command positions in the navy. We then ruled out officers who were currently in positions that are considered terminal, such as military adviseor to Angola, or do not fit the career trajectories that tend to result in top command positions, such as head of the operational directorate of the Pacific Fleet or head of the Main Directorate of Deep Water Research (known as GUGI). We were left with a list of four rear admirals and two vice admirals who are likely candidates for senior leadership positions such as fleet command or one of the top three positions in the central naval hierarchy.
Alexander Peshkov is a rear admiral who was appointed commander of the Baltic naval base of the Baltic Fleet in early 2019. He served in command positions in the Northern Fleet’s minesweeper fleet, culminating as commander of the 5th minesweeper brigade from 2006 to 2010. After graduating from the General Staff Academy in 2012, he served briefly as chief of staff of a missile ship division before moving up to deputy commander of the Kola Flotilla. He was promoted to rear admiral in 2016 at the age of 44. Officers with this type of background have frequently gone on to fleet command.
Eduard Mikhaylov is a rear admiral who since 2018 has served as chief of staff of Pacific Fleet submarine forces. He has served his entire career to date in the Pacific Fleet, primarily on nuclear submarines. After graduating from the General Staff Academy in 2012, he served as commander of the 10th Submarine Division and then as deputy commander of the Primorsky Flotilla. He was promoted to rear admiral in 2014 at the age of 44. Officers with this type of background have often been moved to senior positions in other fleets prior to assuming top command positions in the Russian Navy. In some cases, officers have remained in the Pacific and moved up to command that fleet.
Alexander Yuldashev is a rear admiral who has served as commander of Forces in the Northeast of Russia since early 2018. He began his career serving on submarines in the Northern Fleet, rising to command the 7th division of nuclear submarines there. In 2009, he was promoted to rear admiral at the age of 42 and was transferred to the Pacific Fleet, where he commanded first a submarine division and then a squadron. In 2013, he was appointed deputy commander of the Primorsky Flotilla. After graduating from the General Staff Academy with distinction, he briefly served as the deputy commander of the Kola Flotilla in the Northern Fleet, before returning to the Pacific in 2016 as chief of staff of the Pacific Fleet’s submarine forces.
Sergei Zhuga is a rear admiral who currently serves as commander of the Primorsky Flotilla. He rose through command positions on cruisers and destroyers in the Northern Fleet. In the late 2000s, he served as deputy commander and then chief of staff of the 43rd Missile Ship Division. In 2010, he was transferred to the Pacific Fleet, where he briefly commanded the 36th Missile Ship Division, before going back to the Northern Fleet to command the 43rd Division where he had previously served. He then graduated from the General Staff Academy with a gold medal before being appointed chief of staff of forces in the northeast of Russia in 2016. Officers with this type of background are especially likely to be promoted to commander or deputy commander of the Russian Navy.
Vladimir Grishechkin is a vice admiral who currently serves as first deputy commander of the Northern Fleet. He rose through command positions in the Pacific Fleet submarine service, including of the 10th Submarine Division and the 15th Submarine Squadron. He then moved to the Northern Fleet, where he served as chief of staff and then commander of submarine forces of the Northern Fleet before assuming his current position. He became a rear admiral in 2007 at the age of 42 and was promoted to vice admiral in 2018. Officers with this type of background are especially likely to be promoted to commander or deputy commander of the Russian Navy.
Viktor Liina is a vice admiral who currently serves as the chief of staff of the Black Sea Fleet. He commanded nuclear submarines in the Northern Fleet, rising to deputy commander and then chief of staff of the 11th Submarine Division. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 2006, he was appointed commander of the 18th Submarine Division, then deputy commander of submarine forces in the Northern Fleet, and then commander of the Belomorsk Naval Base. In 2012, he became commander of forces in the northeast of Russia and assumed his current position in 2016 after graduating from the General Staff Academy. He became a rear admiral in 2012 at the age of 44 and was promoted to vice admiral in 2018. Officers with this type of background are especially likely to be promoted to commander or deputy commander of the Russian Navy.
In addition, Vice Admiral Sergei Rekish, chief of staff and deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet, is likely to be next in line to command the fleet, as all of the recent commanders of that fleet previously served there as second in command.
These officers are potentially in line to form the core leadership team of the Russian Navy in the coming decade. Obviously, factors other than career trajectory can also play a role in determining military promotions, especially at the highest levels. These specific individuals may fall afoul of scandals or find promotions stifled due to personality conflicts with senior officers or with political leaders. Nevertheless, the universe of potential candidates for the highest jobs in the Russian Navy is largely limited to those who pass through a relatively specific set of command positions when they first reach senior rank. Those who will run the Russian Navy in the coming decade will come from that group of officers. They will have to decide whether to continue to develop the Russian Navy as a coastal defense and deterrence force or to seek to build a blue-water navy that tries to compete with the United States on the high seas. Analysts in Washington and elsewhere would be wise to pay attention.
Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA. Dr. Gorenburg is also the editor of the journals Problems of Post-Communism and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has previously taught in the Department of Government at Harvard University and served as Executive Director of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at http://russiamil.wordpress.com.
Kasey Stricklin is a research analyst in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, where she researches the Russian Navy, Russian military personnel, and information warfare. She has a Master’s in International Policy and Practice from George Washington University, a JD from the University of Oklahoma, and a Bachelor’s in Journalism from the University of Texas. She is a licensed attorney in the State of Texas.