Written By Mark Thomas-Patterson
July 28th marked Russia’s Naval Day, one of the series of military holidays celebrated in the country. The highlight of this year’s festivities was the first national fleet review in seven years, with Vladimir Putin present at the main parade in St. Petersburg while Prime Minister Dmytry Medvedev was in Sevastopol. The parade also served as a time to display hardware, such as a new Admiral Gorshkov class frigate and Lada-Class submarine, two critical components of the modernized Russian navy.
Absent from the parade, however, were some of the larger, and more famous ships of the navy. These include the guided missile battlecruiser, Pyotr Veliky as well as the aircraft Admiral Kuznetov. While the latter’s absence is understandable due to its current state, the parade does raise an important question: What is happening to the Russian blue water force?
This newest generation of the Russian navy is focusing on constructing smaller ships that can utilize long range missiles, allowing for a more economical use of force. These types of vessels also excell at defending Russia’s naval approaches in concert with subsurface (Kilo-class submarines come to mind) and airborne patrol assets.
To understand the current status of the Russian navy, it is essential to understand the Soviet Navy for many of these big ships were built. The desire to build a Blue-water “Red Fleet” was not a recent idea within Soviet Naval thought. Stalin had desired a force of 15 massive Soviet-Union class battleships, along with a number of Josef Stalin-class battlecruisers to contest the high seas back in the early 1940s. These plans were scrapped following Stalin’s death for focus on the submarine arm instead. The current generation of ships begins with Soviet Navy’s greatest leader, Admiral Gorshakov. In the middle of the 1970s, Gorshakov published a series of articles on Soviet navy, in which he called for the creation of a large ocean going navy, in which “major oceangoing ships were to be its nucleus”. To achieve this end, Russia began a period of large-surface ship construction. This included the Kirov class battlecruisers, as well as the Kuznetsov class aircraft carriers, as well as several other large cruisers.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting fragmentation of the Soviet Navy as well as its naval budget put a halt on that program. This led to a cancelation of many of these ships, while others rusted away incomplete in dockyards, and some were sold to foreign powers. Those that did survive were maintained on shoestring budgets, which lead to low maintenance as well as the occasional explosion scare. Expensive foreign missions were cancelled as Russia sought to suppress separatists.
Upon Putin’s rise to power, things began to change for the Russian navy and its heavy ships. Naval budgets were increased, and increased emphasis was put on power projection for a resurgent Russia. The first time this happened was in 2008, when the Pyotr Veliky and Udaloy II-class destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, along with two support ships, were dispatched to Venezuela. This was Russia’s first overseas deployment since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the deployment of the Pyotr Veliky was especially important. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, no non-NATO allied country had the ability to send ships of this size on overseas tours. By visiting the Caribbean and engaging in exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, it showed the US and its allies that it still had the ability to operate in the US’s backyard. This was particularly important given the fact that a US force has just brought relief supplies to Georgia, a country that Russia had just fought a war with. Throughout this time period, the Russian navy continued to push into areas that it had abandoned since the cold war. The Pyotr Veliky circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope and engaged in the INDRA exercises with the Indian Navy, while other Russian ships took part in anti-piracy actions off the horn of Africa.
Perhaps the most famous point of Russia’s blue water navy is its involvement in the Syrian conflict. In coordination with the Aleppo offensive of 2016, the Russian Northern fleet dispatched a sizable force to the Russian naval base at Tartus. This included the Admiral Kuznetov, Pyotr Veliky, and the Udaloy class anti-submarine destroyers Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov, along with support ships. It showed the Assad regime and its allies that Russia was willing to devote substantial portions of its naval strike power in order to defend them. Furthermore, it showed the Russian people, as well as NATO, that Russia had the capability to conduct long range cruises to a battleground.
However, the stresses of combat revealed many of the weaknesses that have long plagued Russia’s blue water forces. From a tactical standpoint, the ships brought relatively little to a campaign against an opponent which lacked naval or air forces and where there was already a substantial Russian air and ground presence. The Admiral Kuznetov was accompanied by a tug throughout the trip due to the unreliability of its engines, and spent the entirety of the trip belching back smoke. More disturbingly, the ship lost a startling number of planes to accidents, after which they were rebased to a nearby airfield. When Russia sent out another fleet to reinforce Assad in 2018, the fleess composition was much more operation oriented, with a large number of corvettes and other missile armed craft bettered suited for supporting Syrian troops on the ground.
To understand a successful example of how Russia has employed its blue-water fleets in diplomacy, one should perhaps examine the Philippines. For all of the Phillipine’s history as an independent state, they have served as a major US ally in the Asia-Pacific. With the election of Rodrigo Dueterte as Phillipine President in 2016, the Philippines began to improve ties with Russia and China. The Russian Navy had a key role in helping facilitate this shift, with the Slava-class guided missile cruiser Varyag visiting Manila in April of 2018, where it was toured by Duterte himself. This also lead to discussion of the construction of a Russian ship-repair facility in the Philippines, a move that would give Russia access to valuable ocean territory that it has not patrolled since the Cold War. This series of naval visits have continued up to the present, culminating with the BRP Davao Del Sur, a Phillipine Navy strategic sealift ship, taking part in Russian naval day festivities in Vladivostok.
In the near future, it seems unlikely that Gorshakov’s dreams for a massive Russian fleet will be carried out by Putin, due in part to budget constraints and shifting strategic priorities. Russia’s large ocean-going vessels, even though increasingly outdated, still play a key role in its foreign policy. In their ability to cruise and arrive impressively in allied harbors, they send out a message that Russia is still a strong and worthy heir to the Soviet mantle and that the seas are not just to be dominated by the US and its allies.
Mark Thomas-Patterson is a Program Assistant with the International Institute of Peace, Democracy, and Development. He lives in Washington D.C, where he studies International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @MTPIII