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Trafalgar of the East: Why the Russian Navy Failed in the Russo-Japanese War

By Aidan Clarke

The Russo-Japanese War saw the Imperial Russian Navy soundly beaten by the Imperial Japanese Navy. While much of the analysis on the Russo-Japanese War focuses on the Battle of Tsushima and the success of the Japanese Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, one can also look to understand the deficiencies present in the Imperial Russian Navy that contributed to this defeat. The causes for this shocking defeat can be compared with the challenges of the Russian Empire as a whole. Russian naval culture, like that of its civilian society, had been built on an outdated system of social class, with nobles (particularly nobles with partial German ancestry) rising as officers, while talented sailors languished in the conscripted ranks. Just as the Tsar’s attempts at reforming Russian society failed to fully solve the deep-seated cultural problems of the Empire, and prevent the 1905 Revolution, Russian attempts at naval reform through the 1885 naval qualifications statute would also fail creating a new class of risk-averse and bureaucratic officers. The initial naval battle outside Port Arthur, and the ultimate defeat of the Port Arthur squadron in the Battle of the Yellow Sea, reflect these failings.

A Fish Rots from the Head

Of all the weaknesses which the Imperial Russian Navy suffered from during the Russo-Japanese War, none were so glaring as the failings of the officer corps. These officers were generally more concerned with their own advancement rather than success in battle. Tellingly, they suffered from over-bureaucratization and a failure to encourage initiative among their ranks.

Before the war, the Russian Navy was more superficial than substantive, suffering from general disorganization, as well as shortcomings of its personnel. While Tsar Nicholas “was attracted to military traditions and pageantry” he was also uninformed, and willing to tolerate “the often unproductive interference of uniformed Grand Dukes in the running of the army and navy.”1 The role of the nobility in the navy was a pernicious problem for Imperial Russia. In 1881, the highest position in the Imperial Navy, the General Admiral, was given to Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, who was Tsar Nicholas’ uncle. Almost certainly his position was not given on his merit, as the Director of the Navy Ministry, Vice Admiral I.A. Shestakov, felt the Grand Duke was “not an efficient administrator, being more interested in external appearances and the opposite sex than tackling professional issues.”2 The professional problems of the Imperial Russian Navy also extended to the realm of strategic planning and discourse. Prior to the war, the navy had no general staff, and “until the outbreak of the war in 1904, the Navy Ministry had not issued a coherent official tactical doctrine.”3 There was almost no centralized planning at all in the navy, with operational strategy left to “makeshift fleet staffs in different geographical theaters” and subject to the “personal directions and whims” of regional commanders.4

In order to reduce nepotism in the advancement of naval officers and promote professionalism in the navy, the Russian state implemented the naval qualifications statute of 1885, under which “promotions were regulated by a rigid system hinging on specific terms spent at sea, available vacancies, and recommendations by superiors.”5 Ostensibly, this common-sense reform ought to have improved professionalism and efficiency within the fleet. Unfortunately, in most cases it had the opposite effect. The new promotion system “stifled talent and initiative”6 while encouraging officers to maintain a “bureaucratic temperament.” This meant that rather than adapting to the circumstances and seizing on enemy weaknesses, Russian officers “placed great stress on avoiding situations where they might attract criticism from above.”7 They focused on “external appearances and the superficial completion of service requirements.”8 In other words, captains and admirals spent more time inspecting brass pipes and white uniforms than they did testing the readiness of their men for war. This system meant that “the typical Russian officer seemed more at peace within himself when it was the enemy who had the initiative.”9 According to J.N. Westwood, “Russian naval officers were the product of a bureaucratic society in which avoidance of blame was more important than technical competence or imaginative enterprise.”10 This has been a common problem in naval history, perhaps most visible in the stagnation of the Royal Navy, laid bare in the Battle of Jutland.11

From the onset of the war, this failing reared its ugly head. The Commander of the Russian Pacific Squadron, Vice-Admiral Oscar Victorovich Stark, had recognized the dangers posed by Japan in light of the deteriorating diplomatic situation. He had repeatedly requested Admiral Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev, Commander in Chief of Imperial Forces in Port Arthur and Manchuria, as well as Viceroy of the Imperial Russian Far East, “to permit him to prepare the fleet for war.”12 However, Alekseyev dismissed Stark’s fears on the grounds that they were “premature and escalatory.”13 Admiral Alekseyev did not see much of a threat from the Japanese, and a report from Vice-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft (a Russian-German noble) argued that the Russian “plan of operations should be based on the assumption that it is impossible for our fleet to be beaten.”14 Regardless, Vice-Admiral Stark did attempt to work around these restrictions, ordering his crews to put out torpedo nets and prepare for a Japanese surprise attack. However, he could not appear to undercut the noble Withöft or Alekseyev (who was a son of the Tsar), and in the end, “so low-key was the instruction in relation to the Supreme Commander’s known views that…nothing was done.”15 Captains and crews did not wish to contradict Admiral Alekseyev, regardless of the orders from the local commander, and few took any precautions.

Admiral Yevgeni Ivanovich Alekseyev (By Alexander Fedorovich Pershakov/Wikimedia Commons)

There is a common misperception of soldiers and sailors as mindless automatons, following orders like pieces on a chess board. In this image, there is little wrong with the decision of the officers of the Pacific Squadron to yield to the will of Alekseyev and not that of Vice Admiral Stark. However, by the time the Russo-Japanese War began, this model was already outdated, and had largely been replaced with the relatively new concept of auftragstaktik (commonly translated as mission command in English).16 Mission command requires junior officers to “use their own initiative” and adapt to their own circumstances in order to achieve a mission defined by “a superior commander’s concept of operations.”17 Mission command is ultimately a superior model because it recognizes that those on the frontlines often have the best perception of their own situation, and that communication in war is susceptible to interruption, confusion, and misunderstanding (the fog of war). Allowing local commanders to maneuver as best suits them will allow them to minimize their casualties and complete their objectives more rapidly, while avoiding wasted opportunities or fatal miscommunications. In this context, as the local commander, Vice-Admiral Stark had a much clearer view of the threat posed by Japan, while Alekseyev, concerned with Russian objectives across all of Asia, did not. Admiral Alekseyev’s failure to defer to the local awareness of Vice Admiral Stark reflects Russia’s failure to adapt to modern military thought. 

Admiral Alekseyev deserves special attention in considering the failures of the Russian officer corps. Directly beneath him in the chain of command were Vice-Admiral Makarov (after his replacement of Vice-Admiral Stark) and General Kuropatkin. It should be recognized that these two figures were viewed as “the two best officers for their respective posts.”18 Makarov in particular was “Russia’s most competent admiral” and “was certainly Tōgō’s equal.”19 Despite this, Russia’s cultural deference to the nobility left Makarov and Kuropatkin “under Alekseyev, whose ego far outstripped his energy and competence.”20 Stark, Makarov, and ultimately, Withöft all found themselves hamstrung by their superiors, while the Japanese left Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō free to operate as he saw fit. This was a critical difference, and it played a major role in Russia’s ultimate defeat.

That is not to say that Vice-Admiral Stark or any of his replacements should be absolved of blame. Frederic William Unger, an American war correspondent who followed and wrote extensively about the war, noted that when the first Japanese attack on Port Arthur began, “Many of the Russian naval officers were ashore, celebrating with appropriate festivities the birthday of Admiral Stark.”21 While others including J.N. Westwood dispute this claim, Richard Connaughton argues that the party was “entirely in keeping with his reputation as a fun-loving partygoer.”22 Perhaps more importantly, the party’s guests included Admiral Alekseyev himself, as well as several other critical officers. Thus, on the night of February 8th, when Admiral Tōgō launched his initial torpedo attack, the Russian pacific squadron was unprepared and leaderless. Within ten minutes a Russian cruiser, the Pallada, a battleship, the Retvizan, and worst of all, the pride of the Russian Navy and most powerful ship in the Pacific Squadron, the Tsarevitch, had all been hit by torpedoes and were at least temporarily disabled. The Retvizan in particular suffered badly. Having hit Retvizan in the bow, a Japanese torpedo was able to open “a hole through which a car could be driven.”23 

Port Arthur viewed from the Top of Gold Hill, after capitulation in 1905. From left wrecks of battleships: Peresvet, Poltava, Retvizan, Pobeda and Pallada cruiser. (Wikimedia Commons)

The loss of these ships, although temporary, would prove critical. Over the next several months, the Japanese enjoyed total control of the seas, while the Russian Navy could only attempt to rebuild its capabilities. This allowed the Japanese a free hand to land vast numbers of troops in Manchuria, forcing the hand of the Russian Navy, and creating the circumstances for Japan’s ultimate victory.

Battle of the Yellow Sea: The Death of the Pacific Squadron

As Japanese ground forces fought their way closer to Port Arthur, they began raining artillery down on the Pacific Squadron, which for the last six months had failed to even attempt to contest control of seas.24 Petrified as they were of failure, the death of Admiral Makarov in the entrance to the harbor as his ship hit a mine, paralyzed all ensuing Russian officers. In August 1904, as the land battle continued to rage, Viceroy Alekseyev demanded that the most recently appointed commander of the Pacific Squadron, Rear-Admiral Wilhelm Withöft, take the remainder of the Russian Pacific Squadron to Vladivostok. Withöft stalled as long as he could, but before long he “received orders of a more peremptory tone from both the Viceroy and the Tsar.”25 Despite the urging of his superior, Withöft held several councils of war, and together he and his captains agreed that their position dictated they stay in port. Alekseyev ignored Withöft and repeated that this decision was not only in contradiction to his orders, but was also against the wishes of the Tsar.26 Finally, after yet more protests from Withöft, Alekseyev informed the Vice-Admiral that “if the Port Arthur squadron failed to put to sea despite his and the Tsar’s wishes, and was destroyed in Port Arthur, it would be a shameful dishonor.” Furthermore, Alekseyev reminded Withöft of the example of “the cruiser Varyag” which had “put to sea fearlessly to fight a superior force.”27 Of course, Alekseyev did not mention the fate of the Varyag, though Withöft doubtless knew it had been demolished by heavy Japanese fire and had been scuttled at great cost to its crew.

The refusal of the squadron to put to sea appears as cowardice, but in truth, there was good logic to Withöft’s decision to stay in port. Firstly, Withöft was still under the impression that the Russian Baltic Squadron would arrive by October. So reinforced, the Russian Pacific Squadron would be able to concentrate their force, allowing them to confront Tōgō with “overwhelming Russian battleship superiority,” forcing the Japanese admiral to either abandon the field or face near certain defeat. Port Arthur only needed to hold on for three months, and the war could yet be won. Furthermore, the ships of the Port Arthur squadron were contributing supporting fire to the defenders of the Port, and their mere presence prevented the possibility of a Japanese amphibious attack. In short, “an inert Russian squadron in Port Arthur was of far greater strategic value than a bold squadron at the bottom of the sea.”28 

Withöft’s logic had one inherent flaw: the Baltic squadron would not arrive by October, in fact it would not even arrive for another nine months. Alekseyev was “probably aware”29 that this was the case, but neglected to inform the local commander, instead offering only strict and inflexible orders. Under these circumstances, bureaucratic Russian officers responded the only way they could, with fatalistic obedience. Accusations of cowardice on the part of Withöft and his captains are inaccurate: “they were more frightened of failure than death.”30

On August 10th, 1904, the Pacific Squadron put to sea with six battleships, four cruisers, and eight torpedo boats. The Japanese matched them with four battleships, six or seven cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 29 torpedo boats.31 While this did give the Russian fleet a nominal advantage in first-class battleships, two of the six “were the old, lumbering, Poltava and Sevastopol.32 There seemed to be no doubt of the outcome in the mind of Admiral Withöft, whose last words before stepping onto his flagship were: “Gentlemen, we shall meet in the next world.”33 As the ships of the Port Arthur squadron began their flight for Vladivostok, they “displayed the unwelcome effects of a fleet cooped up in port.”34 Stricken with mechanical issues, Russian engineers worked frantically to achieve the maximal speed of the squadron, while their ships lagged and the formation was repeatedly forced to stop and wait for others to catch up. Later, the Russian gunnery would suffer from a lack of practice as well. As the Russian ships affected their repairs, the faster Japanese ships were also allowed to catch up, and the battle began in earnest at 12:30 PM.35 

Japanese battleship Mikasa (Wikimedia Commons)

For the next five hours, the two fleets would shell each other from long range. For most of the battle, the Russians gave as good as they got, scoring powerful hits on the leading Japanese ships, Mikasa, Shikishima, and Asahi. As Mikasa took a number of hits, she, and the Japanese line, began to slow. Tōgō soon found himself trailing behind the Russian fleet. “He had been out-maneuvered” and Vice-Admiral Withöft “had secured the best position possible.”36 Then, as it so often does, pure chance completely changed the course of the battle.

At 5:45 PM, a pair of Japanese 12-inch shells slammed into the bridge of the Russian flagship Tsarevitch, killing Admiral Withöft and all of his staff, and jamming the wheel of Tsarevitch hard over, forcing the Russian flagship into a dramatic circle.37 It was at this point in the battle that the failings of the Russian officer corps became manifest. Contemporary accounts and modern historians agree that “the effort of the Russian ships to fight their way through the Japanese would probably have been successful…had it not been for the disaster to the battleship Tsarevich.”38 Without Withöft, chaos reigned in the Russian fleet. Withöft’s replacement as commander of the squadron was Prince Pavel Petrovich Ukhtomsky. Ukhtomsky’s immediate problem was that his signals mast and lines were shot away, forcing him to signal from the bridge, where only the ships nearest him could see them. However, this was probably the least of the Prince’s problems. As he signaled “follow me” to his ships, Prince Ukhtomsky turned back toward Port Arthur – a somewhat ironic decision given that he had been one of the officers pushing Vice Admiral Withöft to attempt a breakout to Vladivostok in the first place.

Ukhtomsky was not held in any high regard in the Russian Navy. Many in the fleet believed that “he owed his position to connections rather than ability” and he was derided as “a second rate man.”39 His decision to return to Port Arthur made little sense, as the Russian stronghold “could no longer offer a safe haven” and “there was a strong probability that that a significant part of the squadron could have reached Vladivostok.”40 Just as in the forthcoming 1905 revolution, some of the Russian ships simply refused to follow the orders of the nobility, personified by Prince Ukhtomsky. In particular, the light cruiser Novik made a dash for Vladivostok, but was finally defeated after being sighted by a Japanese freighter.41

While the majority of the Russian ships did return to Port Arthur, the Russian mission was a dramatic failure. Although it had lost only one battleship (Tsarevich was forced to shelter in a German port where she was interned), the Port Arthur squadron was so damaged that it would never put to sea again. Russian ground troops were disgusted by this failure, and according to a Russian correspondent, “there was nothing but abuse and curses for the naval officers, from the highest to the lowest.”42 Prince Ukhtomsky’s decision to turn around and return to Port Arthur was an enormous blunder. In so doing, he trapped himself and the squadron in the port, where they would be shelled and sunk, eliminating any value they could have offered to Admiral Rozhestvensky and the Baltic fleet. While he may have feared the loss of most of his ships, “even one battleship at Vladivostok would have been a serious embarrassment for Tōgō when he faced the oncoming Baltic squadron.”43 Instead, Ukhtomsky’s decision removed the Port Arthur squadron entirely from the playing field.  This was an immense strategic victory for Japan, who could now use their artillery to sink the Russian ships, while allowing Tōgō and the Navy to prepare for the upcoming battle with the Baltic Squadron. 


The Battle of Tsushima was decided well before the Russian and Japanese Fleets met. Admiral Rozhestvensky’s words on the expedition indicate his feelings on the prospects of the mission: “We are doing now what needs to be done still, defending the honor of the flag. It was at a previous stage that another course ought to have been taken….Sacrifice the fleet if need be, but at the same time deliver a fatal blow to Japanese naval power.”44 These words, so drenched in the presumption of defeat and complete fatalism, rival those of Admiral Villeneuve on the eve of Trafalgar as some of the least inspiring in naval history. Rozhestvensky was right of course, he had little hope of defeating the Japanese. His fleet was comprised of untrained officers and crews on brand-new ships, which were as yet untested. He had to sail across the globe, hardly stopping for shore, and having to deal with embarrassments such as the Dogger Bank incident, when his untested and nervous crews mistook British fishing trawlers for Japanese torpedo boats, and began pouring fire into them. This incident caused a great deal of enmity towards Russia, causing the Royal Navy to shadow Rozhestvensky for much of his journey, and a number of other nations to deny him access to their port facilities for resupply. When the time for battle finally came, the Russians were disorganized and unprepared. Untested in battle, their fire was “indifferent and ineffective.”45 The exhausted and overwhelmed Rozhestvensky was badly wounded and could only watch as the Japanese picked his fleet apart.

However, Russia’s naval failures in the Russo-Japanese War cannot be laid entirely on his account. Had the Tsar been able to consolidate his squadrons before giving battle to the Japanese, the outcome of the war would likely have been vastly different. However, without any fleet-wide strategic or operational planning, the Imperial Navy was left disjointed and dispersed, while the Japanese could concentrate their forces in their home waters. What little planning there was took place on a localized level, and was hampered by feckless, disinterested officers, parochial interests, corruption, and nepotism, wasting Russia’s quantitative advantages. 

However, perhaps the decisive factor in the Russo-Japanese War was the bureaucratic and indecisive nature of the officers in the Russian Navy. Rather than encourage initiative and free their captains to adapt to the circumstances at hand, Russian naval culture rewarded paper pushers and officers whose crews spent more time cleaning their guns than firing them. Worse still, a gerontocratic Russian state meant that modern techniques and technologies were ignored in favor of the outdated practices of noble officers, who had little interest or ability in naval warfare. Russian officers were thus hesitant in the moments of crisis, incapable of decisive action. Meanwhile, their crews, filled with conscripts and trained for inspections rather than combat, were entirely outmatched by the remarkably professional and extremely well-motivated Imperial Japanese Navy.

Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War was undoubtedly the result of Japanese superiority in a number of critical areas. However, the most telling asymmetry between Japan and Russia in the war was the disparity between their leadership, laid bare in the heat of battle.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.


1. Nicholas Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 2011, (New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd), 45.

2. Ibid, 46.

3. Ibid, 47; Ibid, 42.

4. Ibid, 48.

5. Ibid, 53.

6. Ibid, 53; J.N. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 1986, (New York: State University of New York Press), 1.

7. Ibid 29

8. Papastratigakis, Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War, 53.

9. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05. 29.

10. Ibid, 35.

11. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game, 2012, (Annapolis, MD, US Naval Institute Press).   

12. Richard Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 1991, (New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc.) 30.

13. Ibid

14. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 37.

15. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 30.

16. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 117.

17. Ibid; “Concept of operations” should be understood as the overall strategic or operational objective.

18. Ibid, 38.

19. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 46.

20. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 38.

21. Frederic William Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 1904, (Philadelphia: World Bible House), 345.

22. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 31.

23. Connaughton,The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 32.

24. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 344.

25. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 80.

26. Ibid, 81.

27. Ibid, 80.

28. Ibid, 81.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Unger, The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan, 391; “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg. 1, Accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172. 

32. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 171.

33. Ibid, 172.

34. Ibid.

35. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 172.

36. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 83.

37. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 85; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 173.

38. “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait,” Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1904, Pg 1.

39. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

40. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.

41. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86; Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

42. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 174.

43. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 86.

44. Westwood, Russia Against Japan, 1904-05, 138.

45. Connaughton, The War of the Rising Sun and the Tumbling Bear, 266.


Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL). “Japanese Win Naval Battle in Corean Strait.” August 14, 1904. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.furman.edu/docview/173171585/7CB7EBC23EDC4AE5PQ/13?accountid=11012.

Connaughton, Richard. The War of the Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 1991.

Gordon, Andrew. The Rules of the Game. Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2012.

Koda, Yoji. “The Russo-Japanese War—Primary Causes of Japanese Success.” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2.

Papastratigakis, Nicholas Papastratigakis. Russian Imperialism and Naval Power, Military Strategy and the Build-up to the Russo-Japanese War. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Stone, David R. A Military History of Russia. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006.

Unger, Frederic William. The Authentic History of the War between Russia and Japan. Edited by Charles Morris. Philidelphia, PA: World Bible House, 1904.

Westwood, J.N. Russia against Japan, 1904-05. New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Featured Image: Print shows, in the foreground, a Russian battleship exploding under bombardment from Japanese battleships; a line of Japanese battleships, positioned on the right, fire on a line of Russian battleships on the left, in a surprise naval assault on the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur (Lüshun) in the Russo-Japanese War. (Torajirō Kasai/Wikimedia Commons)

The Strategic Dimensions of the Sea of Azov

By Ridvan Bari Urcosta


The Sea of Azov is a tiny and small sea that historically has not often earned much strategic attention from the countries that possessed it. However, history reveals that the strategic importance of the sea periodically rises when at least two countries possess the shores of this sea. The sea lends itself to regional geopolitical rivalry, and as a result of tensions both sides often create Azov flotillas. Such a contest existed during the Civil War in Russia and the Second World War when both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had to establish special naval units in the Sea of Azov. In general, Russia’s historical expansion to the South had three main directions – the Northern Caucasus, the Sea of Azov, and Crimea. All of these three geographical directions are fully interrelated. First, the Russian Azov Flotilla appeared in 1768 in order to fight the Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Empire. Now the geopolitical situation again necessitates that both Kiev and Moscow urgently create Azovian geographical units drawn from their naval forces.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation became a full-fledged hegemon in the Azov Sea because of how the annexation of Crimea greatly expanded Russian coastal possessions. The Kerch Straits made Russia the keeper of a strategic chokepoint where the Kerch Strait acts as a gate to free waters and to Ukrainian and Russian Azovian ports. Interestingly, Russian river waterways facilitate a connection between the Black Sea with Russian cities that are almost located in Siberia and even deliver goods directly to Moscow or to the Baltics. In these regards, the possession of the Kerch Strait and access to the Sea of Azov has strategic meaning to Russia. As tensions have been building in recent months in the Sea of Azov Russia and Ukraine find themselves poised for further escalation.

Russian Naval and Maritime Strategy in the Sea of Azov

It is crucial to view Russia’s general vision regarding naval strategy and its place in the Sea of Azov since 1991 in order to understand the current state in broader context. Before Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leadership did not pay much attention to the country’s naval forces. But in 2000, the same year Putin came to power, the situation changed. Russia introduced the “Naval Strategy of Russia” in which there was pointed attention from the Kremlin in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Putin personally participated in the drafting of the document. In the document it was clear that these seas, together with the Baltic and Caspian Seas, have serious importance to Russian national interests. With respect to the Sea of Azov Russia had proposed it be labeled as internal waters as the most suitable approach to national interests. Moreover, along with Moscow’s return to the old Soviet Union approach in trying to turn southern seas into “internal seas,” Russia wanted to establish a favored regime that would block every non-Azovian state warship from the entrance into the seas.

Next year in 2001, Russia introduced the “The Russian Maritime Doctrine” where again the Kremlin asserted that the Sea of Azov is a part of national interests. According to the document, the longstanding interests of Russia in the Black and Azov Seas were the restoration of the naval and merchant fleets along with the inland navigation system (Don-Volga canal system), ports, and other infrastructure. It emphasized the necessity of addressing with the Ukrainian government the legal status of the Black Sea Fleet and to ensure that Sevastopol remains the main base of the Fleet. And finally, it discussed the creation of conditions for basing and using the components of maritime potential that would protect the sovereignty as well as international rights of the Russian Federation in the Black and Azov Seas.

A map of the Sea of Azov and Crimea region. (European Council on Foreign Relations)

Next, the “Naval Strategy of Russia 2020” was issued in 2012 and neither of the seas were mentioned. However, it was clear that some aspects of the document were related to the Sea of Azov and that Russia was facing restrictions to full access to the global maritime domain, and faced disputed maritime claims from neighboring countries. After the alteration of the international environment and due to the annexation of Crimea, Moscow released the “Maritime Doctrine 2020” in 2015, and again paid full attention to the region and categorizes the Black and Azov Sea as a part of the “Atlantic Regional Priority Area.” It highlights the region as crucial for national interests partly because it is proximate to NATO.

Thus, according to the document, the following measures were provided:

  • To set more favorable (on the basis of the international law) international regimes for Russia in the Azov and Black Seas
  • Systems of using natural resources of these seas
  • Free use of the oil and gas fields and construction and operating pipelines
  • To set international and legal regulation regimes in the Kerch Strait
  • To enhance and to improve the structure and naval bases of the Black Sea Fleet and the development of its infrastructure in Crimea and Krasnodar Kray
  • Building the related vessels and ships, especially river-sea type, and development of port infrastructure in these seas
  • Creation of three huge regional economic and maritime zones (centers): Crimean, Black Sea-Kuban, and Azovian-Don zones
  • Further development in regional gas and oil pipeline systems. (For instance, according to the Ministry of Energy, in the production structure of the Russian Federation the share of offshore fields in the Azov Sea is 9.4 percent of Russian oil and 14.7 percent of gas.)
  • To provide a direct logistical connection between the Crimean peninsula and Krasnodar Kray. (Here at the moment of adoption of the document, it still was a theoretical scenario for a direct land connection through the territory of Ukraine, but now the recently completed Kerch Bridge has become the sole option.)
  • Exploration of minerals in the seas

On July 20, 2017 Putin signed “The fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval policy for the period up to 2030.” Again, previously mentioned threats were indicated, but the language of the document changed gravely in that it became more antagonistic and aggressive. The Azov Sea was mentioned regarding the necessity of maintaining favorable legal regimes around the state border of the Russian Federation, the border area, in the exclusive economic zone, on the continental shelf, as well as in the waters of the Caspian and Azov Seas. Without the Crimean peninsula it is impossible to fully appreciate the security implications for Russia’s policy in the Azov Sea. In Crimea, according to the document, it was recommended that Russia pursue an increase of the operational and combat capabilities of the Black Sea Fleet by developing an interspecific grouping of forces on the territory of the Crimean peninsula.

A historic moment that sheds light on Russia’s strategic vision in the Sea of Azov is the Yeysk meeting in 2003. The Tuzla Island conflict started on September 29, 2003 when Russia initiated the construction of an artificial dam on the tiny island within the Kerch Strait, and the Yeysk meeting was conducted under Vladimir Putin’s supervision on September 17, 2003. On the same day before Yeysk, he had met with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma where he clearly stressed that “the Sea of Azov must be the internal sea of Russia and Ukraine.” Already in Yeysk (an important Russian city on the Azov shores with heavy military presence), Putin held a historical meeting for Russian geopolitical ambitions in its southern region. All the most important ministers responsible for the state military, naval, and security policy were present.

During the meeting, Putin made strong commitments regarding the Black and Azov Seas. At the onset of the meeting he said:

“I would like to talk about the Azov-Black Sea basin as a whole. On military and environmental issues it is a zone that is very important for Russia. This is the zone of our strategic interests. The Black Sea region has a special geopolitical significance. The Black Sea provides Russia’s direct access to the most important global transport routes, including energy.”

In this phrase he outlined the key interests of Russia in this region without which Russian national interests could not be fulfilled. In order to impart this vision in the formal framework, Putin signed the document “Plan of cooperation of ministries and agencies to address the diplomatic and military missions in the Azov-Black Sea region.” The text of the plan was closed from publicity but its general aim was to provide a complex strategy of Russia to this Black-Azov Seas region and the modernization of port and naval facilities. The next point which was raised is the Azov Sea question; according to Putin, it is undergoing a difficult process of negotiations and painstaking efforts to resolve existing problems of the legal status of the borders, regimes of straits, and legal aspects of the use of the water area and resources of the Black and Azov Seas. Moreover, within the meeting he signed a decree “On the establishment of the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Novorossiysk.” Many western and Ukrainian experts and politicians regarded it as a retreat of Russia in the means of her ambitions in the region, but Putin directly stressed that it is not a sign of retreat and that Sevastopol will remain a main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Furthermore, during the meeting Putin emphasized the crucial reason why the Kremlin did not pay attention to the Azov Sea because “For a long time, a large number of ministries and departments were focused on the Caspian Sea. I think that now it is time to come to grips with the problems of the Azov-Black Sea basin.”

A Longstanding Dispute

Negotiations regarding the status of the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait began in 1995, and Russia steadily avoided finalizing them on Ukrainian terms. Only after the Tuzla Island crisis in September 2003 did Ukraine and Russia finally sign the agreement in December of the same year. At the same time, the biggest political disaster that Russia faced as a result of Tuzla crisis was the consolidation and hardening of the Ukrainian nation toward Russia. The Tuzla events were partly preconditions for the Orange Revolution in 2004. For the first time in many years it posed the possibility of a direct confrontation between the two nations.

After the Orange Revolution in 2004 new political leadership in Kiev called for a revision of this agreement and considered it a deal that had been imposed on Ukraine by the use of political and diplomatic pressure. Since then, negotiations were conducted many times but Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko could not manage to settle the issue on Ukrainian terms. It should be taken into account that even the 2003 agreement did not satisfy Moscow, but it was definitely a victory for Moscow after years of contention. Ukraine was holding the largest and richest share of fish zones in the Sea of Azov and had total control of the Kerch-Enikale Canal. But for Russia, it secured the Sea of Azov from any possibility of foreign warships entering the sea, and Russia earned the ability to use the Kerch-Enikale Canal freely. Before, Russian vessels had to pay Ukraine for passage in and out of the Kerch Strait. Finally, the signed treaty that ended the dispute had a positive impact on Russia because Ukraine was forced to recognize the Sea of Azov as an internal sea. Thus the sea was sealed from third-party countries.

Unfortunately, Ukraine in 2003 did not effectively use international law and the influence of the West in order to settle the issue with Russia. NATO behaved in a very tempered manner and avoided taking sides. Ukrainian President Kuchma publicly asked the General Secretary of the NATO Lord George Robertson for an intervention into the confrontation before his departing to Moscow. Moreover, the head of the foreign office of the EU presented almost the same position of NATO and EU when he said the conflict “will be resolved and defused among themselves.” In 2010 when the regime of Yanukovich came to power, Russia made the status of Sevastopol a priority (the Kharkov Agreement), but negotiations about the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov never stopped because Russia wanted further expansion. Particularly in terms of favorable regimes, in the Kerch Strait they proposed the creation of a joint venture that would operate in the Strait. In 2013, Putin officially returned to the Sea of Azov question but he never returned to this topic very publicly. Even since the annexation of Crimea, he delegated the issue while he was silent about it himself. After the Maidan Revolution, the new Ukrainian political elite confronted the agreement but did not manage to revise it.

According to the 2003 agreement, Ukraine has legal control over 62 percent of Sea of Azov’s area and Russia only 38 percent, but since the annexation of Crimea, Russia possesses de facto three-quarters of the territory of the sea. It tries to impose this fact in relations with Ukraine. Plus, Russian proxies are possessing additional territories in the East of Ukraine that plays on Russian advances. The whole coastline of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic is approximately 45 km. In their territories, there are plans to erect a naval base in the Obryw village. It is more likely that Russia will be denying its involvement in the creation of the base. Therefore, in the Sea of Azov there are three major established naval centers in the zones of control under Ukraine, Russia, and the separatist republic of DPR.

Additionally, a great hindrance to the free navigation of international and Ukrainian ships was incurred with the opening of the Kerch Bridge in May. The bridge has an air draught of 33 meters and a water draught of eight meters which restricts the entrance of larger ships into the Sea of Azov. Notwithstanding the fact that Ukraine is reportedly eager to denounce the 2003 Agreement, Russia could go even further unilaterally – eventually sealing the free passage in the Kerch Strait to the Ukrainian merchant fleet. In this scenario Ukraine could have to pay for passage as Russia did before 2003.

The Sea of Azov after 2014 was more or less a tranquil place compared to the Donbas and Crimea, but the completion of the first phase of the Kerch Bridge required more decisive measures from Russia. Additionally, an incident with a boat arrested by Ukraine further escalated the situation. The Russian Federation still demands that Kiev return the boat and the captain as a main condition for returning to the status quo. Russia continues to use the following measures against Ukraine:

  • Increasing the time for permit issues for the passing to and from the Azov Sea
  • Undertaking additional controls of the vessels in the Azov Sea water going to Ukrainian ports and “luckily” facing one more control when they return after shipment
  • Russia is challenging Ukrainian naval forces when controls are happening very close to Ukrainian shores
  • Pushing Ukrainian fisheries to avoid going to sea
  • Since June until October, Russia inspected 171 vessels and it took on average three days
  • Ukrainian and Georgian vessels undergo more detailed inspections
  • Usually 10 Russian warships are patrolling the Sea of Azov and Moscow sometimes closes parts of the sea under the pretext of naval drills

The Ukrainian economic losses to date are obvious. For instance, only from January to July Ukraine lost 50 percent of fishing, 30 percent of the profit of ports, and most importantly, the share of the ports in metallurgical export deteriorated to 50 percent. This trend will only be broadening and it is even possible to say that in the long-term Russia may attempt to eventually halt commercial activities. This could lead to social and political protests against the current political elite in Kiev if the situation does not change. Furthermore, Russia has plans to extract and use Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar natural resources from Crimea and the Sea of Azov such as the Azov-Berezansky and Indolo-Kubnasky oil and gas fields. Estimated oil and gas deposits in the Sea of Azov are 413 million tons. As a result of the Ukrainian water blockade of Crimea, Moscow may also be desperately seeking the fresh water in the Sea of Azov.

Russia caught Kiev in three main geopolitical traps. First, if Ukraine is going to confront Russia and demonstrate principality in the Azov sea, she should take into account that economic and social deterioration will become a direct consequence of this confrontation. Even though Ukraine goes to a stiff political stance in confronting Russia, international maritime companies will be avoiding this region and will try to find alternative routes. It should be noted that a quite popular idea with Russia is that of mining the Ukrainian coastline. Definitely these kinds of measures do not attract foreign investments. Second, Ukrainian naval forces are incomparable with Russian forces. Moscow is the absolute naval hegemon in this sea. Third, it is a “denunciation” trap. In Ukraine, denunciation is quite popular but some voices are against the argument that Ukraine will be deprived of a free passage through the Kerch Strait for the Ukrainian merchant fleet.

Western Responses and Countermeasures

The Ukrainian answer is offered by several measures. First, is a “law binding” policy. In 2016 Ukraine filed a lawsuit against the Russian Federation to the Permanent Court of Arbitrations – “Dispute Concerning Coastal State Rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait (Ukraine vs. the Russian Federation).” Interestingly, Russia is actively engaging in the process. Second, it is the establishment of sufficient naval forces (an “Azov flotilla”) by using external and internal sources for naval enforcement – for instance, building additional gunboats “Gurza-M” (Project 58155). For instance, Capitan Andriy Ryzenko presented a strategy of a “Mosquitoes Fleet” as the best option to counter Russia expansion in the sea. Currently, NATO and Ukrainian specialists are engaged in preparation of the “Naval Strategy 2035” that will take into consideration the recent developments in the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is considering the possibility of convoying Ukrainian and European vessels into the Sea of Azov. Additionally some Ukrainian politicians are voicing the necessity of sanctioning Russian ports in the Black and Azov seas for Russia’s unlawful activities and to develop the coastal missile defense systems that could deter Russia from direct invasion of Mariupol and Berdyansk.

Western reaction to the developments in the Sea of Azov have not been prompt since the recent confrontation began in March 2018. On August 30, the U.S State Department issued a press statement “Russia’s Harassment of the International Shipping Transiting the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.” The State Department called on Russia to cease its harassment of international shipping. On October 24, the General Secretary of NATO Jens Stoltenberg stressed during a press conference NATO’s concern regarding the situation in the Sea of Azov and about importance of the freedom of navigation both for Ukrainian and NATO ships in this sea. Interestingly, on October 31 there was a regular official meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels where according to the press release both sides discussed the situation in Ukraine and the escalation in the Sea of Azov but without any public details.       

In Brussels, already in the middle of summer there were some discussions regarding the situation in the Sea of Azov.  For example, on October 9, the European Policy Center conducted the event “Occupied Crimea: The impact on human rights and security in the Black and Azov Seas” that has been dedicated particularly to the recent escalation in the region. Representatives of the European Parliament, Ukrainian Ministers, experts and former NATO officials took part in the event. In the European Parliament of Subcommittee on the Security and Defense (SEDE) a very effective hearing was held with a fruitful discussion and provided analytical grounds for the European Parliament’s Resolution. Additionally, the Chair of the SEDE, Anna Fotyga, together with the other MPs, visited the east of Ukraine on 16-20 September where they observed the security situation in the contact-line in Donbas and in the city of Mariupol. In the SEDE hearings on October 11, “On the Security Situation in the Azov Sea” in the EP there were officials from the European External Action Service responsible for the Eastern dimension of the EU foreign policy, including Ambassador Konstiantyn Yelisieiev who is now the Deputy Head of Presidential Administration to the President of Ukraine and NATO’s officials.

Ms. Fotyga stressed that the Russian approach toward the seas has some similarities and they are to be found even in the Baltic region, where Russia is using its geographical advantage over Poland in the Vistula Lagoon and Strait of Baltiysk. Russia, as she stressed, is seeking ways to establish internal lakes (with limited access) in those seas. The representative of the EEAS stated that in July the EU imposed individual sanctions against persons involved in the Kerch Bridge construction and condemned the deterioration of the situation in the Black and Azov Seas. Mr. Yelisieiev presented a comprehensive and full picture of aggressive Russian behavior not only in the Sea of Azov but also in Crimea and the Black Sea. According to him, Russia pursues the following aims:

  • A land corridor to Crimea
  • Militarization of the Sea of Azov thereby to outflank Ukrainian military positions in the East of Ukraine
  • Social and economic destabilization of the region
  • Total control over the Black and Azov Seas in order to have secure flanks for further expansion

At the same time Yelisieiev outlined the necessity of the technical and economic assistance to Mariupol and Berdyansk. Moreover, on behalf of Ukrainian government, he was asking for the extension of sanctions against southern ports of Russia. As he noted “lack of the common response instigates the aggressor’s appetite.” He reiterated that the best option to deter Russia is to be braver in Ukraine and to finalize the membership action plan.  

NATO representative Radoslava Stefanova, Head of the Russia and Ukraine Section, Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, stated that the case of the Sea of Azov is a much broader problem that is happening in the southern flank of the NATO. Three littoral states have access to the Black Sea together with strategic partners (Ukraine and Georgia) and since the Warsaw Summit NATO is trying to establish stronger presence in this region. During the last year and a half, NATO is actively involved in the assistance of the reconstruction of Ukrainian naval and maritime capability and the associated training. NATO, according to Ms. Stefanova, has reinforced the staff in Kiev and especially to those fields that are related to security and defense, and even sent to Kiev more experts to prepare a Ukrainian naval strategy.

Another event of interest is the Plenary Session in Strasbourg on October 23 “On the Situation in the Sea of Azov” together with the Vice-President of the Commission Federica Mogherini. In her speech, she outlined that the EU is concerned about the situation in the sea and its militarization and reiterated the EU’s support to Ukraine. She emphasized that militarization of the sea is threatening to undermine the wider Black Sea region and this is in no one’s interests. What is also of note is that she said that the Black Sea is a European sea – an idea that is not welcomed in Russia and is considered aggressive. In general, the discussion during the plenary session demonstrated full commitment and almost absolute majority to support Ukrainian sovereignty and asked for further development of sanctions against the Russian Federation.

The resolution adopted on October 24 appears to demonstrate that the European Parliament is firmly committed to reacting to emerging threats in this neighborhood. The resolution goes through crucial details of the confrontation and touches on the problem of the militarization of the Crimean peninsula and Sea of Azov as intertwined cases. Among its contents it also:

  • Condemns Russian violation of the freedom of navigation and construction of the Kerch Bridge
  • Highlights Russia’s plans to extract natural resources (oil and gas resources) from the legal Ukrainian territories
  • Goes through the unacceptability of such a policy not only in the Sea of Azov but in the Vistula Lagoon (Poland)
  • Calls for a more comprehensive EU foreign policy in this region and to appoint an EU Special Envoy to Donbas, Crimea, and the Sea of Azov
  • Underlines the necessity to send mission experts to Mariupol that will be assessing the damage to the region and look at alternative ways of maintaining regional, social, and economic sustainability.

Regarding the recent escalation in the Black Sea zone of the Kerch Strait the western reaction was again quite restrained. The U.S State Department issued a statement indicating that they are concerned with the dangerous escalation in the Kerch Strait and that it “condemns this aggressive Russian action.” Washington again called for both parties to “exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments. We urge Presidents Poroshenko and Putin to engage directly to resolve this situation.” It is possible to assume that such a vague statement holds little water with Ukraine. Something similar happened with the European Union’s reaction where it defined the situation as dangerous and called on both sides to exercise “utmost restraint” and called for de-escalation. The Turkish Republic also called for the peaceful resolution of the confrontation, and the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that it is concerned that Ukrainian vessels were fired upon but it does not make any reference to Russia. Even so, Ukraine together with its allies, managed to conduct an emergency meeting at the UN Security Council but it did not had desired effect. The most lackluster reaction was the aftermath of the private meeting of the Political and Security Committee in Brussels that refrained to go tougher against the Russian Federation.

Thus we could see that the consequences of the incident remain unclear. The international reaction demonstrates to Kiev that it is not ready to escalate the situation. At the same time, it is more likely that both the European Union and the United States are going to provide more measures to deter Russian hegemony in the Sea of Azov and Black Sea.     


History rarely pays attention to the Sea of Azov, but it is always related to the strategic importance of Crimea. When the Russian Federation annexed the Crimean peninsula and further consolidated its military facilities, it became clear that the Sea of Azov will again be playing an important strategic role in East-West relations. After more than 20 years of strategic patience Russia resolved many of its longstanding problems about the Azov and Black Sea regions by annexing Crimea. It is not a mere coincidence when the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, on March 21, 2014 straightforwardly pointed out that since the annexation, the Kerch Strait “could not be the subject of negotiations anymore.”

Almost five years after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula it appears that Russia is again trying to impose a long-term strategy to deal a crucial blow in Ukraine via the Sea of Azov. In Moscow they count on strategic patience, and as Putin said “in long-run strategy we must win.” Western answers and reactions have to be strong and preventative. The case of the adopted EU resolution is direct evidence of how interested Western commitments are. But if the recommendations in the resolution remain on paper it means that aggressive Russian behavior is poised to deal another blow to Ukraine and the West.  

Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a research fellow at the Center of Strategic Studies, University of Warsaw.

Featured Image: Kerch bridge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Strategic Loss: How EU Sanctions Affect Russia’s Ability to Replace its Sunken Dry-Dock

By Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker, RN

The icy waters of Murmansk harbor now cover one of the world’s largest floating dry-docks. Last week, a catastrophic power failure seems to have caused the dock’s pumps to jam, rapidly flooding the ballast tanks. As a result, PD-50, the largest floating dry-dock of the Russian Navy, sank to the bottom of the shipyard and now lies 160 feet below the surface.

Much attention has focused on damage to Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kutznetsov, which was in PD-50 at the time of the incident. However, the loss of the dry-dock may have a more significant long-term impact on Russia’s ability to sustain its Northern Fleet. As a consequence, the ability of Russia to recover, repair, or even replace the dock assumes considerable importance because it is a maintenance asset of strategic import.

Russia’s ability to overcome this setback is further complicated by European Union (EU) sanctions, where the legal and practical effects of the EU sanctions regime will strongly affect Russia’s ability to replace this key maritime asset.

Sanctions and Dry Docks

The EU sanctions regime against Russia is conducted under the auspices of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. It is directly applicable in EU law, meaning that it takes effect without the need for national legislation (in fact, most countries have no separate national sanctions regime against Russia). EU sanctions were established in March 2014 as a response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine. They have remained in force since and are reviewed at six-month intervals by the EU Council. The sanctions recently were extended until 31 January 2019. Further, the EU Council has stated that it will continue renewing these sanctions until the complete implementation of the Minsk agreement.

The EU sanctions are a range of measures including asset freezing, an import ban on items from the Crimea and Sevastopol, and a ban on tourism to the same areas. More pertinently for this discussion, sanctions have been enacted in specific economic sectors. This includes a ban on arms sales to Russia (article 4 Council Regulation (EU) 833/2014) and an export ban on dual-use goods (article 2 Council Regulation (EU) 833/2014), with minor amendments being made in Regulations 960/2014 and 1290/2014.

Proceeding on the assumption that these sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, the question is whether the export ban on arms or dual-use goods includes replacement parts for PD-50—or indeed an entirely new dock—if supplied from within the EU.

Looking first at the arms question arising from article 4, the list of prohibited equipment is detailed in the EU Common Military List (2015/C 129/01). The most relevant items are ML9.1 (“vessels (including components) designed or modified for military use”) and ML17b (“construction equipment specifically designed for military use”). Although a floating dry dock, or the components to repair it, may fit the description of a “vessel” or “construction equipment,” it would be difficult to argue that a floating dry dock is designed for military use. It is even harder to conclude that a floating dry dock is specifically designed for military use. Components for a floating dry dock (or even a dock itself) are therefore unlikely to be considered arms under article 4 and would not be caught by the ban on arms sales.

The ban on dual-use goods, set forth in article 2, is more likely to be applicable. Dual-use items are defined in Council Regulation (EU) 428/2009 and include all items that can be used for civil and military purposes. Military end-use includes the “use of production equipment and components for the maintenance of military items,” as stated in article 4(2)(b). Although PD-50 is owned and operated by a private company, this definition focuses on the use of the equipment rather than the owner. The use of a dry-dock for the maintenance of an aircraft carrier (indisputably a military item) strongly suggests that it is caught by this provision. One could argue that this is an unduly broad interpretation of the phrase “production equipment,” but a contextual reading of the article clearly shows that these provisions are intended to cover a wide range of items that may be used to support military infrastructure.

This conclusion is bolstered by article 2(1) of Reg. 833/2014. Article 2(1) states that where the end-user is the Russian military, any dual-use item shall be deemed to be for military use. Again, an argument could be constructed that the private ownership of the dock places it outside the scope of the provision by asserting that the end-user is the company rather than the Russian military. However, given the almost exclusive use of the dock for warship repair and maintenance, a strong case can be made that, appearances aside, the end-user of the dock (or any replacement) would be the Russian military, even if the actual ownership rests elsewhere.

The only caveat to the above analysis is that the sanctions do not affect the completion of contracts entered into before 1 August 2014. It is possible that the purchase agreement for the dock included an ongoing contractual obligation to provide replacement parts. If so, this would be unaffected by the sanction regime. In reality, it is very unlikely that such a provision was included and thus, this caveat can probably be discounted.


Unsurprisingly, there are few concrete details about the state of PD-50 and the prospects for the recovery of this strategic asset. Even a Russian news agency has accepted that this is a complex operation and unlikely to be completed within six months. A rapid repair or replacement of the dock is required to avoid severe pressures on the maintenance and availability of crucial Northern Fleet units and to conduct complex modernization work. Any support for this work is likely to be hampered by the EU sanctions regime, which now assumes additional significance following the sinking of PD-50.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Barker is a serving Royal Navy officer and barrister. He is currently the Associate Director for the Law of Coalition Warfare at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law (@StocktonCenter), part of the U.S. Naval War College. He can be contacted at peter.barker.uk@usnwc.edu.

These views are presented in a personal capacity and  are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any ministry or government.

Featured Image: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kutznetsov in dry-dock PD-50. (Lev Fedoseyev via Tass)

Why Icebreakers Matter

By Matt Hein

One week before Christmas 2017 the USS Little Rock left Buffalo, New York on its maiden voyage to its future homeport in Florida. The crew of the newest Littoral Combat Ship in the Navy proudly entered the port of Montreal seven days later as part of a goodwill port visit between the United States and Canada. A frigid cold snap sank in while Little Rock sat pier-side and the St. Lawrence river froze over three weeks earlier than anticipated. Commercial icebreakers, frequently used to navigate the St. Lawrence river, were unable to operate after January 11th due to ice thickness, and the riverway was closed to traffic by the St. Lawrence River Authority. The Little Rock, the newest ship in the Navy, left Montreal nearly three months later once ice levels decreased sufficiently for the river authority to allow commercial icebreaker operation.

The story of the Little Rock unfolds across the Arctic, albeit on smaller scales, as climate change provides unprecedented access to the region. Fishermen push farther north, cruise lines dare to operate through the Northwest Passage, merchant shipping increasingly travels along Arctic routes, and native communities are forced to travel greater distances to maintain subsistence traditions. Within American waters the Coast Guard is solely responsible for providing mariners with safety from the elements, illicit activity, and man-made disasters. With limited resources they accomplish their mission in the areas they are able to access. With only two operable icebreakers the Coast Guard is unable to safely conduct their mission in regions which are increasingly accessible due to receding ice levels. This gap in capability exacerbates international and economic consequences of an increasingly accessible Arctic against American interests. To conduct sustained Arctic operations in the national interest new icebreakers are needed and soon.

Current Capability

The U.S. Coast Guard lists three active commissioned icebreakers; USCGC Polar Star, Polar Sea, and Healy. Of the three, only the Polar Star and Healy are capable of Arctic operations. The Polar Sea suffered major propulsion problems in 2010, relegating it to a spare part depot for the Polar Star, and where both ships are over 10 years past their designed service life of 30 years.1 Furthermore, Polar Star is reserved to ensure access to McMurdo station, rendering Healey the only commissioned vessel to access Arctic ice-covered regions.

The medium-class icebreaker Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome Jan. 6, 2012. (P.O. 1st Class Sara Francis/US Coast Guard)

The Coast Guard has 11 statutory missions, nine of which pertain to the Arctic and require icebreaking capability.2 The Healy solely executes these missions from the sea. In 2017 these missions included extensive research with 40 embarked scientists, ice breaking patrols miles north of the Alaskan coast, and search and rescue (SAR) training. These missions also include protection of marine living resources, drug interdiction, search and rescue, and migrant interdiction, which haven’t required persistent icebreaking capabilities in the recent past. Increasing levels of human activity in the Arctic indicate those missions are increasingly relevant and the recent dearth of those mission sets reflects a period of good fortune rather than trends to be continued. Finally, the Coast Guard allots 185 “Days Away from Homeport” (DAFH) per ship per year, including transit time and port visits to actual on-scene operations.3 Budgeting Healy’s DAFH reveals, optimistically, an icebreaker availability during only one-third of every year.4 The Coast Guard’s Arctic icebreaking forces are very capable but extremely limited. They are being are asked to do more now and will be asked to do even more in the future, but this will far outstrip existing resources.

Why Icebreakers Matter

Rapidly decreasing ice levels and increased human activity in the Arctic change the mission from seasonal operations to a year-round endeavor. Historically, Arctic patrols occur during warmer months when activity levels necessitate a Coast Guard presence. In 2012 a record low minimum sea ice extent was observed, followed closely by record low sea ice maximum extent in 2016.5 Those changes allow higher levels of human activity throughout the year, requiring a concomitant year-round icebreaking capability.

The lack of capability immediately threatens U.S. interests in the region including energy security, disaster response, and Maritime Domain Awareness. In the winter of 2011 Nome, Alaska nearly ran out of fuel used for heating and cooking. A Russian ice-hardened tanker managed to break through extensive inshore ice to provide refueling but no American assets were able to provide similar services. The refueling shows a fortunate coincidence of Russian capability and American need, however, an alternative scenario can be easily imagined.6 Privatized icebreakers such as the Aiviq, an ocean-going tug owned by Dutch Shell Oil company, provide extremely limited ability to assist offshore developments in production and disaster response.7

Russian nuclear Icebreaker Yamal during removal of manned drifting station North Pole-36. August 2009. (Wikimedia Commons)

In congressional testimony, following the 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill, USCG Admiral Thad Allen stated the Coast Guard doesn’t have enough icebreakers to respond to a major spill north of the Alaskan coast.8 The World Wildlife Foundation models spills in oil and gas producing regions, such as the Barents and Beaufort Seas, and claims the ecological damage of those potential spills is greatly exacerbated by a lack of access which is in turn worsened by a lack of icebreakers.9 Maritime Domain Awareness requires constant monitoring via multiple sensors and engagement from multiple platforms. Much of this can be accomplished by remote sensing but human knowledge and experience on how to operate in Arctic environments cannot be replaced.10 The crew of the Healey comprises the majority of American government maritime experience in Arctic ice-bound environments, revealing a major gap in Maritime Domain Awareness. These examples project the need for more icebreakers to operate in the Arctic, although many needs already go unmet.

A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found the Coast Guard delinquent in meeting four interagency icebreaking missions including persistent assured access for the Department of Defense, fisheries enforcement, search and rescue, and winter research for the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.11 In total, governmental agencies made 32 requests for icebreaking services from the Healy in 2017, only 25 of which went fulfilled.12 Central to each deficiency is icebreaker availability, and even more requests could have been filed. Using the aforementioned “Days away from Homeport” allotment provided by the Coast Guard, a minimum of three icebreakers is required to provide persistent access and capability in the Arctic.

Critics contend that procuring more icebreakers is optimal but untenable within current budget constraints. The Coast Guard High Latitude Mission Analysis Report in 2010 concluded six icebreakers (three medium and three heavy) are required to meet mission demands in the Arctic and Antarctic.13 That same report cites four core missions as the minimum requirements driving icebreaker acquisition: Arctic West Science, Arctic North Patrol, McMurdo Station resupply, and Polar Freedom of Navigation missions.14 The consensus of multiple sources is that specific Arctic missions are going unmet and the minimum procurement requirements to close that gap illuminate the desperate need for more icebreakers.

International Implications

Among Arctic nations the United States uniquely lacks robust icebreaking capabilities. Russia already boasts an icebreaking fleet 46 strong, including seven nuclear-powered vessels. Other nations, such as Finland, Canada, and Sweden all employ seven or more icebreakers, providing sufficient capability to operate routinely in Arctic waters.15 This disparity in capability opens the door for external intervention against American interests in the Arctic and challenges American leadership on Arctic issues.

The icebreaker gap exacerbates traditional maritime issues such as freedom of navigation and commerce by predetermining which nations can access waterways. Russia notably exploits this difference in the North Sea trade route where merchants may transit, aided by Russian icebreakers, for a hefty toll.16 Icebreakers further enable Arctic nations to conduct regular commerce in the Arctic during times the U.S. is unable to without their assistance. Additionally, as the Little Rock incident shows, ice heavily limits military mobility. The lack of domestic icebreakers makes freedom of navigation vulnerable to the whims and interests of countries with the capacity to outdo U.S. efforts. Ongoing international arbitration over Arctic economic claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea could become a moot point if nations able to access disputed areas do so unilaterally and lay de facto claim to the resource rich region.

Russian oil platform in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Krichevsky)

Freedom of access to Arctic areas has broader implications than the immediate effect of restricted access. International institutions are resource driven. Those who hold relevant resources in an international organization (such as NATO) are able to drive the agenda for how those resources are used. To date, the Arctic Council has passed three binding agreements. Two of those agreements, on search and rescue and maritime oil spill response, pave the way for icebreaker-laden states to take larger roles in the implementation of those agreements. If the United States is unable to match resource contributions for these efforts then the U.S. bargaining position for future Arctic Council resolutions will be significantly hampered.

It might seem that parity in the number of icebreakers is a worthwhile outcome. However, icebreaker parity with Russia is an undesirable and unachievable goal for American Arctic operations. The Arctic is central to the Russian way of life, demanding more and better ways to cope. An American icebreaking fleet simply needs the ability to access areas in pursuit of national interests and contribute to international efforts under existing agreements. Given the relative size of the American Arctic coastline and population compared to other Arctic countries a small but capable icebreaking fleet is sufficient to ensure American interests.

Funding and Procurement

The lack of action to date stems from a lack of funding and not recognition of the need. The Coast Guard traditionally lacks the independent funding to procure icebreakers or other large-scale expenditures. Consequently, large Coast Guard acquisitions frequently partner with the Navy Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund (SCF) to make the size of those acquisitions tenable within the context of the Coast Guard’s meager budget. The Coast Guard’s Procurement, Construction, and Improvement Fund is responsible for all new purchases and upgrades of the Coast Guard’s entire fleet with only a $1.54 billion budget.17 Conversely, the Navy was appropriated over $20 billion in 2017 explicitly for new ship construction.18 Icebreaker procurement considerations are included in the Navy’s new shipbuilding budget as part of a “block-buy” contract system. Under a block-buy system procurement costs over multiple years provide the total cost of a project as it is built. This process, combined with fixed cost contracts, helps decrease the total cost of the project and budget demands on a yearly basis. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 allots the Navy’s Shipbuilding and Conversion Fund $150 million for domestic construction of a heavy polar icebreaker to be built and transferred to the Coast Guard.19 This initial step is crucial, but insufficient, toward reestablishing an icebreaker fleet.

Detractors argue that foreign construction or leasing provide the best path to more icebreakers. The first option happens to be illegal, requiring a waiver from the president for foreign construction of military platforms.20 The political component of the equation removes the likelihood that foreign construction is viable considering domestic shipyards are capable of producing these ships. Additionally, domestic production provides domestic shipbuilding experience, a significant factor in reduced costs for purchases of multiple icebreakers. Because of those learned efficiencies projections for purchase drop nearly $200 million as additional platforms are purchased.21 Leasing is similarly constrained by the lack of available assets on the global market to provide medium to heavy icebreaking capability.22 To lease a heavy icebreaker it would have to be built, a process that takes a comparable amount of time to building them domestically. The only commercial icebreaker available for lease, the Aiviq, has a poor track record of performance, including responsibility for the grounding of a drilling rig in 2012 when it lost propulsion. For legal, political, and marketplace reasons leasing and foreign construction are untenable options for meeting American icebreaker needs.


Climate change provides unprecedented Arctic access but much of the region remains restricted by ice. The United States Coast Guard uses icebreakers to meet that challenge. Established icebreaker levels fail to meet current interagency demands and are projected to meet even fewer of those demands. International icebreaker competition has immediate economic first-mover consequences and institutional repercussions for nations with adequate Arctic resources. Building heavy icebreakers in the short-term to complement Healy proves the most tenable option while meeting the minimum requirements for Arctic capabilities and international obligations. In a resource-constrained budgetary environment prioritization of other interests prevented purchase of replacement icebreakers. Recent steps toward expansion of the icebreaker fleet are encouraging but remain insufficient to meet the minimum force level needed for persistent American Arctic presence.

Matt Hein is a Surface Warfare Officer currently studying for his Masters in Security Studies at Georgetown University.  He can be found on twitter @Matt_TB_Hein. These views are presented in a personal capacity.

Works Cited

[1] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 9

[2] The two missions not explicitly linked to the Arctic are drug interdiction and human smuggling interdiction.

[3] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 48

[4] “One-Third” based on transit time from Seattle to Nome, and assumes three port visits of 5 days each while away from homeport subtracted from 185 days.

[5] Meador, Ron. “As Climate Change Reshapes the Arctic, Scientists Are Struggling to Keep Up.” MinnPost, 27 Apr. 2017, www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2017/04/climate-change-reshapes-arctic-scientists-are-struggling-keep.

[6] Demarban, Alex. “Russian Icebreaker to Deliver Fuel to Nome, Highlighting Shortage of U.S. Icebreakers.” Anchorage Daily News, Anchorage Daily News, 5 Dec. 2011, www.adn.com/rural-alaska/article/russian-icebreaker-deliver-fuel-nome-highlighting-shortage-us-icebreakers/2011/12/05/.

[7] “Vessel Details for: AIVIQ (Offshore Supply Ship) – IMO 9579016| AIS Marine Traffic.” MarineTraffic.com, 7 Oct. 2017, www.marinetraffic.com/ais/details/ships/367141000.

[8] “U.S. icebreakers can’t handle Alaska oil spills: official” Reuters, 11 Feb. 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-arctic-oil-vessels-idUSTRE71A5RM20110211

[9] “Oil and Gas in the Arctic.” WWF, 17 Mar. 2018, wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/what_we_do/oil_gas/.

[10]United States, Congress, Chief of Naval Operations. Maritime Domain Awareness Concept, 30 May 2007. www.navy.mil/navydata/cno/Navy_Maritime_Domain_Awareness_Concept_FINAL_2007.pdf.

[11] The Coast Guard’s Polar Icebreaker Maintenance, Upgrade, and Acquisition Program. Department Of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, 2011, www.oig.dhs.gov/assets/Mgmt/OIG_11-31_Jan11.pdf.

[12] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf 26

[13] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 10

[14] United States Coast Guard High Latitude Region Mission Analysis Capstone Summary. ABS Consulting, 2010, assets.fiercemarkets.net/public/sites/govit/hlssummarycapstone.pdf. 12

[15] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 13

[16] Lavelle, Marianne. “Arctic Shipping Soars, Led by Russia and Lured by Energy.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 1 Dec. 2013, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/11/131129-arctic-shipping-soars-led-by-russia/.

[17] United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview. United States Coast Guard 2019 Budget Overview, Coast Guard Office of Budget and Programs, 2018. http://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/documents/budget/2019%20BIB_FINALw.pdf

[18] Labs, Eric. “The 2018 Outlook for Navy Shipbuilding.” Congressional Budget Office, 15 Jan. 2018, www.cbo.gov/publication/53446. 7

[19] H.R. 1625 – Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, 2018. www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1625/text?

[20] O’Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf. 37

[21] O’ Rourke, Ronald. Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service, 2017, fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL34391.pdf.19

[22] Judson, Jen. “The Icebreaker Gap.” The Agenda, 1 Sept. 2015, www.politico.com/agenda/story/2015/09/the-icebreaker-gap-000213.

Featured Image: 16 May 2003, Antarctica — Coast guard icebreaker travels through ice floes which have broker off sea ice edge in late summer, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica (Image by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis)