Tag Archives: Russia

The Mediterranean: Driving Russia’s Strategic Decisions Since 1676

Russia Topic Week

By Jason Chuma


The two major military actions conducted by Russia in the past two years are operations in eastern Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and interventions in the Syrian civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad starting in September 2015. These two interventions are normally discussed separately with separate strategic bases. Many view Russian operations in Ukraine to be in response to a perceived threat from NATO expansion eastward with the inclusion of former USSR member states or Soviet Bloc countries in 1999, 2004, and 2009. Intervention in Syria can be seen as a means of asserting great power influence in the Middle East, a region where the United States and the West is withdrawing influence.

These assessments of Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria are at least partially correct, but there is one common thread they both share which Russia has been fighting for since the first Russo-Turkish war in 1676. Tartus in Syria and Sevastopol in Crimea are warm water ports which provide direct Russian access to the Mediterranean or access via the Black Sea and the Dardanelles.

Warring for Maritime Access

Even before Peter the Great, access to the sea – and especially ports which are ice-free year round – have driven Russian strategic decisions. Russia fought twelve wars between 1676 and 1878, primarily against Turkey, to establish unrestricted access to the Black Sea and attempt to establish direct access to the eastern Mediterranean, enabling easy trade routes with southern Europe.

By 1812, Russia had secured access to the Black Sea, but direct access to the Mediterranean was still elusive. This was significant because transit from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean requires the use of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits, which was, and still is, under Turkish control.

Probably the closest Russia came to having unrestricted access from the mainland to the Mediterranean was during World War I. In the Constantinople Agreement, the United Kingdom and France agreed to give Russia control of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Dardanelles and Bosphorus straits in the event of a victory by the Entente. The October 1917 revolution and subsequent Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers removed them from the Entente and any hope of the Constantinople Agreement coming to fruition.

Russia's nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky navy sailors at Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus. © Grigoriy Sisoev / Sputnik
Russia’s nuclear-powered missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky navy sailors at Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus. (Grigoriy Sisoev/Sputnik)

Similar to the U.S. 6th Fleet, the Soviet Union maintained a sustained presence in the Mediterranean via the 5th Operational Squadron. A small continuous Russian presence in the Mediterranean has been made possible through an alliance with Syria. Russia has maintained a naval presence in Tartus, Syria, since 1971, and managed to maintain that presence following the fall of the Soviet Union due to a deal that absolved Syria’s debts to the Soviet Union.

This naval presence in Tartus is extremely important to Russia because though multiple NATO members have direct access to the Mediterranean, Russia does not share this luxury. She is dependent on Turkey, a NATO member, for the use of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to access the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. Maintaining a friendly regime in power through President Bashar al-Assad is key to maintaining a continuous Russian presence in the Mediterranean.


The naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea was founded in 1783 by the Russian Empire. It was transferred to Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union, in 1978. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia set up a 20-year lease with Ukraine to maintain the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol and Crimea are of key strategic value to Russia. It served as a staging ground for blockades and amphibious landings during Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008. Russia chose to annex Crimea in 2014 and ensure uninhibited access to the naval base at Sevastopol. By contrast, Russia did not annex Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two Georgian republics allied with Russia but not containing Russian naval bases.

A map depicting Sevastopol, the Dardanelles Straits, and the Eastern Mediterranean. (ogj.com)

Sevastopol and Tartus are key strategic bases for Russia. Russia, as a predominately continental power, has always had the challenge of not having great coastal access, particularly in the Mediterranean. The ability to operate beyond its own coastal waters is enshrined in Russia’s maritime strategy, Maritime Doctrine for the Russian Federation 2020. The strategy describes “naval presence of the Russian Federation in the oceans…display[ing] the flag and military forces,” and “in the Mediterranean Sea…sufficient naval presence of the Russian Federation in the region.”


Even if securing naval bases is not Russia’s only motivation in Crimea and Syria, it must at least be part of its strategic calculus. Russia has clearly demonstrated that restoring a strong naval presence is a national priority, and the Mediterranean has been a key maritime hub for western civilization for all of written history. Ensuring continued access to the Mediterranean for the Russian Navy must be at the forefront of any strategic thinking in the region.

LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer currently serving as Navigator and Operations Officer onboard USS SPRINGFIELD (SSN 761). He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Warships of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet (Stringer / Reuters)

The Tsarist Presidency

Russia Topic Week

By Steven Swingler


Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been much interest and debate about what exactly is the political system in Russia. Officially, the country is a constitutional presidential federal state patterned off of the U.S. More cynical analysts and commentators will say that Russia is a dictatorship. In reality, the political system in Russia represents that of a Prussian constitutional system with the president serving the role of monarch and chancellor.

Supreme Powers

Russia’s president resembles a monarch in many ways. First, the president is not a member of the executive branch, but instead exists as more a protector of the Russian State and its people. The present Russian constitution evolved from the chaos of the 1990s in response to pressure from the west to adopt a more western style of government. The Russians agreed to these ideas to secure loans from the IMF, World Bank, and Western financial institutions as the economy was in shambles, and there was a huge need for capital to develop the nascent market economy. The new government was set up to resemble western democracies with a bicameral legislature, executive, and judicial branches. However, much greater powers were given to the executive branch. As article 80 of the Russian constitution states,

“The President of the Russian Federation shall be guarantor of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen. According to the rules fixed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation, he shall adopt measures to protect the sovereignty of the Russian Federation, its independence and state integrity, ensure coordinated functioning and interaction of all the bodies of state power.”

The Russian constitution also states that the president is also given full control of the nation’s foreign policy (articles 80,86), has the ability to dissolve the legislature, the State Duma (article 84), is the sole commander of the Armed Forces (article 87), is given the ability to strike down laws that run contrary to his duties in article 80 (article 85), and finally has full immunity from prosecution for actions during his presidency (article 91). Also, the president may issue Ukases (roughly equivalent to executive orders in the U.S., but the name is taken from the decrees of the Tsar) which have the force of law, provided they are found to not contradict the Russian constitution. Such an order is unlikely to be deemed unconstitutional as the Russian Supreme Court has not directly challenged the Russian executive branch, and in 1993, President Boris Yeltsin simply ignored the directives of the court.

Why is there enormous power concentrated in the office of the president? Russian political culture and recent history are a major reason.

Historically Authoritarian

Throughout Russian history, despite the seeming strength of differing ideologies and governments, there has always been a strong autocrat or leader who rules through personal charisma, strength, and patronage. The tradition of centralized power with a strong leader has been a theme throughout Russian history. From the time of Ivan the Terrible (Gronzy) through the enlightenment, to the political fluctuations of the 19th and early 20th centuries, from Lenin to Stalin and then the later communist party secretaries, there has always been a central figure that has existed to represent the Russian state on the world stage and guarantee order through any means necessary.

This demonstrates a strong tradition of centralized personal rule in Russian history. This reveals an aspect of Russian politics that is foreign to westerners in that it is very individual-centered. Political parties are not so much defined by their ideology as by their leader. For example, Putin defines United Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the LDPR, Gennady Zyuganov with the modern communist party, or even in the old Bolshevik party, Lenin and later Stalin all affected policy just as deeply as the official ideology. This person-centric foundation of Russian politics further reinforces the tendencies of personal authoritarian rule , because instead of serving an institution or an ideology, bureaucrats and politicians are tied to serving an individual.

These historical trends, combined with the circumstance of the late Soviet Union and the personality of Boris Yeltsin, shaped and defined the powerful modern Russian presidency.

The Death Throes of a Superpower

In the latter years of the Soviet Union, the USSR was plagued by the ineffective leadership of an ailing Leonid Breznhev, followed by his geriatric contemporaries, and finally the idealistic, but unrealistic and ineffectual Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s haphazard reforms and continued adherence to communist ideology did little to stem the economic hemorrhaging of the Soviet Union or improve the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens.

As a result, people began to abandon the USSR and communist party and embrace nationalism and capitalism. Boris Yeltsin was the foremost of these nationalistic and capitalistic leaders in the Russian Soviet Federative Republic (RSFR). In response to a coup by Communist hardliners in the KGB and army against Gorbachev in 1991, Boris Yeltsin gave a speech from a tank and ordered the armed forces to disperse. This action destroyed the political legitimacy of Gorbachev and cemented Yeltsin’s control of Russia. Yeltsin then went on to dissolve the Soviet Union and remove Gorbachev from power.

Boris Yeltsin speaks atop a tank during the attempted coup. (Reuters/ITAR-TASS)

In 1993, after two-and-a-half years of economic stagnation, the Supreme Soviet of Russia (the country’s legislature) and the nationalistic supporters of Alexander Rutskoy refused to ratify Yeltsin’s reforms. Yeltsin then attempted to dissolve the Supreme Soviet. The Supreme Soviet declared this action unconstitutional, voted to impeach Yeltsin, and proclaimed Alexander Rutskoy president with pro-Soviet paramilitaries barricading the legislature building. Yeltsin then used the majority vote he received on a non-binding referendum about confidence in his government as justification to declare the Supreme Soviet and Rutskoy “Fascist-Communist Revanchists” and had tanks and special forces shell and storm the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin’s moves lead to the subordination of the Legislature to the office of the president and resulted in the president being granted the power to disband the new Russian legislature, the State Duma, and to be sole commander of the Armed and Security Forces.

Putin’s Bold Moves

As the 1990s went on, Russia’s economic situation continually worsened, and there was a major war in Chechnya and a widespread terrorist threat in Russia itself. Boris Yeltsin had several heart attacks, and by the late 1990s his advisors and oligarchs essentially ran the country. On the last day of 1999, Putin was appointed President of the Russian Federation when Yeltsin resigned. He was then elected in an election in March of 2000. At that time, the Russian economy was in dire straits due to disastrous privatization, the 1998 financial crisis, and the subsequent collapse of the Ruble. Regional governors were increasingly ignoring the central government, oligarchs and Yeltsin’s close friends increasingly ran the country through an ailing figurehead president, the government was facing massive deficits, and Chechen rebels and radical islamists were running amok in the Caucasus and launching an escalating terrorist campaign. In short, Russia was in a time of crisis.

In his first term, Putin rapidly moved to stop the bleeding. When Chechen rebels and Islamists invaded the neighboring Russian subject of Dagestan, Putin reacted decisively. The offensive was beaten back and 80,000 Russian troops invaded Chechnya proper. They laid siege to the capital city of Grozny, flattening the city block by block with airpower and heavy artillery, then rooting out survivors with infantry and armor supported by massive fire support. Across Chechnya fighting was fierce and the Russians and Pro-Moscow Chechen Militia’s took no prisoners, and launched a campaign of state terror and suppression reminiscent of Stalinist times.

Russian troops on patrol ride atop an armoured vehicle through Grozny February 7. Russian officials flew to Chechnya to visit the shattered regional capital on Tuesday where the military has launched a "clean up"operation to kill those rebels still in hiding. WAW - RTR12QU
Russian troops on patrol ride atop an armored vehicle through Grozny (Reuters)

In the course of the two Chechen wars and resulting and ongoing insurgency, it is estimated that 200,000 Chechen civilians, 25,000 Russian troops, and roughly 30-40,000 Chechen fighters perished. But surprisingly, despite the large-scale slaughter and massive human rights violation, the Russian public was remarkably silent. In an independent survey of the Russian population during the middle of the Chechen war, the only objection that two-thirds of the population had was complaints about the number of Russian servicemen killed in relation to Chechens. Misgivings about human rights, the fate of the Chechens, or the growth of executive power barely cracked 15 percent. Generally speaking, this reveals major cultural and values differences between the majority of Russians and Americans and Western Europeans. Russians care less for human rights and constitutional protections but instead are more concerned with personal safety, economic well-being, and stability and order for the country. These values combined with the consensus amongst Russian elites that Russia must be an independent great power has lead Russia to resist the so-called “Washington consensus” and try to cobble together its own conception of political philosophy, global roles, and (unsuccessfully) ideology.


Flush with popular support from the successful conflict in Chechnya, the crushing of the oligarchs and cowing of most major political opposition, Putin then used all levers of power inherited from the Yeltsin years to implement a series of reforms.

Putin overhauled and consolidated the entire Russian legal and tax codes while reorganizing local and regional governments. To counteract the growing regional separatism of the Yeltsin Era, the subnational governments were consolidated into seven large federal districts directly overseen by Moscow. Additionally, almost every kind of administrative code and regulation was overhauled, including labor, public administration, criminal law, commercial, and civil law. Finally, in an effort to reduce the complexity and widespread tax evasion of income taxes in Russia, a flat tax rate of 13 percent was instituted.

While the reforms made great progress in increasing the growth of the Russian economy and generating political success for Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia Party, a large part was due to extremely high oil and gas prices and the massive revenues state-owned energy companies generate. In fact, a third of Russia’s GDP comes from the state-owned energy sector. The largest and most profitable corporations are mostly state-owned such as the extremely lucrative arms industry which accounts for 20 percent of Russia’s manufacturing jobs. The Russian government has also so far avoided constructing a large scale and efficient tax system and has been able to redistribute wealth to legitimatize the existing political order, both in social programs for the people, and allowing some government funds to “disappear” to buy off elites. 

As a result, not only is the Russian government not collecting a large amount of taxes from its citizens, but the majority of the economy and a large number of Russian workers are either directly or indirectly employed by the state. This gives Putin and United Russia a large constituency who are dependent on the regime for their economic livelihood and crowds out space in the Russian economy for strong and independent corporations or the rise of a middle class that could lead a viable liberal opposition.

Russia Export Treemap by Product (2014) from Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity
Russia Export Treemap by Product in 2014 (Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity)

In stabilizing the economic and political situation of the country, Putin continued his brand of brutal and direct but effective pragmatism. In the immediate aftermath of Yeltsin’s resignation, a significant portion of Yeltsin loyalists and oligarchs grew rich plundering state property. Putin moved against the oligarchs, refusing to appoint them to state positions, trying them for tax evasion, and trumped up charges which culminatedwith the Yukos affair. Yukos was an energy corporation lead by politician and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky that managed to control most of the former Soviet Union’s oil and gas production. The Russian government charged Yukos with massive tax evasion and antitrust violations and was subsequently broken up and absorbed into the Russian State Energy Company (GAZPROM, Газпром) and Rosneft.

Despite the disregard of private property and massive executive influence on the judiciary, Russian public opinion polls favored the move. In a poll taken at the time, 54 percent of the population viewed the arrest as positive, 29 percent were indifferent, and only 13 percent of the populace viewed it negatively

Much of these state owned corporations were re-nationalized and lucrative positions were given to loyal Putin supporters. The oligarchs that were allowed to keep their holdings had to demonstrate loyalty to the ruling party or else face confiscation and exile. In addition, because of the lack of a clearly defined and motivating ideology of the United Russia party, the government oftentimes engages in corruption to buy support and co-opt more opportunistic and less ideological political actors.

Another deliberate act of Putin has been co-opting the the Force block in Russian Politics or Silovik ( силовики). The Siloviks consisted of former and current members of the Armed Forces, Intelligence Service, Internal Security, and Law Enforcement. These men are seen to be apolitical and more focused on the national interest than ordinary politicians. In the aftermath of the ineffective Yeltsin government, large numbers of them were voted into office or appointed. These officials usually have a weaker commitment to democracy and are either personally loyal to Putin and serve as a non-democratic source of power and buttress for the regime. Oftentimes men such as these were given good positions in state-owned corporations or were informally allowed to engage in corrupt practices to further cement their loyalty to the regime.

Challenges to Stability

While Putin’s regime looks stable, there are several growing problems that could pose major problems to United Russia’s rule. Chief among them is the discovery and wide-scale exploitation of unconventional energy sources such as shale oil and intensified natural gas production that has created a large downward pressure on energy prices. In addition, these new sources of energy will allow Russia’s traditional European customers to move away from dependence upon Russian oil and avoid the possibility of “Energy Blackmail.” Given massive government revenues and GDP growth driven by the energy sector, this could undermine the economic and fiscal underpinnings of the Putin regime.

Second, while United Russia was able to win the recent Duma elections, there was widespread fraud and as a result, has triggered protests and greater unpopularity of the ruling United Russia party. While this is not a direct threat to the Putin regime, more coercion will have to be used to stay in power, which will harm Russia’s international standing and foreign investment, and by extension, the economic pillars of Putin’s rule.

The biggest future problem is what will happen after Vladimir Putin retires. United Russia could break apart after Putin’s death in Russia’ individual-centric political culture. Putin has also worked to create a cult of personality and his popularity with the masses is independent of United Russia’s. There is simply no one else inside United Russia that has both the popularity, legitimacy, and support of the military, security, and government institutions to take control of power after Putin.


The office of the president of the Russian Federation serves in a role similar to and has powers approaching that of the more Liberal reformist Czars of the late Imperial Period. Theirs is a historical tradition of a single person, centralized, personality-driven, and authoritarian rule that stretches back to the inception of the Russian state. While the president is not a supreme autocrat, Russian political history and Boris Yeltsin’s drive to consolidate power in the 1990s has created an extremely powerful presidency. Vladimir Putin used these powers to great effect in the early 2000s to stabilize the critical situation of Russia which further amplified the powers of the president. While the president does allow some form of elections and allows a parliament to exist (ironically named after the ineffectual Czarist-era Duma), the president controls the coercive levers of power and the lion’s share of the economy of the nation. In these ways, the modern Russian presidency and regime of Vladimir Putin exerts a level of control that is de facto close to the level of late 19th century Tsars.

Steven Swingler is a senior at Indiana University Bloomington and is pursuing his undergraduate degree in Political Science. Steven has studied abroad at the Moscow School of Higher Economics and at King’s College in London. He has interned at the Washington Office of U.S. Senator Dan Coats and the Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

Featured Image: Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin during the Russian presidential inauguration ceremony in 2012. (Reuters/Alexsey Druginyn)

The Ambitions and Challenges of Russia’s Naval Modernization Program

Russia Topic Week

By Steve Micallef


A lot has been said about Chinese naval modernization in recent years. However, China is not the only country that is currently investing in a modern naval force. Since 2011 Russia has been implementing its own naval modernization program. This comes after a period of neglect the as Russia Federal Navy (Russian Navy) is looking to build as many as a 100 new warships by 2020.

Sailing Under the Soviet Navy’s Shadow

At the end of the Cold War in 1991, the Soviet Navy consisted of about 1000 warships from the smallest patrol craft and missile boats to the large helicopter and cruise missile-caring carriers. Indeed, during the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had an important strategic role in a potential hot war with the west. Besides being in charge of one of the legs of the nuclear triad in the form of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the Navy was also expected to protect Soviet SSBNs, find and destroy Western SSBNs, and neutralize carrier groups. Where possible, the Navy was also expected to interrupt NATO sea lanes of communication and support ground forces in amphibious operations and other offensives.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy was dissolved and reformed into the modern Russian Navy. After 1991, limited funding was available and as time passed, capabilities decreased, platforms retired, and construction programs were cut. The situation grew so bleak that in the mid-90s it was reported that the Russian Navy was unable to mount more than 10 deterrence patrols per year. This decline continued until 2002 when no patrol was conducted at all. Russian naval aviation suffered similarly and is still suffering from a lack of trained aircrews. In 2009 former commander of the Northern Fleet Admiral Vyacheslav Popov (ret.) stated the Russian Navy would experience a sharp decline in capability by 2015 unless current shipbuilding plans are grown and new vessels introduced.

Soviet warships conduct an at-sea replenishment in July, 1985 (Soviet Navy)

This situation persisted even after Vladimir Putin came to power. Whilst he advocated and funded large modernization programs for the Army and Air Force, the Navy did not benefit much initially. This remained the case until August 2000, when the Oscar-class submarine Kursk sunk with all hands in a disaster. In a sense, the tragedy represented the decline of the Navy and was a wakeup call for the Putin administration. Lack of discipline, shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment; negligence, incompetence, and mismanagement were all blamed by the investigation for the loss of the submarine.

Since the unfortunate disaster, the Navy has enjoyed renewed attention and efforts have been made to modernize starting in the early 2000s and expected to run through the 2030s. Notwithstanding, the more pressing problem facing the Russian Navy today is shipbuilding capability and low build rate.

Aims and Objectives

The Russian Navy today is a very different force than its Soviet counterpart; this can be seen both in its structuring and its missions.

The biggest challenge that the modern Russian Navy faces is the fact that it has fewer ships. The size of the Navy has shrunk to a quarter of its predecessor. Additionally, the ships of the Navy are divided between the five fleets (Northern, Pacific, Black Sea, Baltic and Caspian fleets) which operate in areas that are geographically separate. It is easy to envisage that the Russian Navy today cannot hope to compete with the sortie rate or activity levels that the Soviet Navy maintained. Despite this, its mission has remained similar to the Soviet Navy. Today, the Russian Navy is still expected to carry out the tasks its predecessor did.

Firstly, the Russian Navy is still expected to maintain its deterrence patrols and the submarine-based part of the nuclear triad. Together with this, it must also provide protection for its SSBNs. During the Cold War, as missile range and accuracy increased, Soviet SSBNs did not venture further out at sea but instead stayed closer to home where they could be better protected by other naval assets. There is no reason to believe that this will change at least until more capable and silent submarines like the Borey-class become fully operational. It has been suggested that these boats might give Russia the capability to patrol the southern oceans, something that it has not done in 20 years.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the Russian Navy is expected to protect the Russian coastline. This means protecting from intrusions by any hostile power and making sure that Russia is not attacked from the sea. In this regard, the surface force has been particularly hard hit due to a number of shortcomings. Russia’s shipbuilding programs seem unable to meet the Navy’s demands. Beyond this, Russian shipyards are in need of modernization and rely heavily on foreign components for construction of Russian vessels. The sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukrainian Crisis have been particularly devastating both to the Navy and the shipbuilding industry. In particular, Ukraine has stopped selling ship engines to Russia, resulting in Russia having to find a substitute. The sanctions on Russia have also resulted in cuts to the Navy’s budget and orders for new ships.

Thirdly, the Russian Navy is a tool through which Moscow will project its power worldwide. Again, in this area, the Russian Navy is somewhat lacking. Beyond its ballistic missile submarines the Navy has very little in the way of long-range power projection. These include Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov,  Tu-95s patrol aircraft, and its forward naval base in Tartus, Syria. Deployments to the Atlantic and military adventurism off the coast of Syria are demonstrations of the Navy’s ability to project power. However, the Navy also recognizes that it is lacking in this department; various naval strategies since the 2000s have called for Russia to acquire between three to five aircraft carriers. Due to financial difficulties this order had to be cut to one.

These shortcomings have meant that Russia has had to adopt an A2/AD approach in naval matters in the face of overwhelming NATO sea power. This approach will continue into the foreseeable future, or at least until Russia can field a fleet that can impose sea control. The Navy’s insistence on submarines (with many labeling the Russian Navy as a ‘Submarine Navy’) and long-range missiles is the manifestation of this A2/AD approach. Needless to say, today we are witnessing the return of Russia’s ‘bastion’ mentality where certain maritime areas are a no go zone for any hostile force, yet Russian forces are unlikely to project power beyond such ‘bastions.’

Despite the fact that the Navy has to cover various regions (Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian Sea, Indian Ocean as well as the Antarctic), two areas in particular have seen more focus than the others, the Atlantic and Arctic regions. The Atlantic is seen as a potential battleground due to NATO expansion and renewed tensions with the West, whilst the Arctic is seen as a vital strategic region due to its untapped economic/resource value and its free access to both the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Shipbuilding Programs

Russian naval modernization has followed two main paths: extensively upgrading existing platforms and building new ones. Many of the old soviet-era platforms have been retired and those left in service have been extensively retrofitted to prolong their service lives. Despite tough economic times Russia has also managed to commission a number of new platforms. The main driving force behind these programs seems to be avoiding a situation where the Russian Navy would shrink to insignificance in the 2020s.

The Kirov-class battlecruisers are an embodiment of this philosophy. Of the four nuclear battlecruisers constructed for the Soviet Union, two had to be scrapped because they fell into disrepair and were beyond saving, one is in active service (the Pyotr Velikiy) and the other (Admiral Nakhimov) is undergoing an extensive refit which includes upgrading anti-ship and anti-air weaponry before returning to the fleet in 2018. The Pyotr Velikiy will also be refitted and both battlecruisers are expected to be in service into the early 2020s. The aim is to prolong the service life of both ships until their replacement is in service.

The expected replacement for the Kirov­-class is the 18,000 ton Project 23560E Shkval  Lider-class (Leader-class in English). Equipped with the S-500 air defense system and P-800 supersonic anti-ship missiles it is envisioned to carry around 200 missiles of different types. The ship will likely be nuclear powered and will carry helicopters for anti-submarine operations. The propulsion system installed in the Lider-class will likely be used in prospective Russian aircraft carrier designs. Despite the unveiling of the project in July 2016, there are still doubts whether Russia is able to actually construct such a ship. The first ship is expected to be laid down in 2019 at the Severnaya Verf Shipyard in Saint Petersburg. A more conventional destroyer design, the Project 21956, is also under consideration to compliment the development of the Lider-class.

A concept model of the Lider-class destroyer.

The Russian Navy also has two new classes of frigate under construction, the Admiral Gorshkov-class (Project 22350) and the Admiral Grigorovich-class (Project 11356M). Both are intended to directly replace existing Soviet-era Sovremennyy-class destroyers and Krivak-class frigates in service with all Russian fleets and are equipped with the P-800 Oniks anti-ship missile system. However, construction has been particularly slow even by Russian standards; since 2006 only two Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates have reached the fleet and are still undergoing sea trials. Construction of the Admiral Grigorovich-class (started in 2014) fared somewhat better with two ships in active service and one in sea trials. The Russians also signed a contract with the Indian Navy for four Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates. However, both classes have been particularly hard hit by the crisis in Ukraine as the engines are imported from Zorya-Mashproekt in Ukraine. Russia is trying to find an indigenous replacement, but currently all ships under construction remain without engines.

The Russian Navy is also acquiring a number of corvettes. The Buyan-class which come in two variants (Project 21630 and 21631, one armed with missiles and one not) for service with the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla, and Steregushchiy-class, Gremyashchiy-class and the Karakurt-class corvettes. The Steregushchiy-class (Project 2038.0) was developed for littoral combat, the Gremyashchiy-class (Project 2038.5) are a larger variant with more endurance for longer missions. However, development of the Gremyashchiy-class was stopped after just two ships since the design depends on German engines, which Germany is now refusing to export in the wake of recent events. Instead, Russia has ordered more Steregushchiy-class corvettes of which it has six in service and five under construction. The Karakurt-class (Project 22800) is a blue water-capable design laid down in 2015 and four are under construction. They will be armed with P-800 medium-range anti-ship missiles and Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles. The first unit will be commissioned in 2017.

For power projection purposes the Russian Navy is also looking to acquire aircraft carriers and amphibious ships (LHD). Information is scarce on both projects. Currently the Russian Navy operates no LHDs. Its plans to acquire two Mistral-class LHDs from France fell through due to the conflict in Ukraine, and Russia is expected to start construction on an indigenous design before 2020. Plans for the construction of a large aircraft carrier were also unveiled in May 2015. The Project 23000E is a nuclear powered 100,000-ton carrier similar to the supercarriers currently in service with the U.S. Navy. However, it is still unclear whether financial considerations and shipbuilding capabilities will allow Russia to commission such a ship. Already, the number of envisioned aircraft carriers has been subsequently cut from one naval strategy to the next. At any rate, it will take Russia around ten years to build a new carrier and construction would start in 2025 at the earliest. Russia will still have to address its shortage of naval aviators.

Things are progressing somewhat better on the submarine front. Russia has focused its efforts on two new classes of submarines, the Borey-class (Project 955) and the Yasen-class (Project 885). The Borey-class are SSBNs intended to replace the Delta III, Delta IV and Typhoon classes currently in active service. Russia currently has four Borey-class submarines in active service and seven in various stages of construction. Initial tests of the new SLBMs, the RSM-56 Bulava, were met with failure: 5 failures in 11 tests. The failures here were attributed to poor quality control and materials which resulted in delays in attaining operational capability. The first unit of the class deployed in 2014.

Lead ship Severodvinsk of the Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines. (Northern Fleet Press Service)

The Yasen-class attack submarines are intended to replace the Soviet-era Akula and Oscar classes. According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, these boats are the quietest submarines ever put into service by Russia, although not as quiet as contemporary U.S. Navy Seawolf and Virginia class subs. Despite this, they represent a giant leap in capability for the Russian Navy. Construction on the first unit of the class began in 1993 and was only completed in 2010 due to financial problems. The class is armed with torpedoes, long range anti-ship and anti-submarine missiles, and cruise missiles. The second unit of the class is estimated to cost US$3.5 billion making it one of the most expensive attack submarines ever commissioned. The high costs of each submarine has raised speculation that Russia might look for smaller, less well-armed alternatives in a bid to get more boats into service and drive costs down.


The Russian naval modernization program aims to transform the Russian Navy from a Cold War-era fleet into a modern 21st century navy able to project Russian power abroad and defend the Russian coast. On paper the fleet that Russia is constructing seems formidable. However, there are still doubts whether Russia will be able to actually acquire all these new platforms in sufficient numbers. The reality is that Russia is operating in an unfavorable fiscal environment. Additionally, there are serious concerns whether the Russian shipbuilding industry can deliver in its current state, both with regards to the production of indigenous components for designs and the capacity to produce large ships. Unless these key deficits are addressed Russian naval ambitions will remain on paper.

Steve Micallef graduated from the University of Malta with a B.A. (Hons) in International Relations in 2015. He also holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He currently works at Bugeja Geopolitical Consulting, Malta.

Featured Image: May 23, 2012, Gren LST “Ivan Gren” at the Yantar Baltic Shipyard  (TASS)

Russia’s Self-Inflicted Security Dilemma

Russia Topic Week

By Corentin Laguerre

Russia’s latest military doctrine, published in January 2015, has generated a great amount of discussion, especially because it named NATO as the primary security threat faced by the Russian Federation. If NATO has always been considered as a potential threat by Russia, this document is different in tone. Indeed, NATO is identified as a “fundamental external threat” and global rivalry is considered as the key driver of international politics, rather than international cooperation as it was the case in the past.1 Despite its original objective to counter the USSR, little in NATO policy or strategy can be seen as directly threatening Russia.2 In regards to the Ukrainian conflict and to the increasing tension between NATO and Russia, in order to avoid further escalation or a “New Cold War”, it is necessary to understand why Russia’s hostility toward NATO has increased since the 90s. Our hypothesis is that Russia is hostile to NATO because of its vision of international relations as a zero-sum game. This view makes the Alliance and its military capabilities threatening to Russia’s security and status. Moreover, this vision is reinforced by Russia’s return to its -Cold war mythology and a will to defend its traditional values against those represented by NATO. Finally, combined together these elements are pushing Moscow to balance NATO’s power in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, thus increasing the phenomenon of security dilemma by pushing the Alliance to take steps to reassure its members, which reinforces Russia’s hostility. In a first part, the article will explore the origins of Russia’s threat perception of NATO, then it will argue that the deeper reason of Russia’s hostility is a difference of values, and finally, it will present the consequences of this hostility in the light of Stephen Walt’s balance of threat theory.            

NATO as a Threat Source

The Russian Federation has always been skeptical about the objectives of the Alliance and the possibility to cooperate with it, even if they both share common interests. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, Russia believes that its security environment has worsened due to an unstable neighbourhood, the expansion of NATO, and the Alliance’s missile defense program.            
This skepticism comes from the fact that Russia follows the principles of realpolitik, considers that the use of force is still present in international affairs and that international relations are a zero-sum game. Thus, Moscow focuses on military capabilities, and any state or organization that possesses substantial military potential can become a threat, marking a return to the Cold War view of the world.3

The primary security concern with NATO is the missile defense system launched in 2016. Since the early phase of its development, Russia was concerned that it could undermine its strategic deterrent. Even if the system is not directed against Russia and can’t intercept missiles launched from its territory because Russian ICBMs are too fast to be caught by the interceptors, Moscow is worried about what the system could become. Indeed, Valery Gerasimov, current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and first Deputy Defense Minister,  declared in 2012 that “’the concept of the BMD system being implemented is global by nature’ […] and that ‘such a configuration is a threat to the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent assets across [the] whole country.’” The missile defense system, combined with NATO conventional and special superiority, could undermine the Russian deterrent if the system was directed against it in the future.4

DEVESELU, Romania (May 12, 2016) The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Romania is officially certified May 12, 2016. Aegis Ashore, a critical part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, is a land-based capability of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, constructed to defend against missile threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean Spratt/Released)
DEVESELU, Romania (May 12, 2016) The Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System Romania is officially certified May 12, 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean Spratt/Released)

The second source of concern has to do with the nature of NATO governments and colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. These revolutions were perceived as threatening Russia because in Georgia and Ukraine, they led to the election of presidents who favored their countries joining NATO. Moscow blamed NATO governments for backing the opposition and trying to take advantage of the 2007-2008 electoral cycle to bring similar changes to Russia. In the eyes of the Russian regime, these revolutions put the stability of the region at risk, menaced to reduce Russian influence, and enhanced the danger of NATO enlargement.5 This last point has always been a source of tension for Russia, so these revolutions did little to reassure Russia about NATO’s intentions and to reduce Russia’s hostility.

Indeed, NATO enlargement was seen as breaking the assurances given by U.S Secretary of State James Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev at the time of German reunification.6 Consequently, since its first phase, NATO enlargement was perceived negatively by Russians inasmuch as they tended to conclude that it demonstrated Western countries’ will to take advantage of Russia’s weaknesses after the collapse of the Soviet Union.7 Moreover, they feared a potential deployment of U.S. forces in the Baltic States that would threaten Russia’s borders.8

However, NATO seems to be an indirect threat to Russian security. Rather, it represents a threat to Russia’s status. Alliance enlargement is a security threat inasmuch as in the Russian perspective, what threatens the status quo also threatens their security. Indeed, since the beginning of its enlargement, it seems that the Russians were more concerned about the fact that the strengthening of NATO in the former Republics could prevent Russia from restoring its former world status.9 According to Russian elites, NATO enlargement “would lead to the diminution of the Federation’s influence in the world and worsen its geopolitical and geostrategic situation.”10 When the expansion began, Moscow feared that it was about to lose the last remnants of influence it had in Europe.11 Indeed, the Russians lost the Warsaw Pact, Ukraine, and Georgia that were the cornerstone of their regional hegemony and power status. The prospect of losing those countries to NATO affected Russia’s self-image and reinforced its feeling of isolation. Besides, with their perception of reality in terms of spheres of influence and geopolitics as a zero-sum game, the addition of former Soviet states to NATO is seen as an aggression and the intent of NATO to keep Russia to the status of an inferior actor.12

In addition, Russia’s anxiety about NATO expansion, despite the Alliance’s claims that it would stabilize the region and favor a more secure environment, certainly comes from the fact that the country felt excluded and isolated by Western powers.13 A sentiment that later reinforced Moscow’s perception that relations with NATO during the 1990s and early 2000s involved humiliating experiences from the two phases of NATO enlargement in 1999 and in 2004 to the colored revolutions and the missile defense system.14 Added to the intervention in Kosovo, considered as another humiliating move by NATO since it had been done without Russia’s blessing, Moscow feels that the Alliance tends to act on its own without consideration for the principles established by the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act.15

A map depicting NATO enlargement (Wikimedia Commons)

A first explanation for Russia’s hostility is the dynamic of security dilemma. Russia is hostile to NATO because it can become a threat to the Federation’s security and status. NATO enlargement, out-of-area orientation, and missile defense program are worrying Russia because they can reduce its influence in its neighborhood. However, these fears are a consequence of Russia’s political and strategic culture.

Opposed Values and Culture   

Russia’s anxiety can also be explained by major differences in strategic cultures that shape threat perception and responses to security challenges. Indeed, Russia still views security in terms of geography and realpolitik. Thus, Moscow is worried about the influence of external actors in what they consider to be Russia’s security space and views international relations in zero-sum terms. In going back to a Cold War mindset, Russia seems to be worried about its bordering regions, regions it sought to dominate for centuries. This vision of international relations prevents it from engaging in full cooperation with other players and makes the country uneasy about the presence of other major powers in its traditional sphere of influence.

In this context, most Russian leaders believe that the most effective strategy for managing relations with other international players is through competition. In their view, NATO represents not only a major player in the region, but also a concurrent vision of international relations stressing the de-territorialized nature of security challenges and a coexistence of diverse strategic cultures that Moscow finds confusing.16 Indeed, Russia and NATO promote two different models of government and have two different visions for the security in Europe This ideological competition takes the form of two visions of European security, a NATO-centric model aiming to make the behavior of Eastern European countries more predictable and to ensure democratic governance, and a model where NATO is assigned to the OSCE, the key security organisation in Europe. When Moscow grew disappointed with the OSCE, the EU became the pillar of Russia’s model. However, the EU was difficult to deal with and Moscow decided to establish a three pillars model where Russia, the EU and NATO were the balancing powers.17

Additionally, Hannah Smith argues that the rivalry between Russia and NATO can be traced back to the 19th century when there was political rivalry between more liberal (France and the United-Kingdom) and more conservative (Germany, Russia, and the Austria-Hungary) countries. They did not share the same views in terms of human rights and acceptable forms of government, and clashed over imperial rivalries and economic interests. Russia’s hostility toward NATO can be explained by this great power rivalry as Moscow perceives the state identity supported by NATO as a danger to its power elite in the same way that the French Revolution or British liberalism threatened the power of the tsars. Furthermore, the norms of government and societies shared by NATO members do not fit with Russia’s perception of its traditional forms of identity.18 

This imperial past can be observed today with Putin’s speeches about Novorossiya and the return to Crimea to its “native shores.” Moreover, since the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow is reaffirming the need for Russia to establish a democracy and a foreign policy that is consistent with Russia’s traditions, culture, and morale values that are contrasted with “the decadence of the West.”19 This animosity is intensified by the fact that Russia lost its empire with the fall of the Soviet Union and witnessed the survival, increasing popularity, and expansion of NATO. As the latter represents and supports a political and economic system that is alien to Russia’s political legacy, it is seen as a threat to a country that has lost its great power status.20

Fueled hostility With Dangerous Consequences            

NATO never stated that its actions were directed against Russia, the threats perceived by Russia is primarily psychological and self-imposed. However, unlikely as a hostile NATO appears, Russia’s apprehensions and return to Cold War thinking have severe consequences since the election of President Vladimir Putin. Since then, Russia is following what Stephen Walt has called the “balance of threat theory.” According to it, “state behavior is determined by the threat perceived by other states or alliances” and it balances against other states that are perceived as a threat.21 Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and involvement in Ukraine in 2014 are examples of this balancing. Indeed, as explained above, Moscow perceives all defense measures taken by NATO as vital threats. Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, involvement in Eastern Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea are ways to balance the perceived threat posed by NATO. Indeed, in the case of Ukraine, Russia’s objective is not to reconquer the country, but to make sure that the regime instituted and sustained in Ukraine will represent no harm to Russia’s interests and that the situation is sufficiently unstable to prevent its accession to NATO.22

The problem is that balancing threats exacerbates the dynamics of the security dilemma and makes the perceived threats real.23 Ukraine is a good example of this. Indeed, when Russia tried to balance the threat it thinks NATO represents, Russia increased the threat it poses to its neighbors, thus making NATO cease all cooperation and deploy troops to the Baltic States, a step Russia feared at the beginning of NATO expansion.24

Today, it seems that without a change of political system and culture, Russia is unlikely to see NATO as an entity with which it can cooperate, but that does not means that the Alliance should ‘play Russia’s game’ by ignoring Moscow’s view. This would only continue the escalation of tensions. Of course, NATO shouldn’t cease all its projects to reassure Russia, but the Alliance shouldn’t minimize Russia’s fear of isolation from and destabilization by Western powers. In order to do so, when they have to deal with Russia’s neighbors, NATO and Western powers should accept and state clearly that it will respect the sovereign decisions of non-members in how they politically order their societies and do not pledge to attempt to change the system of government of other states.25       


Russia’s hostility toward NATO seems to be due to two sets of reasons. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia sees NATO as a threat not only for its security because of NATO expansion and missile defense system, but also for its desire for great power status because NATO expansion reduced Russia’s influence in the region and promulgated political and strategic values in contention with its own. In regards to the security dilemma, Moscow feared that NATO would try to use colored revolutions to bring democratic change in the country, deploy U.S. troops on its borders, isolate Russia, and thus prevent it from supporting its own allies in the region. However, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NATO tried to reassure Russia about its missile defense program and expansion.26 It seems clear that NATO does not pose a direct threat to Russia, but that Moscow’s hostility is due to the different values the Alliance represent and the perceived insensitivity for the Federation’s fears. Indeed, since his first election as President, Putin reaffirmed the need for Russia to defend Russia’s traditional values and norms, which are, in his mind incompatible with those defended by NATO members. It seems that Russia’s hostility is more psychological and reflects a deep sense of political insecurity and vulnerability that fuels its efforts to balance NATO. Thus, it makes Russia’s perceived insecurity become real, and reinforces its own hostility and the dynamics of the security dilemma in Europe.27

Corentin Laguerre has a M.A. in War Studies from King’s College London. 


1. Hanna Smith, “Russian Threat Perceptions: Shadows of the Imperial Past”, War on the Rocks (2015), online

2. Col. Robert E. Hamilton, “Georgia’s NATO Aspirations: Rhetoric and Reality”, FPRI (2016), online

3. Stephen Blank, “Threats to and from Russia: An Assessment”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies 21:3 (2008), 499

4. Roberto Zadra, “NATO, Russia and Missile Defence”, Survival 56:4 (2014), 53-54

5. Peter J.S. Duncan, “Russia, the West and the 2007-2008 Electoral Cycle”, Europe-Asia Studies 65:1 (2013), 2-3, 9

6. Idem., 16

7. Sharyl Cross, “NATO-Russia Security Challenges in the Aftermath of Ukraine Conflict”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 15:2 (2015), 154

8. Leonid A. Karabeshkin & Dina R. Spechler, “EU and NATO Enlargement”, European Security 16:3 (2007), 314-315

9. Aurel Braun, “NATO and Russia: Post-Georgia Threat Perceptions”, Russie.Nei.Visions 40, Ifri (2009), online, 10-11

10. Leonid A. Karabeshkin & Dina R. Spechler, “EU and NATO Enlargement”, European Security 16:3 (2007), 314

11. Dmitry Polikanov Director, “NATO-Russia Relations: Present and Future”, Contemporary Security Policy 25:3 (2004), 480

12. Arthur R. Rachwald, “A ‘reset’ of NATO-Russia relations: real or imaginary?”, European Security 20:1 (2011), 118-119

13. Dmitry Polikanov Director, “NATO-Russia Relations: Present and Future”, Contemporary Security Policy 25:3 (2004), 480

14. Oksana Antonenko & Bastian Giegerich, “Rebooting NATO-Russia Relations”, Survival 51:2 (2009),

15. Dmitry Polikanov Director, “NATO-Russia Relations: Present and Future”, Contemporary Security Policy 25:3 (2004), 481

16. Oksana Antonenko & Bastian Giegerich, “Rebooting NATO-Russia Relations”, Survival 51:2 (2009), 15-16

17. Dmitry Polikanov Director, “NATO-Russia Relations: Present and Future”, Contemporary Security Policy 25:3 (2004), 482

18. Hanna Smith, “Russian Threat Perceptions: Shadows of the Imperial Past”, War on the Rocks (2015), online

19. Sharyl Cross, “NATO-Russia Security Challenges in the Aftermath of Ukraine Conflict”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 15:2 (2015), 158-159, 161

20. Arthur R. Rachwald, “A ‘reset’ of NATO-Russia relations: real or imaginary?”, European Security 20:1 (2011), 117, 120

21. Andreas M. Bock, Ingo Henneberg & Friedrich Plank, “If you compress the spring, it will snap hard: The Ukrainian crisis and the balance of threat theory”, International Journal 70:1 (2015), 102-103

22. Idem, 102-103

23. Idem, 103

24. Tuomas Forsberg & Graeme Herd, “Russia and NATO: From Windows of Opportunities to Closed Doors”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies 23:1 (2015), 52

25. Col. Robert E. Hamilton, “Georgia’s NATO Aspirations: Rhetoric and Reality”, FPRI (2016), online

26. Idem.

27. Arthur R. Rachwald, “A ‘reset’ of NATO-Russia relations: real or imaginary?”, European Security 20:1 (2011), 125 & Andreas M. Bock, Ingo Henneberg & Friedrich Plank, “If you compress the spring, it will snap hard: The Ukrainian crisis and the balance of threat theory”, International Journal 70:1

Featured Image: Luxembourg’s armed vehicles during Iron Sword 2016 in Lithuania. (NATO)