Tag Archives: Russia

Russia’s Rusting Task Force

Much has been made in the media of the Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean. With tensions rising over the Syrian conflict, the notion that Russian forces are staring down their American and British counterparts at sea fits the popular narrative of mutual antagonism. But is the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean task force all that unusual? Does it present a challenge or even a threat to the United States’ interests in the region, as some reports would suggest?

First of all, it is important to note that a Russian naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean is not unprecedented. From 1967 until its collapse, the Soviet Union maintained a task force of considerable size in the region, consisting of some 30 warships and an undetermined number of additional support vessels. Furthermore, Russia’s naval facility in Tartus, Syria was established in 1971, regularly providing repairs and maintenance for Soviet and later Russian ships.

Udaloy-class Russian Destroyer
Udaloy-class Russian Destroyer

In contrast, the Russian presence newly formed in the eastern Mediterranean is quite limited in its size and capabilities. The task force currently consists of twelve vessels: two destroyers, one frigate, two amphibious assault ships, three salvage tugs, a repair ship, and three re-fueling tankers. The long-term presence envisioned by the Russian defence ministry consists of no more than ten vessels. This is a dramatically reduced presence to the one put forward by the Soviet Union. The Priazovye, a reconnaissance ship deployed to the eastern Mediterranean by the Russian Navy in September 2013, will operate separately from the existing task force and is intended only for the short-term surveillance of the situation in Syria.

Despite the relatively small size of the Mediterranean task force, the Russian Navy reportedly struggled to find the resources to deploy a task force at all. When the United States Navy has deployed task forces on various operations, the vessels employed are usually drawn from the same fleet. But the Russian Navy’s Mediterranean task force is drawn from four of the country’s five fleets: Baltic, Northern, Black Sea, and Pacific. Only the Caspian Flotilla – a small contingent itself – did not contribute to the Mediterranean force. Had the Russian Navy followed the American practice of drawing from a single fleet, it would have left one of its fleets dangerously under-strength. This is a testament to how limited Russia’s naval capabilities have become in recent years.

Ropucha Class large landing craft.
Ropucha Class large landing craft.

Another important point regarding the Mediterranean task force is how dated some of the vessels are. The two Ropucha-class landing ships provided by the Baltic Fleet were originally commissioned for the Soviet Navy in 1975. An ambitious procurement project, intended to replace some of the aging Ropucha-class vessels with several of France’s Mistral-class amphibious assault ships, had its launch recently postponed until 2016. If the project eventually comes to fruition, the Mistral-class ships will be deployed with the Pacific Fleet. In short, while the technology in the eastern Mediterranean task force is seriously behind the times, there are no substantive plans on the part of Russian policymakers to update the force.

Rather than seeking to intimidate ‘the West’, the deployment of the eastern Mediterranean task force seems to be more a gesture for domestic audiences in Russia. In 2011, the authorities released some highly optimistic plans for the expansion and modernization of the Russian Navy, envisioning almost a complete overhaul of this military branch by 2020. The implementation of these plans has been lacklustre thus far, as demonstrated by the aforementioned difficulties with only the partial replacement of the Ropucha-class landing ships. The formation of a new task force allows Russian policymakers to feign progress on this front and assert that Russia is reclaiming ‘past glories’, deflecting criticism from the government’s procurement problems. But this fresh coat of paint won’t long conceal all that rust. A more realistic plan for the development of the Russian Navy is desperately needed.

This was originally published 12 SEP 13 at the Atlantic Council of Canada.

Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities in both Canada and Estonia, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. His research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Assad’s Deadman Switch

Russia has saved the world from loose WMD before; in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia arranged the Lisbon Protocols with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to systematically destroy or return massive nuclear stockpiles. If only Syria had the stability of post-Soviet chaos. If the Syrian “Lisbon Protocol” fails and the regime collapses, the presence of WMD is a guarantor of intervention, most likely by the US.

Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let's say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.
Yeah, these are some nice WMD. It would be a shame if, let’s say, my guards disappeared and someone stole them.

The Russian arrangement is not yet official and may be Assad’s play for time. The chemical weapons are potentially more powerful against the US than rebels. Likely, a reality causing Secretaries Kerry and Hagel to eschew the term “regime change” is that the danger of Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) to the US increases as Assad teeters. Though rightfully loathed, Assad and his men secure their CW and have so far resisted handing party favors to associates.

As the regime crumbles, CW facilities may find themselves overwhelmed or guards shifted to critical fronts, doors open to terrorists or unscrupulous brokers.  Though some argue we do not have a dog in Syria’s fight, a whole henhouse is under threat if those dogs break loose. There are only three likely solutions if a Russian deal fails:

  1. "Kill yourself" is my final offer.
    This can work for both of us. “Kill yourself,” is my final offer.
    Can you work with, "Go to hell"?
    We understand your position. Meet us halfway at, “die and go to hell.”

    Political Agreement: If only all parties could agree to a two-part plan to stop murdering one another and share power. Guards stay on post, conflict ends, and world moves on after the noble work of aiding refugees. The rump of Assad’s regime keeps its pulse and constant pressure to the switch. Unfortunately, with parties whose non-negotiable point is that the opponent “die”, and multiple Al-Qaeda (AQ) militias, this seems nigh impossible.

  2. Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have machiavelli and a hand cannon?
    Who needs norms, human rights, or excuses when you have Machiavelli and a hand cannon?

    Russian Military Operations: Russia is a big fan of Syria. Russia has a naval presence in the country and a large portion legitimacy and energy policy invested in the management of the regime. Russia would like to keep Syria’s CW from groups connected to their own domestic extremistss. Most cynically, with very public domestic problems, military operations to save the world from CW seem a likely move for President Putin. In the words of Orwell, “War is Peace.”

    Russia has particular advantages in their contact with Assad’s regime. They likely could access exact locations for the regime’s CW in a pinch. The world has no high standard for Russian intervention, so a sting operation to grab or destroy the vast stores of CW without any follow-on reconstruction would not be shocking to the global community. This also serves as a guise for direct military support for regime survival.

    That said, Russia has managed the Syria narrative well and knows the US could not abide Assad’s weapons falling to extremists. Russia has enjoyed the umbrella of security provided by primarily US operations against extremists in the Middle East and likely has no desire to get bogged down or gain unwanted attentions. Russia is still just “a” rather than “the” “Great Satan.” It would likely leave the mess to the final and least pleasant option:

  1. It's getting very... VERY old.
    It’s getting very… VERY old.

    American Intervention: In a conflict with too many “thems” and not enough “us’s”, the fog of Syria’s war is thick. Unfortunately, nothing is unclear about the peril of loose CW or the peril of a necessary US military response.

    Boots: The number and location of all weapon sites remains a mystery, requiring resources spent in the search phase of “seek and destroy” operations. The time or scale necessary also removes the critical element of surprise. A lengthy chain of smaller operations warns enemies to secure weapons at un-sanitized sites while they still can. A massive simultaneous operation would strain an already creaking military budget and drop the US fully into the war, leaving the US in control of large swaths of territory and people it  could not just leave to extremists.

    Strikes: Dead suffocated civilians, lack of verification, and PR for terrorists lies at the end of an aerial campaign. Though the US has invested in weapons that can neutralize chemical weapon stockpiles, most leave a large margin of error or have almost as toxic byproducts. The explicit refusal to consider striking Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles should be evidence enough of the unsavoriness of such an operation.

    Unfortunately, loose CW is not an option in a war-torn hellscape crawling with groups who have plotted against US interests and citizens for over two decades.

Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.
Ghost of Christmas Future! I fear you more than any spectre I have seen.

Though an embarrassing stolen march, the Russian deal is the US’s best chance is to avoid Syria. Nonetheless, US policymakers must plan for the worst while stumbling upon the best. The US must accept the real-world possibility of Assad’s collapse and subsequent unlocking of Pandora’s Chemical Box; many rightly desire to have nothing to do with the conflict, but while we may not be interested in Syria, Syria is very interested in us.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  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.

Unmanned Naval Helicopters Take Off in 2013

Manned (SH-60B) and unmanned (MQ-8B) helicopters working together on USS Halyburton (FFG 40)
Manned (SH-60B) and unmanned (MQ-8B) helicopters working together on USS Halyburton (FFG 40)

The carrier take-off and arrested landings of the U.S. Navy’s X-47B demonstrator have garnered significant press attention this year.  Less noticed however, is the rapid development of rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicles in the world’s navies.  Recent operational successes of Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout aboard U.S. Navy frigates have led to many countries recognizing the value of vertical take-off and landing UAVs for maritime use.

International navies see the versatility and cost savings that unmanned rotary wing platforms can bring to maritime operations.  Like their manned counter-parts, these UAVs conduct a variety of missions including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); cargo resupply/vertical replenishment; and in some future conflict will perform armed interdiction at sea.  However, unlike the two- or three-hour endurance of manned helicopter missions, some of these UAVs can fly 12-hour sorties or longer.  Other benefits include the ability for some models to land on smaller decks than manned aircraft, a much lower cost per flying hour, and importantly, limited risk to human aviators.  Several international VTOL UAV projects have been recently unveiled or are under development, many of them based on proven light manned helicopter designs.  Starting with a known helicopter design reduces cost and technical risks and allows navies to pilot the aircraft in no-fail situations involving human passengers such as medical evacuations.

Poland has two designs in the works, the optionally manned SW-4 SOLO and the smaller composite ILX-27, which will carry up to 300 kg in external armament.  In July, the Spanish Navy announced  a contract with Saab to deploy the Skeldar V-200 unmanned air system aboard its ships for counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

Russia’s Berkut Aero design bureau, in collaboration with the United Arab Emirate’s Adcom Systems have announced plans to develop an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) based on Russia’s two-seat coaxial Berkut VL helicopter.

One of Schiebel’s rapidly proliferating S-100s mysteriously crashed in al-Shabaab-held Southern Somalia earlier this year, but in a successful turn-around, Camcopter S-100 conducted at-sea trials with a Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic later this summer.

Back on the American front, in July, Northrop Grumman delivered the Navy’s first improved MQ-8C, a platform largely driven by U.S. Special Operations Command’s requirements for a longer endurance ship-launched aircraft capable of carrying heavier payloads including armament.  The Marine Corps’ operational experimentation in Afghanistan with two of Lockheed Martin/Kaman’s K-MAX unmanned cargo-resupply helicopters from 2011 until earlier this year was largely successful, but suspended in June when one of the aircraft crashed while delivering supplies to Camp Leatherneck in autonomous mode.  Because of this setback, Lockheed has improved K-MAX’s autonomous capabilities, and added a high-definition video feed to provide the operator greater situational awareness.  Kaman has also begun to market the aircraft to foreign buyers.  Finally, a Navy Research Laboratory platform, the SA-400 Jackal, took its first flight this summer.

There are minimal barriers to VTOL UAVs wider introduction into the world’s naval fleets over the next few years.  How much longer will it take for their numbers to exceed manned helicopters at sea?

This article was re-posted by permission from, and appeared in its original form at NavalDrones.com.

Cyprus: The Mediterranean Pivot

CyprusBy Chiara Proietti Silvestri

In recent years the Eastern Mediterranean has increased its international strategic importance following significant discoveries of hydrocarbons. In this region the recent offshore findings of natural gas are radically changing its geostrategic and economic status. But before achieving the ambitious objective of becoming a net exporter of energy, the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus in particular, must confront regional challenges and interests of the major powers in the area – be they economic, politico-strategic, or due to the required energy infrastructure.

Two years after the great discoveries of the Leviathan and Tamar fields off the Israeli coast in 2009, it was, in December 2011, Cyprus’ turn. The U.S. company Noble Energy reported an initial discovery of offshore gas in block 12 of Aphrodite, with an energy potential estimated at between 5-8 trillion cubic feet (140-230 billion cubic meters). Evidence suggests that this area is an extension of the Levant basin: it is still the subject of an initial exploratory phase, and these initial estimates are considered conservative, with the prospect of rising in the coming years. There is therefore a potential wealth for the island of enormous proportions. According to some experts, Cyprus could potentially be sitting on a goldmine of at least 60 trillion cubic feet (1.7 trillion cubic meters) of gas. Not considering the possibility of petroleum it could generate revenues of up to $400 billion once commercially exploited.

The declared objective of the government of Nicosia is to use the geo-strategic position of Cyprus, between Europe and the Middle East, to make the country a true energy hub, with a central role in commercial transit and in the provision of European energy. This is a perspective, however, that does not consider the tensions and several unresolved questions that could hinder the energy development of the island, essential in reviving an economy itself in deep crisis.

Cyprus oil concessionsFirst, the strong political destabilization resulting from the 1974 Turkish military invasion, which produced a de facto division of the island between the Turkish-Cypriot north and the Greek-Cypriot south. The discovery of energy resources in the southern part of Cyprus, as well as an absence of results from research conducted thus far into the offshore areas of the north, have added a new and relevant source of friction in relations between Nicosia and Ankara. The island’s peculiar political situation could therefore constitute a brake on the development of the country’s economy, capable of affecting decisions regarding investment by foreign companies, especially those who have strong interests in Turkey. The latter, in fact, threatened repercussions for those companies that intend to enter into agreements to exploit resources with the Cypriot government. Such is the case for Eni S.p.A. which has seen the suspension of all projects undertaken with Turkey, due to its exploration agreement signed with Nicosia in January. Ankara, in fact, maintains that such energy resources are located in international waters and that they should benefit all of the island’s inhabitants, and not only Greek-Cypriots. Turkish interests, profoundly connected to energy, therefore emerge. Furthermore, relations between Cyprus and Israel, in particular those relating to a possible project for the liquefaction of gas for export, feed the prospect of an energy partnership. This could provide an alternate route for transporting gas to Europe and Asia, obstructing the great Turkish mission to become a regional energy hub. According to several analysts, this prospect was one of the reasons behind the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, which enabled the former to maintain its centrality as the country of transit, and the latter to optimize conditions for its gas exports. While in the long-term the economic advantages of cooperation between Nicosia, Tel Aviv, Athens, and Ankara might be more convincing, in the short-term, energy pressures feed tensions in an already established hot spot.

It is probable that Turkey’s firm stance on the Cyprus question is one of the reasons behind the Russian decision not to accept the bailout plan hastily proposed by Nicosia in exchange for licenses for the exploitation of gas fields. To this must be added, among others, the European position and the special relationship between Berlin and Moscow, sealed by the agreement on the Nord Stream gas line, which might have suffered setbacks if Putin had decided to approve a bailout plan for a member country within the EU. Moscow’s position, then, is understandable when considering the multiplicity of interests that the country shares with other regional players, such as Germany, Greece, and Turkey: these can be safeguarded only by a strategy of ambiguous realpolitik. Although the issue of the Cypriot bailout has put pressure on the relationship between Nicosia and Moscow, it is difficult to imagine a rupture of relations between the two countries, instead of a redefinition in the interests that still bind them. Moscow, in fact, has long-standing ties with the island of Aphrodite, ranging from banking and finance to real estate and military strategy. There are strong suspicions, for example, regarding the role played by Cyprus in the trafficking of weapons from Russia to Damascus.

Brussels, for its part, seems determined to impose comprehensive change on the Cypriot business model and on its banking system, thus affecting its status as a tax haven for the offshore investments of Russian magnates. Discoveries of gas in the Cypriot Sea represent a great opportunity for Europe to diversify energy supplies, with respect to Russia’s dominant role. Cyprus’s economic problems, however, which have led to the forced levy on bank deposits, also herald strong domestic discontent: the EU should not exacerbate the economic situation because, as the multiple demonstrations on the island show, anti-European sentiment is particularly widespread among the population and could become a source of political instability. This could obstruct a possible solution to the conflict with Turkey, a central obstacle in Ankara’s access to Brussels.

The framework outlined above seems far from optimistic given that, at least in the short- to medium-term, the European controls on bank accounts, the withdrawal of Russian support, and Turkish pressure all clamp the island in a vice that will only increase internal malaise and aggravate the downturn in the national economy. A situation which seems as if it will not improve until exploitation of the energy resources of the Aphrodite gas field is at full capacity, something that might require several years.

On the contrary, within an extended timescale the need for cooperation between the main players involved only increases due to pressures deriving from the stabilization of the Cypriot economy and the gradual exploitation of the rich intra-European gas fields. Turkey has already signaled to this effect: conscious of its role as transit towards international markets, Ankara has proposed to Nicosia its help in the development of gas, as long as the benefits of such discoveries should, as noted previously, be shared by all the inhabitants of the island. In conclusion, one aspect is more certain than others: without a resolution of the dispute over sovereignty of the island, an issue that has dragged on for 40 years now, eventual regional cooperation seems difficult to envisage.

Chiara holds the position of Junior Analyst in the energy consulting firm RIE (Industrial Research and Energy) of Bologna and collaborates with Energy Magazine. She holds a degree in International and Diplomatic Sciences from the University of Bologna (Forlì campus). Her interests mainly relate to energy issues, including energy policies in the Middle East, nuclear energy, and the processes of public debate and consensus. You can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@ orienta_giovani).

This article was cross-posted by permission and appeared in its original form at TheRiskyShift.com.