Category Archives: Europe

MILEX 23 and the Future of European Naval Ambitions

By Gonzalo Vázquez

The EU’s Crisis Management Military Exercise 23 (MILEX 23) was launched on September 18, 2023, at the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC) Operations Headquarters in Brussels. Unlike any previous exercise, it was conducted in two different phases: a command post exercise (CPX) testing the military planning process at the strategic and operational levels, and a live exercise (LIVEX) carried out in the coast of Cadiz (Spain) simulating “realistic crisis events” with naval elements, land components, and air, space, and cyber assets.

The second phase, which took place from October 16th until the 22nd, put in practice for the first time the scenario developed in the previous phase, and was coordinated at three different levels: an EU Operational Headquarters provided by the MPCC (strategic level), an EU Force Headquarters provided by the Spanish Armed Forces in the naval base of Rota (operational level), and a battlegroup-sized force provided by Spain with additional military units of other member states (tactical level). The latter included a total of 31 units, 25 aircraft, 6 ships, and 2,800 personnel deployed in the theater of operations.

Under the command of Spanish Rear Admiral Gonzalo Villar, the LIVEX was conducted in four different segments: preparing for the operation; conducting an amphibious assault led by the expeditionary unit of the Spanish Navy; establishing control and securing the seaport of debarkation; and inserting land forces to secure the target area of interest. The Spanish Navy’s assets involved were those of the Expeditionary Unit “Dedalo-23,” including the “L-61 Juan Carlos I” LHD, Galicia-class LPDs “L-51 Galicia” and “L-52 Castilla,” Santa María-class FFG “F-83 Numancia,” several AV-8B Harrier II aircraft and helicopters, and an Amphibious Expeditionary Unit (with the Navy´s “Infantería de Marina”). Days before the exercise, these units had also conducted a bilateral exercise with the USS Mesa Verde (LPD-9).

The exercise’s main objective is “to enhance the EU’s military readiness to respond to external conflicts and crises.” It is a relevant step for the EU as it prepares for the establishment of its Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC), a crucial instrument that will allow its members to provide timely and effective responses to any potential crisis. It comes at a time when the ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East are challenging the stability in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean regions.

MILEX 23 will go down in history as the first ever to include a LIVEX led by the European Union, in which 19 member states have demonstrated their willingness to strengthen their security ties and naval interoperability. The exercise’s objectives derive from those established in the Strategic Compass of 2022, and are expected to be followed by those in the EU Maritime Security Strategy. Both documents define the strategic objectives for EU members, including those related to naval capabilities and maritime security.

European Naval Ambitions: The Strategic Compass & the EUMSS

The Strategic Compass was published in 2022 immediately after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. It came as a direct response to the perceived return of power politics in “a contested multipolar world,” and an increasingly challenging strategic environment. It provides the EU and its members with a direction to follow as they strive to adapt their military capabilities and security policies to the current situation. Its focus on the maritime domain emphasizes the growing competition at sea by stating:

“With the maritime domain becoming increasingly contested, we commit to further asserting our interests at sea and enhancing the EU’s and Member States’ maritime security, including by improving the interoperability of our naval forces through live exercises and by organizing European port calls.”

It stresses the need for regular naval exercises with European navies and coast guards as a means to strengthen interoperability among them. MILEX 23, although coming later than initially desired, marks an important step towards the establishment of its Rapid Deployable Force by 2025 – which is expected to have an important naval component.

Following the Strategic Compass, the EU published in March 2023 the updated version of its Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS), although, as the document itself states, it is not a proper strategy but rather “a framework for the EU to take further action.” The document, officially ratified by the EU Council on October 25th, addresses some of the concerns already defined in the Strategic Compass such as the need “to secure the maritime security interests of the EU and its member states against a plethora of risks and threats in the global maritime domain.”

To enhance naval interoperability among its members, the EUMSS highlights the importance of its ongoing naval operations (“Atalanta” and “Irini”), and defines several “key actions” to be pursued, including “organizing an annual EU naval exercise” and “reinforcing existing EU naval operations with naval and air assets.” Adding to the annual exercise, it also pushes for “regular, full-scale, live exercises at EU level.” LIVEX 23, as part of MILEX 23, has been the first of them, and is set to be followed by more over the upcoming months and years.

In broad terms, both the Strategic Compass and the EUMSS offer valuable insights on European ambitions at sea, but member states will have to get serious upgrading their naval capabilities to ensure those aspirations can be attained. MILEX 23 is an important milestone for them in the EU’s quest to become a credible naval actor able to “tackle the evolving threats to [its] maritime security.”

MILEX 23: A Crucial Leap

Milex 23 is an important milestone for the EU in several ways, and a crucial leap for its members as they advance towards a cohesive and common security policy.

First and foremost, its importance lies in the lessons learned with it. It is the first exercise ever at this level to include a LIVEX, with such a level of preparation and involvement of EU assets (its preparation has taken 14 months). It is an important step, but just the first of many to come. Its lessons learned will undoubtedly enhance future iterations and allow the EU to keep building on its security architecture. As Director Military Planning and Conduct Capability (D MPCC), Lieutenant General Michiel van der Laan indicated during the iteration, “what we learn from MILEX 23 will be crucial in refining our concepts, identifying gaps, and improving operational processes.”

Spanish troops during their landing near Rota naval base (Photo via Julio González/Diario de Cádiz)

Second, the exercise can serve as a powerful tool to incentivize additional investments on military capabilities by EU member states, which are greatly needed at this point. Following the end of the Cold War, most EU and NATO nations significantly reduced their defense spending and shifted their defense priorities, which led to a significant shrinking of their naval capabilities. Now, with smaller navies and the emergence of a wide spectrum of threats and challenges to European security, exercises such as MILEX 23 can be a powerful tool to show national governments the importance of increasing defense spending as a means to secure our common interests. As underlined by Daniel Fiott a few years ago, “Europe’s navies are increasingly being called upon to perform maritime security tasks,” which will require national governments to increase their investments in sea power. Joint exercises with a clear purpose can bring positive results for both their national and common security interests.

As already mentioned, the exercise is expected to be followed by others on a more regular basis. Aside from the objectives set in the Strategic Compass in terms of military readiness, the above-discussed EUMSS will ensure that EU members conduct at least an annual naval exercise. These can yield positive results for participating navies, but will require the EU to clearly define its naval/maritime priorities, and then plan the exercises calendar according to those requirements. To do so, the EU will have to keep working on a maritime strategy that clearly defines the ways, means, and ends, which the 2023 update of the EUMSS did not fully achieve.

Lastly, MILEX 23 can be regarded as another step in the EU’s quest to bolster interoperability with partner nations beyond its borders. As underlined in the EUMSS and other relevant policy documents published during the last few years, there is a great strategic interest in the Indo-Pacific region. Strengthening interoperability among member states will allow the EU to keep building upon its cooperation with partners such as the U.S. or Indian navies, with which they have already conducted multilateral naval exercises.

Yet, as the EU moves forward during the following years carrying out other joint exercises, another critical consideration related to the above-discussed need for a real maritime strategy will gradually surface: the need to avoid duplicity of efforts between NATO and the EU. Most EU navies are also part of the Atlantic Alliance, and as such, they contribute to both. Thus, at a time when military budgets are not abundant, exploring ways to define a clear division of naval tasks between the two organizations will be crucial to maximize their individual contributions and avoid wasting efforts.

Gonzalo Vázquez is a junior analyst with the Center for Naval Thought at the Spanish Naval War College, and is currently working as an Intern at the Crisis Management and Disaster Response Center of Excellence in Sofia, Bulgaria. Views expressed are his own.

Featured Image: Naval forces during the exercise off the coast of Cadiz, Spain (Photo via Julio González/Diario de Cádiz)

The Swedish Navy in NATO: Opportunities and Challenges

This article was first published in the KÖMS’s journal, No. 4/2022 and is republished with permission.

By Dr. Sebastian Bruns

With its significant geopolitical, strategic and military changes stemming from Russia’s war against Ukraine, 2022 has the potential to go down in history as a true watershed year. Among many other critical developments, Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership constitutes another significant departure from its long tradition as a non-aligned nation.It is with much political fanfare that Stockholm and Helsinki are expected to join a reinvigorated transatlantic alliance that not only finds an old nemesis on its Eastern front, but also renewed American leadership in the post-Donald Trump U.S. presidency. Experts are looking in particular at what military capabilities Sweden and Finland will bring to NATO.2 This article will provide some thoughts on the Swedish Navy, what it will bring, what NATO needs from it and where some overlaps and opportunities exist.3

For starters, the Tre Kronor Navy celebrated its 500th anniversary this year. Founded in 1522, it therefore brings to the forefront a very long tradition as a sea power. If one does not follow conventional wisdom, sea power status does not depend solely on the size of a country’s navy, but also the maritime mindset of a country’s people. By way of comparison, the German Navy will celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2023, a much more modest commemoration due to Germany’s checkered naval history. Since its post-World War II rebirth, the West-German Bundesmarine and its post-Cold War successor, Deutsche Marine, have had laudable successes as alliance navies, usually operating internationally under an EU, NATO or UN mandate. The Swedish Navy might look to their example as it seeks to create a mindset that covers national, territorial and alliance defense.

If anything, Sweden’s rich naval tradition can help re-navalize NATO. The Alliance is coming off two decades of land-centric counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and state-building operations in Afghanistan, which has created an officer and political-strategic corps of continentally-thinking individuals. While Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and incursion into Eastern Ukraine began to change NATO’s mindset drastically towards more conventional aspects of deterrence and warfighting across domains, it remains very much culturally dominated by army and air force generals, despite carrying the “North Atlantic” in its name. Given the maritime component of the new era’s challenges – such as Russian undersea activity, a focus on the Arctic, Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas, as well as the increasingly confrontational posture of the Chinese Navy in their Indo-Pacific backyard and beyond – it is high time for NATO to focus on the naval aspects of its members’ security.

The Swedish Navy brings to the table a wide experience in national and territorial defense at sea and in the protection of commercial shipping, two core naval missions spanning a wide spectrum. Moreover, the Swedish Navy has some experience in multilateral maritime operations, such as the EU’s counterpiracy mission ATALANTA (2010) and the UNIFIL maritime task force (2006-2007). More recent NATO accessions include former Warsaw Pact countries that had little to no joint and combined naval expertise.

From a naval perspective, NATO is currently dominated by the large and capable navies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The U.S. Navy and Royal Navy have driven naval rejuvenation in the Baltic Sea more so than NATO’s Baltic members. This is hardly surprising and should empower littoral states to follow suit, where possible.4 In addition, smaller but potent maritime powers such as Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Denmark are part of the Alliance and can serve to re-focus on the maritime flanks and fronts of NATO.According to Geoffrey Till, noted navalist and sea power expert, the Swedish Navy could be understood as falling right between a type 4 blue-water navy, the lowest in that category, tasked with regional power projection, and the most capable non-blue water navy, a type 5 regional offshore coastal defense navy.6

While such attempts to rank navies should be taken with caution – the risk of comparing apples and oranges is real, even at sea – such conceptual undertakings offer hints at levels of ambition for a navy, as well as their potential to add to NATO’s capabilities for combined operations. At the same time, as Austrian naval doyen Jeremy Stöhs has pointed out, Western navies face a true dilemma in the accelerating quest for high-end technology and the political, operational and financial costs this incurs on small- and medium-size navies.7

A different approach for sizing up navies was offered in 1995 by naval historians Jon Sumida and David Rosenber, aptly grouped as “Five Ms”:

  1. Men (and Women), or the naval personnel;
  2. Machinery, or the types of ships, aircraft and other vehicles that navies employ;
  3. Management, or the type of command structure as well as the political framework that shapes a navy’s roles and missions;
  4. Money, or the kind of funding into navies which, at the core, are long-term supply-based financial investments rather than demand based;
  5. Manufacturing, or the industrial base in a country to sustain a navy.

In 2000, the late German naval historian Wilfried Stallmann added a sixth “M”: Mentality, or a navy’s strategic culture.8 A more contemporary and potentially more quantifiable approach would look at the size and nature of the fleet, its geographic reach, its functions and capabilities, its access to high grade technology, its reputation and the technological excellence it provides. While an in-depth discussion of these aspects is beyond the scope of this article, the technological excellence that Sweden can potentially bring to NATO and its navies is worth a closer look.

The Swedish naval capability contribution covers four notable assets, including small combatants, amphibious boats, and forthcoming submarines and signals intelligence ships.

The Visby-class corvettes are a sleek and capable class of ships that are optimized for Sweden’s rugged coastlines. Their low radar signature can help “hide” them from enemy sensors. They will provide assets to the Standing NATO Maritime Groups that operate in the Baltic and Northern flank area, lending much needed credibility to NATO’s littoral components. Last but certainly not least, their very modern design, which one hopes will be continued somewhat in a prospective successor class, serves to display the technological superiority that NATO member states’ shipyards can churn out. Navies, which often operate “out of sight, thus out of mind,” need to impress upon their peoples their role to create the critical support for such long-term investments. Short of frigates, corvettes like the Swedish ones could be interesting for other Baltic littoral states that do not yet operate such medium-sized warships.

Visby-class Corvette of the Swedish Navy. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Sweden’s amphibious assault element, in particular the CB-90 fast boats, which have garnered interest around the Baltic littoral states (e.g. in Germany), is another worthwhile contribution to the alliance and the Northern flank. Amphibious warfare has gained significant attention in the Baltic Sea, whether through pre-2022 Russian Navy drills, allied amphibious elements operating as part of the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF), or repeated visits by the U.S. Navy’s USS Kearsarge (LHD-3) amphibious readiness group this past summer. While the big decks represent the high end of amphibious warfare, Baltic littoral states and NATO should train and exercise offensive and defensive small boat operations from the sea as well.

Finally, two technological features that are not yet in the water. First, the future Swedish A-26 submarine – an ambitious project for a next generation undersea capability – is likely to be a contender for NATO’s preferred non-nuclear boat. ThyssenKrupp MarineSystem’s air independent propulsion submarines (type 212A/CD) remain the challenger, while the Netherlands and others look for a proper model for their force regeneration. A more competitive market ought to help NATO member states in general, though Kockums has not built an indigenous submarine in more than 25 years. To their enduring credit, Swedish submarines continue to have a high standing in the United States, due in part to its lease of HSwMS Gotland from 2005-2007. Another asset that still has to prove its viability is the future HSwMS Artemis, a signal intelligence ship that is currently two years overdue amidst the reverberations of the pandemic as well as major hick-ups in this Swedish-Polish joint venture.

With its rich partnership with NATO navies, Sweden will be well placed to get underway. NATO navies, whether on individual and national deployments or as part of rotational Standing NATO Maritime Groups (SNMG), are a significant presence in the Baltic Sea. NATO operates two of these standing groups in the Northern European area of operations, a larger surface ship group (SNMG 1, the former Standing Naval Force Atlantic, STANAVFORLNT), and a mine countermeasures group (SNMCMG1, the former Standing NATO Force Channel, or STANAVFORCHAN, and Mine Countermeasures Force North Western Europe, or MCMFORNORTH, respectively) grouped around smaller surface combatants and tenders.

The Swedish Navy, upon gaining the operational prowess and formal legitimation to integrate, could dispatch one or more of its warships into the groups. At the same time, exercises such as the annual Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) and Northern Coasts (NoCo) will provide ample opportunity to train with other NATO navies in a joint and combined effort. NATO will likely require the Swedish Navy to account for regular but flexible naval presence as well. This should come as no surprise for Sweden given its frontline statues in the Baltic Sea, and it should use every opportunity to work with other NATO navies. A broader mindset, keeping in mind the military, constabulary and diplomatic use of the sea by navies,9 should yield a dedicated national naval or maritime strategy that addresses some of the trajectories outlined above.

It remains unclear whether NATO’s own “Allied Maritime Strategy,” published in 2011, will be rewritten – the need for which has been addressed in public forums repeatedly.10 In light of this, and absent a top-down effort, a bottom-up strategic effort would be very welcome by allied navalists. This ought to include some dedicated investments in the military-intellectual complex as well, given the need to study, research, advise, critique and explain naval matters to counter the infamous, often diagnosed “sea blindness.”

NATO, at least in the Baltic Sea and along its northern flank, is looking for cooperation agreements and a concurring mindset, not necessarily commands. There is much activity in the Baltic Sea in the latter field, and the Swedish military – already likely to be challenged to fill NATO billets around Europe and in North America – will be stretched to cover both staffing and operational requirements. Germany, for instance, is pushing hard for formats that attempt to offer new command, control and coordination functions in the Baltic Sea area, triggering some envy in other member states and the real risk of over-complicating NATO’s effectiveness in the region.11 Advanced Swedish-Finnish naval integration in recent years might offer a unique opportunity for true burden-sharing of two smaller militaries in NATO, and a chance to revive allied pre-2014 pooling and sharing initiatives in a meaningful way.

With the accession of Sweden and Finland into Norway, one discussion likely to resurface is whether or not the Baltic Sea is a “NATO lake.” As Hamburg-based Baltic Sea expert Julian Pawlak has rather brilliantly put it, “Designating the Baltic Sea as a ‘NATO lake’ is fatal in many ways. Besides the fact that, following such logic, it would already have been an ‘EU lake’ for some time, the use of the term suggests that the Baltic could be handled more or less exclusively by NATO, as an inland sea (which it almost is, politically), leading to the subsequent fallacy of complete sea control (which is certainly not the case).12 Sea strategists know that maritime territory can and will never be controlled in a manner that militaries do on land. In addition, if history is any guide, places such as the Mediterranean and the Atlantic have at one point been designated as NATO lakes – until they no longer were, with the incursion of then-Soviet submarines and naval assets in the Cold War and more recently by the aspiring Chinese Navy.13

Baltic navies would be well advised not to close or cordon off seas, and countries such as Germany have gone a long way to conceptualize that the Baltic Sea is intimately connected to the more contested and to the rest of the globe. Legal and etymological concerns aside, Baltic navies will still have to exercise sea control and all forms of naval warfare on the whole spectrum of conflict. A self-serving description of the Baltic as a “NATO lake” amounts to detrimental whistling in the woods at best, or wishful thinking and the willful degeneration of naval strategic thought and practice at worst.

The Swedish Navy can and must play an important role in the Alliance, and it should be encouraged to infuse its professionalism and maritime strategic culture into NATO, as well as identify partners with which it can aggressively pursue bilateral and multilateral programs so that NATO as a whole can be strengthened. Given existing formats, examples could be joining the German-Dutch amphibious cooperation to make it tri-partite, participating in the German-Danish-Polish (though for the time land-focused) Multinational Command East (MNC E) in Szczecin (Poland), offering its next-generation light corvettes/light frigates to partner navies, etc. Finally, the Swedes would also be well advised not to overstretch and avoid making the same mistakes as their soon-to-be fellow allies have done with regards to atrophying naval power in favor of a diffuse land power argument. Balancing national and alliance defense with international crises management remains the key challenge of the day for those wearing the uniform with the Tre Kronor.

Dr. Sebastian Bruns is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK), where he served as the founding father of the adjunct Center for Maritime Strategy & Security, 2016-2021. From 2021-2022, he was the inaugural McCain-Fulbright Distinguished Visiting Professor at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (USA). Since 2021, he is also a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, and a Corresponding Fellow at Kungl. Örlogsmannasällskapet (KÖMS).

[1] At the time of writing, NATO member states’ parliaments are still in the process of deliberating the Swedish (and Finnish) requests. Two countries – Turkey and Hungary – are still in the decision-making process.

[2] For a broader and more operational discussion on the military issues, see John R. Deni, “Sweden and Finland are on their way to NATO membership. Here’s what needs to happen next.” Atlantic Council Issue Brief, 22 August 2022.

[3] This essay is based on the author’s Royal Swedish Society of Naval Sciences’ inaugural lecture, given on 24 August 2022 at the Swedish Maritime Museum, Stockholm.

[4] See, for instance, Sebastian Bruns, “From show of force to naval presence, and back again: the U.S. Navy in the Baltic, 1982–2017,” Defense & Security Analysis, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 35(2), pages 117-132, April 2019; Bruce Stubbs, “US Sea Power has a Role in the Baltic,” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 143/9/1,375, September 2017.

[5] For a discussion of the evolution of European naval power since 1990, see Jeremy Stöhs’ study, The Decline of European Naval Forces. Challenges to Sea Power in an Age of Fiscal Austerity and Political Uncertainty, USNI Press: Annapolis, MD 2018. Sweden is covered on pp. 161-167.

[6] See Geoffrey Till, Seapower. A Guide for the 21st Century. 4th edition, Routledge: Milton Park, New York 2018, p.147ff.

[7] Jeremy Stöhs, “How High? The Future of European Naval Power and the High-End Challenge,” Center for Military Studies University of Copenhagen, 2021.

[8] Cited in Sebastian Bruns, US Naval Strategy and National Security. The Evolution of American Maritime Power, Routledge: Milton Park, New York 2018, p. 32f.

[9] See “Triangle on the Use of the Sea,” based on Ken Booth (1977) and Eric Grove (1990), and vastly expanded, cited in Till, Seapower, p. 362.

[10] See Kiel International Seapower Symposia 2018 (on allied maritime ends), 2019 (on means) and 2021 (on the ways). Reports on each conference can be obtained through For more in-depth coverage on current issues that should drive an alliance-wide rework of its maritime strategy, see Julian Pawlak/Johannes Peters, From the North Atlantic to the South China Sea. Allied Maritime Strategy in the 21st Century, Nomos: Baden-Baden 2021 (=ISPK Seapower Series, Vol. 4).

[11] Edward Lucas, “Close to the Wind. Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Broth,” Center for European Policy Action (CEPA), 9 September 2021.

[12] Julian Pawlak, “No, Don’t Call the Baltic a ‘NATO Lake’”, RUSI Commentary, 5 September 2022. For a counter position, see Edward Lucas, “The Baltic Sea Became a Nato Lake,” Finnish Business and Policy Forum – EVA, 27 June 2022.

[13] For use of the term “NATO lake”, see Christina Lin, “The Dragon’s Rise in the Great Sea. China’s Strategic Interests in the Levant and the Eastern Mediterranean,” in Spyridon N. Litsas, Aristotle Tziampiris The Eastern Mediterranean in Transition: Multipolarity, Politics and Power, Routledge: London 2015.

The 2022 Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation: Mobilization, Maritime Law, and Socio-Economic Warfare

By Olga R. Chiriac

On July 31, 2022, Russian Navy Day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the approval of the new Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation in a speech given during a parade at the Kronstadt naval base. To be fully understood, the doctrine must be put into a much broader, global context, factoring in the historical timeline, internal dynamics, especially the general direction of Russian foreign policy and the vertical power structure of the Russian state.

The new doctrine replaced a previous document from 2015 that was published after the Russian annexation of Crimea and is strikingly different in content and tone. A notable difference is that the new version has a more dominant socio-economic dimension. It is important to analyze the doctrine from a Russian vantage point, one that understands it as “a strategic planning document that reflects the totality of official views on the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation and maritime activities of the Russian Federation” and not to zoom in too much on the “why,” which quickly devolves into guesswork. The essence of the new doctrine is communicating Russian national interest as it is conceptualized by Russian leadership.

Total “Hybrid War” with the West and Multipolarity

At the macro level and through a great power politics perspective, the new Russian maritime doctrine confirms that Russia considers itself in direct confrontation with the West or a “total hybrid war with the Collective West.” The new document is meant to be analyzed in concert with the 2021 National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, where Russia declared that it was “effectively resisting attempts at external pressure” and defending its “internal unity” and “sovereign statehood.” The same Security Strategy confirms that Russia is taking a leading role in “the formation of new architecture, rules and principles of the world order.” In August 2022, Russian Defense Minister, General Sergei Shoigu, spoke at the opening of the Moscow Conference on International Security. Among other important points that he made, one referred specifically to the confrontation with the West: “The Western world order divides the world into “democratic partners” and “authoritarian regimes, against which any measures of influence are allowed.” General Shoigu was repeating a common belief/narrative in Russia, specifically that “the start of a special military operation in Ukraine marked the end of the unipolar world.” This assertion is in line with a much broader dimension of Russian foreign policy, one meant to dilute US influence and power and to redesign security arrangements for a multipolar world. Minister Shoigu underscored how Russia is at war not only with Ukraine, but with the West: “In Ukraine, Russian military personnel are confronted by the combined forces of the West, which control the leadership of this country in a hybrid war against Russia.” The new maritime doctrine reflects this view that the global order is no longer unipolar and that Russia is in a hybrid war with the “collective West” making it ever more important to analyze the doctrine from a Russian vantage point.

Redesigning Borders on Land and at Sea

The recent change in the tone of both speeches from Russian officials and official documents is clear: the Russian Federation believes it is in the business of redesigning borders, both on land and at sea. President Putin himself declared: “We have openly marked the borders and zones of Russia’s national interests.” The international community has or should have known this for decades, as the Russian tactic of using “separatists” to rewrite national borders started in the Republic of Moldova back in 1992 when the Russian backed “rebels” initiated a war with Chisinau and the Moldavian people. It happened again in 2008 with the Russo-Georgian War, and in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time. The Maritime Doctrine touches on this and all the references are directly correlated to the maritime rules-based order. A conviction that great powers are entitled to redrafting borders and having zones of influence is prevalent in Russian official discourse as well as public opinion. The Helsinki Accords are often cited as a basis for “the division of spheres of influence between the USSR and the United States, with the recognition of existing borders, both formal (national) and informal (political), with the Russian Federation supposedly being understood as the inheritor of the USSR’s spheres of influence.

Russia’s top two “national interests” listed in the doctrine are: independence, state and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the inviolability of the country’s sovereignty, which extends to the internal sea waters, territorial sea, their bottom and subsoil, as well as to the airspace above them and ensuring the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Russian Federation in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf. The geopolitical position of the Russian Federation and its role in world politics (Russian elites strongly favor a multipolar order) are closely tied to international maritime law. Changing or challenging borders at sea has been slowly happening and it directly threatens the integrity of maritime regimes and treaties, including UNCLOS. The annexation of Crimea is the most relevant example. By illegally seizing Ukrainian territory, Russia also changed maritime borders and created new EEZs and territorial waters. This directly affects all regions covered by the new doctrine: from the Arctic and its Northern Sea Route to the Black Sea and the blockade of Azov or the “fluid” EEZs and territorial waters of the Russian Federation. International law is essentially what states make of it and by claiming Crimea, Moscow challenged the existing legal framework.

The doctrine is very specific about which areas Russia considers zones of “vital interest.” For example, it prioritizes: “fixing its external border in accordance with Article 76 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982.” Member of the State Duma Artur Chilingarov eloquently synthesized the essence of said “fixing” in 2007: “The Arctic is Russian.” Russia’s proposal to extend the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean is another example of “fixing borders.” Professor Chilingarov reference to the Arctic carries even more weight due to his extensive knowledges and experience in the Arctic. Artur Chilingarov, led several expeditions to the Arctic and is special Presidential Representative for international cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctica.

There already have been numerous events and incidents which have plagued the security of maritime regimes and there are major open legal cases addressing said violations: the International Court of Justice in the Hague and Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea) (dec.) [GC] – 20958/14 address the annexation of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg Case No. 26 concerning the detention of three Ukrainian naval vessels by the Russian Federation is on the roll, and the International Court of Arbitration at the Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm handles the Dispute Concerning Coastal State Rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait. Essentially all these tribunals are now discussing Ukraine’s valid complaints vis-à-vis a Russian encroaching on Ukrainian territory, territorial waters, or continental shelf.

Socio-Economic Focus and “Mobilization”

In their coverage of the new maritime doctrine, Western press has focused on the NATO mentions and the paragraph which singles out the Alliance, particularly the United States, as the main threat to the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, there are numerous and very significant non-militaristic changes as compared to the 2015 document. Notably, the 2022 doctrine emphasizes the socio-economic and scientific-technological components of maritime security. 

The 2022 doctrine contains a marked focus on maritime activities aimed at “ensuring Russia’s economic independence and food security” to protect Russian national interest. Ports and maritime infrastructure play an important role in the new doctrine. There are plans to create new transport and logistics centers on the basis of Russian seaports that can handle “the entire volume of sea exports and imports of the Russian Federation.” Furthermore, the doctrine voices concern about the lack of naval bases located outside of Russia, as well as an inferior number of vessels, both military and commercial, under the Russian state flag. The doctrine establishes goals to form marine economic centers of national and interregional purpose in what the document calls “zones of advanced development” (Crimea, Black Sea-Kuban, and Azov-Don). A great deal of emphasis is put on the development of Russian merchant and transport fleets as well as “non-military and civil fleets.” The doctrine encourages an increase in the number of Russian-flagged vessels, but does not give any sort of indication as to how this will be achieved specifically.

The 2022 Maritime Doctrine attaches particular strategic importance to the development of offshore pipeline systems for the transportation of hydrocarbons, including those produced on the continental shelf of the Russian Federation. An important change both from an economic perspective and from a maritime law perspective, given that several areas are in international litigation and illegally occupied. In comparison with the 2015 Maritime Doctrine, the development of offshore pipeline systems is singled out as an independent functional direction of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation. In the same ranking for functional directions, naval activities are ranked last (fifth). Energy infrastructure in the Federation is under the control of state-owned companies, and we have yet to understand the scope of Russian Maritime “specialized fleets.” 

Finally, in this socio-economic direction, an interesting point is the repetitive mention of “mobilization training and mobilization readiness in the field of maritime activities.” The reference is not specific when it refers to vessels. It can be assumed that this will make it possible to introduce civilian vessels and crews into the Russian Navy, and ensure the functioning of maritime infrastructure in wartime. The doctrine is however very specific by region, for instance, it calls for further development of the forces (troops), as well as the basing system of the Baltic Fleet. In the Black Sea, the doctrine specifically declares the intention to address the “international legal regulation of the regime and procedure for using the Kerch Strait.”

The socio-economic direction is an important change in the new document, but it should not come as a surprise. The changes further subordinate other elements of Russian maritime power into a legal framework. This is very important when interpreting Russian maritime documents: the overreaching security strategy and Russian strategic thinking and political culture have a vertical power structure where maritime or energy assets are instruments of power first and foremost and economic/civilian ones second. And the doctrine underscores the primacy of Russian law over any other international legal arrangements.

Regional Directions: NATO, the Arctic, the Black Sea, and the Russian Far East

The new doctrine was approved by the Russian President “in order to ensure the implementation of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation,” and it serves as a compass for “maritime activities” in the “regions” of strategic interest. The main regional directions of the national maritime policy of the Russian Federation are the Atlantic, Arctic, Pacific, Caspian, Indian Ocean, and Antarctic directions. The regional directions have shifted in priority compared to the 2015 doctrine. Put into the wider context of overall Russian foreign policy, it does not mean that the Black Sea is less important than the Arctic, but that the global security situation requires regional solutions fitted to regional specificities. For Russia, the Black Sea is already a theater of war, while the Arctic presents both opportunity for cooperation and the potential for further escalation. In both regions, Western strategists must re-conceptualize their approach to Russia in order to remain relevant and to produce effective results.

In the Atlantic region, the new Russian maritime policy is now “focused only on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as the imperfection of legal mechanisms for ensuring international security.” Considering the structure of Russian maritime forces, what this means for NATO is that it must take into account how to balance its mandate of military-political alliance with the task at hand. Clearly there will be a need for a more innovative operational approach. The United States will have to take on more leadership in the European maritime space and support allied navies in the Black Sea to modernize fleets with interoperable equipment. If in the Baltic Sea the military balance is quite favorable to the Alliance, especially after the accession of Sweden and Finland, then the Black Sea becomes more vulnerable. 

The Russian Federation is the largest country by land mass spanning over 16,376,870.0 km² in both Europe and Asia. However, this landmass is connected to the broader maritime world in only four places, including the Pacific on the Sea of Japan at Vladivostok, in the Baltic at Saint Petersburg, the Barents Sea through Murmansk, and in the Black Sea through the Crimean Peninsula. Russia has many other ports, however none of them are ice-free warm-water ports, and therefore they require expensive procedures during the infamous Russian winter in order to keep them operational. Russia needs warm water ports year-round for military operations as well as commerce. This is addressed in the new document and a lot of emphasis is put on the development of the Northern Sea Route. Russia is looking to comprehensively develop the Northern Sea Route in order to turn it into a safe, year-round trade route, competitive with other routes from Asia to Europe. In an interview in June, Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Representative to the Far East, Yury Trutnev, declared that he saw year-round navigation through the Northern Sea Route as a real possibility by 2024.

Russian internal dynamics have always had a tension between areas of progress and modernization and isolated portions of land and peoples left behind by development. Using maritime development to help overcome the economic and infrastructural isolation of the Russian Far East from the industrially developed regions of the Russian Federation is named as a priority in the doctrine. Establishing sustainable sea (river), air and rail links with cities and towns in Siberia and the European part of the Russian Federation, including the development of the Northern Sea Route would significantly improve the connection between the rest of Russia and the Far East. The doctrine is actually quite ambitious in this regard, it talks about developing “a modern high-tech shipbuilding complex in the Far East, designed for the construction of large-capacity vessels, including for the development of the Arctic and aircraft carriers for the Navy.”

The doctrine also looks to the Arctic with a focus on maintaining global leadership in the construction and operation of nuclear icebreakers, an area where the United States is already playing catchup. The doctrine also asserts Russia’s belief in the “the immutability of the historically established international legal regime of inland sea waters in the Arctic regions and the straits of the Northern Sea Route” and “control of the naval activities of foreign states in the waters of the Northern Sea Route.”


The 2015 Russian maritime doctrine was rightfully perceived as a “showy demonstrations of strength,” but the new version presents a very different image. If properly analyzed, it is obvious Russia still considers itself a great power, including in the maritime space, yet is more self-aware of its shortcomings, both in the maritime domain and beyond. In the previous doctrine, Russia was declaring itself to be the word’s second-best navy, now it is content to be a great maritime power among peers. Russian leadership is looking to consolidate the Russian Navy’s position among the world’s leading maritime powers, but it no longer boasts about supposed superiority. The striking emphasis on mobilization speaks to this self-awareness. Russia is a nuclear power that believes it is prepared for total war, while simultaneously looking for opportunities to open itself up for cooperation with the international community that is beneficial to Russia. 

There is also subtle symbolism in the way that the new doctrine was released: Kronstadt is very closely linked to the Russian Navy. Russian culture places a lot of emphasis on symbolism and the current regime often employs history and collective memory as a tool to send messages domestically. Peter the Great had considered making Kronstadt the capital of his empire, and maybe most striking in symbolism is the Kronstadt Rebellion. Although the sailors’ revolt against the reforms of the Bolsheviks was crushed, it forced the system to adopt the “New Economic Policy” a temporary retreat form the aggressive policy of centralization and forced collectivization brought upon by Marxism–Leninism.

Similarly, the new Maritime Doctrine shifted emphasis on socioeconomic aspects and mobilization of a nation preparing for total war with the collective West. Hopefully both the United States and allied strategists understand the pragmatism of the Russian perspective, the symbolism, as well as the importance of more nuanced changes which could bring upon a new order, including in the maritime space.

Dr. Olga R. Chiriac is a Black Sea State Department Title VIII research fellow for the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and an associated researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies in Bucharest, Romania. She is an alumna of the Arizona Legislative and Government Internship Program and her research and forthcoming work is on the application of cognitive sciences in security and defense, with a focus on joint special operations and the maritime domain.

Featured Image: Russian Navy frigate Admiral Essen. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)