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.
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.
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.