Tag Archives: Russia

Behind the Bluster: The Reality of Russia’s Rhetoric for a Global Navy

By Ian Sundstrom

A slowly expanding shipbuilding program is no evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Russian government, and Russian interest in overseas bases does not mean significant changes in the international environment. If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, it will not result in a sustained global presence in the near future.

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Throughout the ongoing Syrian crisis, Russia has stuck by the Assad regime and repeatedly stressed its desire to retain its access to the Syrian port of Tartus. Russia claims the base is needed for training and maintenance for routine counter-piracy patrols.[1] The base also gives Russia a bit claim to the position of global influence the Soviet Union once possessed.[2] Additionally, it may serve as a reminder of Russian influence in the Middle East or provide an added layer of defence for Russia’s Black Sea coast.[3] Just this week, the Russian government announced its renewed intentions to keep Tartus in conjunction with the desire to open new naval facilities in Cuba, Vietnam, and Seychelles.[4] It would appear to demonstrate a new desire by the Russians to project naval power around the world. But does this presage a global focus for the Russian Navy? The answer: not likely.


There are a number of reasons why the Russian Navy could not develop a global posture, even with access to new overseas facilities. The first is cost. Long-distance deployments are costly in fuel and maintenance expenditures. This is particularly problematic given instability in the Russian state budget. The budget is heavily dependent on high oil and gas prices – up to one third of government funds come from hydrocarbon revenues – meaning Russian military activity is beholden to global petroleum prices.[5] This has serious implications for Russia’s military modernisation, a key component of its current national security strategy.[6] In fact, an article in RIA Novosti stated that Economic Development Minister Andrei Belousov recently quashed rumours of a three-year delay in Russian rearmament plans.[7] The article noted that the Finance Ministry has been consistently opposed to high levels of defence expenditure because of the strain they put on state finances. Given intra-governmental disagreement over simply recapitalising and modernising the ailing military it is unlikely that funding will be available for foreign bases. After all, just in 2002 Russia closed its facility at Cam Ranh, Vietnam due to cost.[8] Expensive global cruises, sustained foreign deployments, and overseas bases are not sustainable for Russia.


The second reason is the Russian Navy’s aging equipment. Most of its ships are ex- Soviet vessels, many over thirty years old.[9] At this stage in their careers, these vessels require lengthy periods of maintenance to remain operational. Unfortunately for the navy, Russia lacks adequate maintenance facilities to keep them fully functional.[10] Just in 2008 the pride of the Russian fleet, the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, suffered an electrical fire off Turkey and an oil spill off Ireland, all on the same deployment.[11] If Russia increases the pace and range of its naval deployments, similar incidents will likely occur. Furthermore, the Russian Navy suffers safety issues, demonstrated most spectacularly by the Kursk incident in 2000.[12] These would only be exacerbated by an increased deployment schedule, which would mean reduced training for short-service conscript crews and subsequent attendant issues.[13] With aging equipment, inadequate maintenance facilities and poor safety procedures, it would be difficult for Russia to maintain a global posture without seriously degrading its fleet. This brings us to the final point: the Russian Navy cannot handle increased attrition because it has already been severely reduced in size since 1990.


The Russian Navy is just not large enough as it stands to both maintain a global presence and meet its obligations nearer home. In 1990, the Soviet Navy stood at 2052 vessels. Today its Russian successor stands at 518, of which a maximum of 79 could be considered significant combat assets.[14] It is a shadow of its former Soviet self. On top of this reduction, Russian shipbuilding facilities are woefully inadequate. For example, from 1994 to 2008, only seven ships, all begun during the Soviet era, were completed.[15] RIA Novosti claims that 10 to 15 new ships will be launched this year, but it is likely that at least some of these will be delayed, and none are particularly large or capable ships.[16] Given its reduced size, the Russian Navy has had to focus on its core responsibilities. Russia’s core national interests include ‘ensuring the solidity of the constitutional system, territorial integrity, and sovereignty of the Russian Federation’, and the Navy helps achieve these by protecting the Russian coast and defeating terrorists and drug smugglers.[17] Russia has only a handful of major naval assets, barely enough to ensure its most basic national security objectives much less adopt a wider-ranging posture.


If Russia does obtain more overseas bases, and it appears Vietnam will at least allow Russian ships to visit Cam Ranh, the result will not be a sustained global presence in the near future.[18] In the longer term the Russian Navy may shift its focus, and a slowly expanding shipbuilding program does provide evidence of greater interest in the navy by the Putin government.[19] As it stands, Russian interest in overseas bases is a curiosity, but does not mean significant changes in the international environment.



[1] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012

[2] BBC,‘How vital is Syria’s Tartus port to Russia?’, 27 June 2012

[3] I argue that Tartus provides Russia strategic depth on its Black Sea flank here. It would appear that Vice-Admiral Chirkov, head of the Russian Navy, supports this argument by referring to Tartus as in the ‘Black Sea Fleet’s strategic operational area’ in RTT News, ‘Russia to Retain Tartus Naval Base in Syria’, 26 July 2012,

[4] RIA Novosti,‘Russian Navy Holds on to Its Syria Base’, 25 July 2012; Reuters,‘Russia wants naval bases abroad-report’, 27 July 2012

[5] Andrei Shleiffer and Daniel Treisman (2011), ‘Why Moscow Says No: A Question of Russian Interests, Not Psychology’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 90, No. 1, p. 125

[6] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 28-32

[7] RIA Novosti,‘Russia’s Rearmament Remains on Schedule – Econ Minister’, 2 July 2012,

[8] International Business Times,‘Russian Navy Looks to Expand Bases Abroad, Goes Hunting in Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean’, 27 July 2012

[9] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, pp. 22

[10] Ibid., pp. 2-4

[11] Dmitry Gorenburg (2009), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 57: ‘Russian Naval Deployments: A Return to Global Power Projection or a Temporary Blip?’, p. 3

[12] Ibid., p. 6

[13] Even a major vessel like Pyotr Veliky has conscript crewmembers. Russian conscripts serve for only one year. Ria Novosti, ‘The battle-cruiser Pyotr Veliky’, 22 April 2010. [14] IISS, The Military Balance 1990, pp. 36-38 ; IISS, The Military Balance 2012, pp. 194-196

[15] Dmitry Gorenburg (2008), PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 23: ‘Has the Russian Navy Turned a Corner? Recent Trends in Russian Shipbuilding and Naval Deployments’, p. 2

[16] Bloomberg,‘Russian Navy May Add Up to 15 New Warships This Year, RIA Says’, 27 July 2012

[17] Russia’s National Security Strategy to 2020, paragraphs 21 and 41

[18] RIA Novosti, ’Vietnam Ready to Host Russian Maritime Base’, 27 July 2012

[19] IISS, The Military Balance 2012, p. 187; RIA Novosti,‘Russia to Build New Aircraft Carrier After 2020’, 26 July 2012,; RIA Novosti,‘Russian defense minister denies plans to build aircraft carriers’, 2 July 2012; Captain Thomas Fedyszyn, USN (Ret.), ‘Renaissance of the Russian Navy’, Proceedings, March 2012

This article was originally published at the website of our partners, theriskyshift.com and can be found in its original form here.

Distant Corner Lab

The Latvian-built Skrunda

Crossing the Baltic Sea recently from Gdynia to Karlskrona, both major naval bases, I had the opportunity to observe ships of both the Polish and Swedish navies. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Tom Kristiansen and Rolf Hobson book Navies in Northern Waters. I began to wonder how a big navy could benefit by observing these small fleets. Smaller navies commonly  look at their big partners in efforts to predict future trends and developments.

Small navies should be aware that they operate on the edges of major naval war theories like those developed by Mahan or Corbett. Such theories were based on the historical experience of leading navies at their times. Although it is possible to imagine a “decisive battle” between offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) or fast-attack craft (FACs) (see Israeli-Arab wars), most probably small powers and their navies will balance between global or regional powers, allied with one of them against another or left alone against superior power. From a cooperative naval power point of view they could nicely fulfil diplomatic or constabulary roles. But there are also other areas worth mentioning, where small navies’ views, development, and operational experience could be of interest to leading navies. Studying small navies provides:

  • The potential to turn knowledge of small navies into a theoretical framework would enhance our understanding of special cases in major naval theories:  This could be of some interest in narrow seas and littoral areas, for example. In this year’s BaltOps exercises, the U.S. Navy was represented by an Aegis cruiser USS Normandy, but in coming years a more frequent participant will probably be an LCS. Participation in such exercises would offer the opportunity to observe how LCS works together with mine hunters, FACs and corvettes from regional, coastal fleets in scenarios similar to Northern Coast, perhaps somewhere in Finnish archipelagos. Such scenarios much more closely resembles Capt. Wayne Hughes’ works and would offer expertise applicable elsewhere.


  • Insight into the political decisions related to small navies’ development, roles, and applications:  Not a direct benefit for the U.S. Navy, but helpful in arranging and maintaining networks of alliances, if and when needed. In literature the PLAN navy is often described as proficient in anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Is this a view smaller navies in the South China Sea region share? Even regional powers like India or Japan could hardly fear the PLAN’s current A2/AD capabilities. Unhindered access of the U.S. Navy to some specific waters doesn’t translate directly to feelings of strengthened security among smaller allies. The relation is more complex and understanding their, sometimes hidden motives, should give better results.


  • The opportunity to foster innovation: Small navies act under pressure of constraints not unknown to big navies, but the constraints can be even greater. In a small navy, a proposal to build a well-armed corvette can trigger hot discussions not only about the budget but even also about national policy. Everything is condensed. Links between strategy, tactics, budgeting, and force structure are more visible. Maybe this is the reason why small navies have to be both pragmatic and innovative at the same time. A good example of the pragmatic approach I found in Navies in Northern Waters is the fact that in the 18th-century both Swedish and Russian navies still used oared galleys. Examples of innovation are not limited to modularity or ships like Visby. Take a look at the Latvian navy, non-existant some 20 years ago. It acquired used ships from different navies and created the core of mine warfare and patrol capabilities. This was very pragmatic, and the first new construction, the economic SWATH designSkrunda, shows great attention to versatility.


  • Educational value: Let’s use an example. Say the task is to propose a force structure for a navy that’s been neglected in recent years. Historically, the military conflicts in this country have been decided on land. The adjacent narrow sea has an average depth of around 170 feet. The navy has no independent budget, but is instead centralized in the DoD’s. The yearly shipbuilding budget is forecasted at $200 million and the navy is given the time span 20 years to build the fleet. Although there is a shipbuilding industry, it has never built sophisticated warships. Anyone attempting to solve this kind of problem gains a much greater understanding of decisions faced by and made by senior staffs in the real world. 

Przemek Krajewski alias Viribus Unitis is a blogger In Poland. His area of interest is broad context of purpose and structure of Navy and promoting discussions on these subjects In his country

Russia and Iran in the Caspian


The Caspian Sea

This new piece from Foreign Policy discusses the current efforts of Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to enhance their naval capabilities in the Caspian Sea.  Global economic crisis aside, there seems to be a promising market in selling ships/boats and aircraft to states asserting their economic interests in resource-rich maritime regions.

Alaed Stripped of Insurance

The MV Alaed, a Russian cargo vessel reportedly shipping armament to Syria, including attack helicopters, has lost its insurance coverage due to illicit cargo clauses, CNN reports. This comes after calls from the U.S. government on the British government and subsequent pressure on London-based The Standard Club, insurers of the vessel’s owners, FEMCO.

UPDATE: Tues, 0630 EST

Dutch authorities hailed the Alaed as it passed the Dutch coast, prompting the vessel to turn north. Alead is reportedly near the Hebrides archipelago off Scotland’s west coast, according to The Telegraph. Scottish site STV.TV says the vessel “was last recorded under way less than 55 miles off the coast of the Port of Ness village in the Isle of Lewis,” and headed for Vladivostock according to AIS information (possibly falsely inputted) provided by the ship tracking site marinetraffic.com. The vessel has since moved out of range. 

UPDATE 2: Tues 1400

Press reports indicate British Foreign Secretary William Hague has confirmed Alaed is returning to Russia, most likely Kaliningrad. Maritime experts speculate it was ordered to turn back by Russian authorities as it may have had enough fuel to reach Syria without stopping and not been subject to the EU’s ban on weapon shipments as a Russian vessel.

The Alaed is just the latest in a series of cargo vessels bound for a war zone suddenly thrust into the spotlight after reports surface of a purported arms shipment. The Kang Nam, a North Korean cargo vessel turned around in 2009 after the world’s attention focused on its voyage to a mystery destination (likely Myanmar) with a mystery cargo (likely small arms and RPGs). Similar incidents have occurred in the past with North Korean vessels such as 2011’s MV Light incident.

As with the Kang Nam, the objective of the international community in this incident is likely to deny the Alaed an ability to refuel in a friendly port of call enroute to its final destination. With the loss of insurance, the Alaed will find it difficult to legally enter many ports on the way to Syria and may be forced to turn around. If the vessel is able to continue, it runs a good risk of being boarded by some of Syria’s more proactive neighbors enforcing an EU arms embargo, such as Turkey, which boarded the German-owned Atlantic Cruiser in April after similar reports of on-board weapons. Embarrassingly for Turkey, such reports turned out to be false, so they might be more reluctant to repeat the episode with out definitive proof before hand. Nor are all suspect cargoes bound for the al-Assad regime. Also in April, Lebanon stopped the Sierra Leone-flagged Lutfallah II, which definitively was smuggling weapons for the Free Syria Army.


On a side note, it’s hard to take the interview at 1:55 with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff completely seriously when you realize what’s immediately behind him. That’s right, a cupcake tank that fires cupcakes:


LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
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.