Many military commentators in Moscow and the West have pointed to Russia’s loss of a navy capable of blue-water actions (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 30), but they have not focused on the ways in which Russia is beefing up its coastal surface forces and using them to project power internationally. The recent Russian seizure of three Ukrainian military vessels trying to enter the Kerch Strait (see EDM, November 26, 28, 29) should, thus, force a rethink. That aggressive action suggests that, unlike many countries, Russia views its coastal forces not as a defensive weapon alone but as one it can effectively deploy offensively in adjoining waters and countries.
The Russian Federation has the longest seacoast of any country in the world and has coastal units in many parts of it, although it is having difficulty building enough ships and attracting enough personnel to man them along the longest portion of that coastline, in the Arctic (Iarex.ru, November 27). But perhaps the most important of these coastal forces, other than the one now on display in the Sea of Azov and around occupied Crimea, is the Caspian Flotilla. For a long time, most analysts in the West viewed the naval force in the Caspian Sea as a decaying irrelevancy. However, this attitude is quickly shifting considering that Russia has been redeploying Caspian Flotilla ships to the Sea of Azov via internal canals as well as relocating the Flotilla from its historical port at Astrakhan to a more modern one in Kaspiysk (see EDM, November 27).
Yesterday (December 3), in a Svobodnaya Pressa commentary entitled “Russia has Shifted Its Caspian Flotilla to Open Waters,” Sergey Ishchenko points to the increasing importance of the Caspian Flotilla not only as a coast guard, but also as an important means of projecting Russian power around the Caspian and in support of Russian naval operations elsewhere—such as, in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait, against Ukraine. This represents a complete turnaround from the collapse of this part of the Russian fleet in the 1990s. According to Ishchenko, that rebound in the Caspian is set to continue with more ships and more personnel, both naval and marine, entering service in the coming months (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 3).
The Caspian Flotilla attracted sudden increased attention starting in 2015, when several of its ships launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria (see EDM, October 26, 2015). And since then, it has also been notable as a source for ships for the Sea of Azov (see EDM, May 31, June 28). But much more symbolic of the Caspian Flotilla’s new importance is the ongoing relocation of its main base from Astrakhan (to which it was forced to retreat in the early 1990s) to Kaspiysk, in Dagestan, where its ships and personnel can be deployed more easily and effectively against threats emanating from Russia’s still-restive North Caucasus or from the other littoral states, Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan (see EDM, June 4, 7, July 17, November 27).
Moscow has spent enormous funds and effort to transform Kaspiysk into its main base on the Caspian, Ishchenko says. The total amount is classified, but it is known that in planning for the expansion and move, the Russian defense ministry spent “almost a half billion rubles [$70 million]. That figure is impressive, he continues, because the new base in Kaspiysk already had many facilities and naval personnel: Even before this build-up, there was the 414th Marine Battalion, the 177th Regiment of “Black Berets,” the 847th Coastal Rocket Division, the 305th Radar Center, and a helicopter squadron, not to mention various ships of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Coast Guard. Now, Moscow is simultaneously building more facilities, expanding existing units, and introducing new ones, Ishchenko continues (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 3; Mil.ru, December 1).
Much of the infrastructure for this new base is already operational, the military analyst says; but more is planned, with the final completion of the base now set for the end of 2020. This will make the Caspian Flotilla not only the most powerful surface force on that body of water but also correct a fundamental mistake Moscow made in the 1990s. At that time, the Russian government was forced to withdraw the headquarters of the Caspian Flotilla from Baku, where it had been located during the Soviet era, to Astrakhan, where it was allowed, until about five years ago, to decay (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 3).
According to Ishchenko, the Flotilla and its personnel were literally driven out of the capital of the newly independent Azerbaijan by “bandit attacks,” efforts to suborn and recruit Russian sailors, and the Azerbaijani government’s constant monitoring of the Russians’ communications. At the time, he suggests, some in the Russian navy wanted to put the main base of the Caspian Flotilla in Dagestan, but that choice was rejected because this Northeast Caucasus republic was then so unstable that few believed that the naval ships would be safe there. Hence, the decision was made to base it in Astrakhan (Svobodnaya Pressa, December 3).
The Caspian Flotilla might have died completely, Ishchenko says, drawing on his own personal experience in the defense ministry in the 1990s, had it not been for Boris Zinin, then a counter-admiral and later a vice admiral. “[I]n spite of political circumstances,” Zinin organized the first rebasing and worked hard to protect what assets the Caspian Flotilla had at that time. In his memoirs, the Russian commentator says, the admiral makes it clear that he always wanted to have the Flotilla based in Dagestan, where it now is—and where, Ishchenko says, it should be.
Given the Caspian Flotilla’s growing capabilities over the last few years, including not only cruise missiles and marines capable of conducting operations on land but also ships that can be sent through canals to the Sea of Azov and even further, this naval unit will not be a backwater but an essential part of Russian military strategy. “Such a force,” Ishchenko concludes, “is especially worth preserving in the case of any war.” His words take on particular importance in the current environment.