Disgruntlement Grows Within Leadership Ranks of Russian Navy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 121

(Source: Bloomberg)

On July 25, Russia celebrated Navy Day (see EDM, July 26). With plenty of pomp and circumstance, naval parades were held at various Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) bases, from Petropavlovsk (Kamchatka) and Vladivostok (the main bases of the Pacific Fleet, in the east), to Baltiysk (headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, in Kaliningrad Oblast), in the west. The Russian Northern Fleet held its naval parade in its main base, in Severomorsk; the Black Sea Fleet celebrated in Sevastopol; and way south, in Syria, in the Russian naval base in Tartus, the Russian permanent Mediterranean naval operational task force held its own, separate display. Warships were anchored in parade lines for the high brass to observe, while naval jets and helicopters made the requisite flyovers. In 2017, President Vladimir Putin resumed the Soviet ritual of a Main Naval Parade in St. Petersburg. The COVID-19 pandemic did not stop the Main Naval Parade in 2020, and Putin, unvaccinated and without a mask, observed it together with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. On July 25, 2021, both men returned to St. Petersburg, again unmasked, viewing VMF ships on the Neva River and an exhibition of submarines and larger surface vessels at the Kronstadt naval base on Kotlin Island, west of St. Petersburg (Interfax, July 25).

Since the novel coronavirus outbreak began, no one has been allowed to penetrate Putin’s “clean zone” bubble, whether indoors or outdoors, inside the Kremlin or traveling, without first spending up to two weeks under tightly monitored, total isolation (see EDM, July 22). And though, at this point, Putin has been fully vaccinated, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov recently confirmed, “Precautionary measures are still being taken.” Those measures may vary with different people, but they typically include a prolonged quarantine and intense testing (TASS, July 26).

With Russia currently being ravaged by the highly transmittable delta mutation of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the authorities forbade the public to gather on the embankments of the Neva or along the shoreline of Sevastopol Bay, asking Russians to watch the parade on TV. But lots of people came anyway; the usually brutal Russian police did not enforce the ban and allowed the public through. Large, mostly unmasked crowds lined the embankments. According to a recent poll, 51 percent of Russians do not believe a COVID-19 infection poses any threat, while some 38 percent think otherwise. Fewer than 20 percent of Russians have been fully vaccinated (Interfax, July 28). Putin’s unmasked public appearances, while secretly safe for him, seemingly defy the coronavirus threat and undermine the government’s public health recommendations.

It is well known that Putin loves the navy. Growing up as a child in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)—the old imperial capital built by Tsar Peter the Great to be the center of Russian naval power—Russia’s future president may have been enthralled with the sea and the ships; nonetheless, he ended up graduating from the legal faculty of Leningrad University and enlisted in the KGB to become a spy. After taking over the Kremlin in 2000, Putin has many times been photographed or filmed donning a naval uniform and embarking on ships and even underwater, on a nuclear submarine, where he passed a submariner inauguration ritual: drinking sea water and kissing a hanging sledgehammer (Ytro.news, February 16, 2004). Last Sunday, Putin was visibly thrilled to observe the line of ships on the Neva and at Kronstadt. In an official speech at the Main Naval Parade, he declared the Russian VMF to be battle-ready and prepared to detect, defeat and destroy “any enemy, anywhere, underwater, above water, in the air” (militarynews, July 25).

The Northern Fleet sent to St. Petersburg Russia’s newest Borei-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The K-549—the first operational upgraded Borei-A—sailed into the Baltic Sea through the Danish Straits on the surface, open for anyone to observe and record its unique sonic profile. The mode of survival of SSBNs is total stealth, hiding in their so-called Barents Sea fortress. But there it was, in the shallow Baltic, parked at Kronstadt for Putin to admire (Interfax, July 25).

Shoigu may have used the naval parade showcase to lobby Putin not to cut the defense budget. Still, the Russian VMF is deeply unhappy. After 2010, as Russian defense spending rapidly increased, the Russian navy had grand expansion and modernization plans, but many of them were rejected or withered. The service’s hopes included reviving the nuclear Kirov-class nuclear super cruisers, but only Admiral Nakhimov is being refurbished—at a staggering cost—while its two sister-ships are being scrapped (Militarynews.ru, February 18). The navy had also wanted to build nuclear-powered Lider-class super destroyers—vessels almost as big as the Kirov-class cruisers, but better armed and equipped to take on the United States Navy on the high seas. Those construction plans have been postponed indefinitely (RIA Novosti, April, 15). Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, is stranded without a propeller, its remont (repair and retrofitting) off schedule due to lack of an adequate dry dock to complete its renovation (Interfax, April 13; see EDM, June 15).

The Russian navy wants carriers, but plans to build them have been equally postponed. Still Russia’s admirals mostly resent (hate) being dominated by army (tank) generals. The top military commander observing the VMF parade in Sevastopol on July 25 was Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov. As commander of the Southern Military District, he is in charge of the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. Only the Northern Fleet today has the rank of a separate military district and is somewhat operationally independent of the Ground Forces. According to Admiral (ret.) Vladimir Komoyedov, the VMF is a neglected orphan: The naval command does not control the fleet operationally or its shipbuilding program (Gazeta.ru, July 24).

Ahead of Navy Day, Putin signed an ukaz (decree) stipulating the St. Andrew’s Cross flag as the Russian navy ensign, replacing a similar 1992 order by then-president Boris Yeltsin. The main difference is that Yeltsin’s ukaz additionally stipulated the design of naval flag-officers’ colors, while Putin’s ukaz does not mention them at all. The VMF leadership believes this may be a conspiracy by army (tank) generals to strip naval flag-officers of their personal ensigns, adding insult to injury (Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 24). Putin may have a mutiny brewing on his watch; but does he comprehend this from inside his safe bubble?