Naval maneuvers in the Atlantic Ocean will mark the first joint exercises conducted between the Russian Navy and NATO. On August 7 the Baltic Fleet set sail for the Mediterranean Sea to join the Spanish Navy and sail to the Atlantic and demonstrate their battle skills. The breakthrough that this marks in cooperation with NATO, utilizing the exercise as a trust-building mechanism, has received much attention in the Russian media. What is so startling about the exercise itself, however, is that the Baltic Fleet, once so feared in the West and upheld as the jewel in the crown of the Soviet Navy, has been under such severe criticism in recent years and has suffered many well publicized setbacks. In fact, it has been so starved of necessary funding that it has struggled to conduct essential practice drills in the Baltic Sea, let alone undertaking long-distance sailings.
These joint exercises will include several weeks of completing various designated tasks, including landings on the Spanish coast and calling at French and Portuguese ports. Given the recent problems that have plagued the Baltic Fleet, its commander, and top brass, the Russian Navy will be particularly keen to promote a more positive image. But their projection may well reflect an unrealistic and dated image of the Baltic Fleet’s capabilities, rather than an accurate picture of its present strengths. In this manner, Admiral Vladimir Valuyev, Commander of the Baltic Fleet, recently commented on Russian television, “Every nation, including Russia, must seek to strengthen its armed forces and the navy. It will come in useful. If NATO behaves peacefully, we’ll stick to peacetime tasks. If, however, the situation is escalated, we’ll always be ready to take appropriate action” (NTV, Mir, August 7). Such rhetoric reflects the widespread view within Russian naval circles that continues to portray NATO as the enemy and therefore NATO must be careful how it conducts itself. This homespun assessment of the threats faced by the Russian Federation does not take into account the rapprochement between the United States and Russia in the aftermath of 9/11, nor does it adequately convey the post-Cold War threat environment. Critically, it is based upon an over-optimistic evaluation of the Russian Navy’s current strength.
In the run-up to the departure of the Baltic Fleet, Russian television reminded its audience of the near-obsessive surveillance conducted by NATO regarding the maritime movements of the Russian navy (Channel One TV, August 1). In the minds of some Russian naval commanders, NATO still fears the Russian navy, continuously subjecting it to close surveillance and watchful of its every move. It is unclear how such individuals rationalize their awareness of the ills of the navy, its desperate need for reform, and the defunct nature of clinging to a “blue-water” vision for its future development with the initiation of joint maneuvers with their old adversary.
This tendency to cling to past glories and ignore present harsh realties also surfaced during the Navy Day celebrations on July 25. Ships and submarines were placed on roads and naval aviation demonstrated its prowess in a display designed to ratchet up the image of the navy. Admirals within this culture rush to vindicate themselves when accused of neglect or mismanagement, and they strenuously deny that there is anything wrong with Russia’s navy. Nonetheless, over-spending and serious delays have marred spending on missile systems for the navy, like other parts of the armed forces. The naval command, for instance, aims at having 13 strategic nuclear-missile submarine cruisers by 2010, carrying a total of 1,000 warheads. This upgrade originally involved producing three Borey-955 submarines between 2005 and 2010 toward a total of six. However, tests of the Bulava-30 engine required for supplying missiles for the vessels reportedly failed in May, resulting in further delays to the original schedule (Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 29).
Rather than being seized as an opportunity to develop more understanding between the Russian military and NATO forces, the exercise seems destined to be hailed within Russia as an example of progress within the Baltic Fleet and therein give an entirely false impression of its condition. The Russian Navy itself needs serious remedying before it becomes a liability to the state, and potentially dangerous if put to sea. This is its dilemma, with little to suggest a solution is imminent. Moreover, trapped in a cycle of lurching from one naval disaster to the next, while trying to preserve the public reputation of the naval commanders, these opportunities are not being used to stimulate genuine debate concerning the type of navy Russia requires in the 21st century and how it can practically achieve this. Redressing the continued decline of the navy will take considerable political will exerted over Admirals steeped in a mindset that seems to preclude real reform.