Russian President Vladimir Putin used a speech on his country’s main naval holiday, which is celebrated on July 29, to rekindle visions of the fleet’s former glory. Despite the Russian leader’s rhetoric, however, the holiday served more to highlight the navy’s current abject state and its ongoing deterioration than to raise any bright hopes for the future. Russia’s Northern Fleet, for example–the most powerful of the country’s naval groupings–chose to cancel its traditional naval holiday parade for the first time in history. The reason: a recognition that it would be inappropriate to celebrate as the August 12 anniversary of the nuclear submarine Kursk’s tragic demise approaches. Naval celebrations in some other locations, including Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg, were also subdued or curtailed. There was more activity in Ukraine’s Crimea region, where Putin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma oversaw a joint celebration involving vessels from the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian navy.
But the festivities marking navy day in Russia’s Far Eastern region may have best summed up the fleet’s long decade of decline. There, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov oversaw what was to have been the navy’s only full fledged Navy day celebration for this year. But the festivities, which came one year after fuel shortages had forced the Pacific Fleet to cancel its own naval parade for the first time in post-war history, were curtailed when a fierce storm hit the Vladivostok region. That the show finally did go on, moreover, may have been of little to comfort to many Pacific Fleet officers. Ivanov brought with him a new fleet commander–Vice Admiral Gennady Suchkov–but his arrival was expected by many to signal the start of a major move by the Kremlin to downsize and restructure the Russian navy’s second largest and most troubled fleet.
The naval holiday was also marked by an announcement that Putin had at long last signed a major defense document–Russia’s official naval doctrine–that along with the country’s Concept of National Security and its Military Doctrine is supposed to orient policymakers and military planners. And, indeed, Putin used the naval holiday to proclaim that the new doctrine would “promote the strengthening of Russia’s national interests and its international authority as one of the leading naval powers.” That reinforced an earlier message from the Russian President in which he described the navy as a “symbol of the power and greatness of our country.” Ivanov, speaking nearly a continent away, used similar, if somewhat more restrained rhetoric. “The state is strong only, including in trade, when it is backed up by a certain strength,” he said. “I very much hope and believe that the Pacific Fleet will gradually emerge from the coma in which it has been over the past few years” (Reuters, July 29, August 1; DPA, July 30; Kommersant, July 30; Novye Izvestia, August 2).
Yet Russian commentators appeared to be united in suggesting that while the unveiling of the new doctrine may have provided a brief boost to naval morale, it is unlikely to have any major practical impact on the Russian Navy for some time to come. As Aleksandr Pikayev, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, put it: “This is a very vague doctrine, and based on the experience of similar doctrines in the past; its practical importance is questionable, to put it mildly.” Pikayev and others pointed out that it is procurement policy which will play the major role in determining the navy’s future strength, and there is little at present to suggest that the government is in a position to begin reequipping the Russian fleet. Indeed, the Russian navy has been neglected in this area perhaps more than any of the country’s other armed services, and the results are apparent. The fleet has shrunk dramatically since the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, with the number of surface vessels and submarines having fallen by more than one-half, according to some estimates. In 1991, for example, the Soviet navy is believed to have had about 400 nuclear and diesel submarines and 700 surface vessels. According to a recent report published by Izvestia, the naval command now fields a total of about 100 submarines and a little over 300 surface ships. And those numbers will continue to fall (Reuters, August 1, Izvestia, July 31).
The recent history of Russia’s naval doctrine, meanwhile, appears to symbolize in some respects the often erratic course that Russian military reform more generally has followed in the post-Soviet period. According to Russian accounts, the new doctrine is to a large extent simply an elaboration of a doctoral dissertation authored and presented last summer–and only a short time before the Kursk disaster–by current Naval Commander-in-Chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov. Kuroyedov’s presentation was unique in that it was attended by none other than Putin. Many observers attributed that development to the special place that the navy reportedly held in the Russian leader’s heart, and there was speculation at the time that Putin intended to throw his weight behind some of the recommendations in the new doctrine by significantly raising the Navy’s status within the armed forces. The Kursk disaster appears to have changed all of that, however. The tragedy, which appeared also to trigger the Kremlin’s current move to reduce and restructure the armed forces more generally, apparently discredited the navy in Putin’s eyes and contributed to what some believe was a decision to abandon (for the near term, at least) thoughts of rebuilding a blue-water navy.
But that said, the newly approved military doctrine does nevertheless contain one element suggesting–if analysis published by one Russian newspaper is on target–that the navy is being singled out for special treatment by the Kremlin. That element is the establishment of a “naval collegium,” a new agency which is to receive a permanent staff of both government and naval personnel. According to the newspaper Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie (“Independent Military Review”), the naval collegium could serve as a direct link between the naval command and the government, one which would bypass both the Defense Ministry and the General Staff. A report on the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru web site speculates that the Kremlin will exert direct influence over naval policy through the new collegium, and defines the agency as both a center for the conduct of state naval policy, and as a body tasked with coordinating a wide range of governmental bodies, scientific and research organizations, as well as production facilities involved in implementing naval policy (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, August 3; Strana.ru, July 29).
It remains to be seen what all of this will mean in practice. To date the Kremlin has moved with some caution both in installing its own people atop the defense hierarchy and in seeking to implement its own military policies. It remains constrained, moreover, by funding shortfalls and the need to prioritize spending carefully both among the service branches and between the military and the defense industrial sector. That spending priorities may be shifting to the latter group and that the Kremlin intends no immediate rearming of the navy–or any other service–was suggested anew yesterday by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov. The man who is overseeing a restructuring of Russia’s defense industrial sector (see the Monitor, August 2), said that the armed forces would be making no new arms purchases until the start of the next decade. The idea “is that for the [next] six to eight years we only spend money on repairs, and on the modernization of existing technology,” he said (AFP, August 1). Klebanov’s remarks suggest that the more grandiose ambitions set out in the new naval doctrine are likely to remain just that for the foreseeable future.
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