Russia’s Ministry of Defense has proposed an amendment to the existing presidential decree on the military administrative division of the country. The amendment is expected to be completed and signed into law by December 1, 2019. It will mark an upgrade to the status of the Northern Fleet, effectively detaching it from its current subordination to the North Military District (MD).
It is important to understand the significance of this structural chance at a strategic level and its, implications for the future disposition of the Russian navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF). The amendment will include the following insertion into the presidential decree from September 20, 2010 on the military district system: “An independent military-administrative unit of the Russian Federation, which is not part of the military districts of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, is the Northern Fleet.” The Northern Fleet is located in the administrative borders of the Republics of Komi, Arkhangelsk and Murmansk as well as the Nenets Autonomous District (Topwar.ru, April 17).
In the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian conflict in August 2008, the Russian defense ministry embarked on its first real reform of the Armed Forces since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A key element in this reform, and in the additional changes that followed, was the simplification of the military district system. In September 2010, the presidential decree transitioned away from the original six MDs to recreate four MDs: West, South, Central and East. Additionally, these would function in peacetime as MDs, the main military administrative unit within the country, and in wartime become Joint Strategic Commands (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK).
In December 2015, a new North OSK was added to increase the total number of MDs/OSKs to five. The OSKs are designed to function differently during military operations, with the critical distinction being that the OSK commander has complete control over all military and security structures within the OSK, apart from strategic-level assets functioning under the General Staff, such as the Airborne Forces (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) (Infox.ru, April 30, 2010).
Thus, the plan to detach the Northern Fleet from the North MD/OSK takes its control out of the hands of the OSK commander. According to defense ministry sources speaking to Izvestia, the Northern Fleet will not only be detached from the North MD/OSK, it will also independently attain its own status as an MD/OSK. In other words, it demonstrates the extent to which the political-military leadership attaches importance to this particular naval fleet. It will not, therefore, become a strategic asset subordinated directly to the General Staff, like the VDV and others, but instead attain the same status within the military administrative system as an MD/OSK. In turn, this places the commander of the Northern Fleet on an equal level to the other OSK commanders, which is a highly important service achievement. Admiral Nikolai Evmenov, the Commander of the Northern Fleet, is expected to remain in his post following this military administrative change (Izvestia, April 19).
Since the Northern Fleet is factored into the United States’ and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) assessments of Russian military capabilities in relation to potential conflict in the European theater of operations, some might argue that this change in the status of the fleet could have implications for Western militaries. It is, therefore, worthwhile to try to understand what is driving such administrative change and whether there are grounds for seeing this as an anti-Western strategic message. Changes to the force structure, order of battle, or status of key military assets in Western and Northern MDs/OSKs can influence the overall military and strategic balance beyond Russia’s borders (Topwar.ru, April 17).
At present, Russia’s political-military leadership is silent on the motives for this change. Even so, it may be further clarified later in the year, as the amendment is signed into law. But, according to Moscow-based defense experts, the overriding factor in making the change to the status of the Northern Fleet is about the Arctic (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 19). The experiment with the creation of the North OSK was rooted in advancing Russia’s military capability to protect its future interests in this vital region. In 2016, for example, the Northern Fleet participated in two large-scale two-month-long exercises. The exercises rehearsed the interaction between naval, aviation and ground forces in operations in the Arctic. This involved surface vessels and submarines, strategic bombers, air-defense units, naval infantry and motorized rifle brigades for combined air, land and sea operations. The exercises were considered a success by the defense ministry and played a role in the recent decision regarding the status of the Northern Fleet (Izvestia, April 19).
Moscow-based military expert Anton Lavrov believes that the decision was caused by the search for an optimal organizational structure for the Northern Fleet. In an interview, Lavrov told Izvestia, “The decision of the Ministry of Defense once again emphasizes that the Arctic is a priority military direction for us.”. Furthermore, Russian military expert Viktor Murakhovsky noted that the northern territories are recognized as especially important for the defense of Russia. He emphasized, “The new status reflects the special role of the naval forces in the Arctic” (Izvestia, April 19).
The change to the status of the Northern Fleet will elevate its importance in Russia’s overall naval strategy and facilitate force modernization and development. It is likely to be exploited by the leadership of the fleet in order to press for further investment and modernization in keeping with its new higher-profile status. At the moment, the change appears to have arisen from the military exercises conducted in the North OSK since 2016, and marks a significant shift in the military administrative structure of the Russian Armed Forces, as well as an achievement for the Russian VMF.