Moscow to Expand Use of Russia’s Commercial Fleet for Military Purposes

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 78

Russian cargo ship Kuzma Minin (Source: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov announced, on May 20, that Moscow is revising its naval doctrine and will be calling for a dramatic expansion in the use of the country’s civilian fleet to support Russian military actions abroad in wartime situations (Interfax, Profil, May 20). Like other states, Russia has long planned to use commercial vessels for military purposes, but Borisov’s announcement suggests Russian military planners have concluded that the only way to overcome current problems in the navy—the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF)—is to ensure that all Russian-flagged vessels, regardless of their ostensible purposes, are available for military tasks in the event of war. Clearly, this decision stems from the Russian VMF’s long-running difficulties in supporting the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine (see EDM, April 25, 2019)

Speaking during a session of the Naval Collegium at the Admiralty last Friday, Borisov argued that the existing Russian naval doctrine, adopted in July 2017, must be corrected on the basis of the country’s experiences during “the special military operation” in Ukraine. He said that the conflict had shown the need for changes so that the VMF will remain capable of defending national interests. He further specified that the changes would focus, in the first instance, on ensuring that all commercial ships under a Russian flag be constructed or rebuilt so that they will be dual-use vessels, capable of civilian trade when possible yet be of military utility when necessary (Vzglyad, May 20).

Commenting on this, Admiral Vladimir Valuyev, a former commander of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, told Vzglyad that Moscow has always planned to make use of its civilian fleet during armed hostilities, but policy changes were needed to make that transition easier. Among the categories of ships to be affected most immediately are icebreakers, which already play a role in promoting Russia’s national security but must be more closely integrated into the military, and smaller civilian ships, which could be used as minesweepers, “especially if their hulls are made of plastic or wood,” the admiral continued. He reiterated Deputy Prime Minister Borisov’s contention that any new civilian ships constructed in Russia today must be dual-use vessels (Vzglyad, May 22).

Maksim Klimov, a retired Russian captain who often comments for the domestic media on naval issues, said that the revisions being proposed by the government are needed because it has now become obvious that Russia’s conflict with the West will be lengthy. Therefore, Moscow must use all the resources at its disposal to respond. In Soviet times, he recalled, the state was more focused on that requirement than Russian officials have been recently; however, the current grinding conflict in Ukraine has refocused their attention on the necessity to develop Russia’s capabilities through the use of civilian vessels for military purposes (Vzglyad, May 22).

Whenever Russia is engaged in a military struggle, Klimov asserted, the civilian fleet must be quickly transformed into what he called “the floating rear” of Russian forces. That happened to a certain extent in Syria (the so-called “Syrian express,” which supplied Russian military bases there). But more needs to be done as the Ukrainian conflict has shown. Since the full-scale war’s beginning, he pointed out, Ankara has used its rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention to close the Turkish Straits to Russian naval vessels. Therefore, civilian vessels must be used to supply naval forces bottled up in the Black Sea (Vzglyad, May 22). Indeed, a recent study by Turkish analyst Yörük Işık finds that Russia has for months been “violating the spirit of Montreux,” circumventing the war-time restriction on naval traffic through the Straits by periodically sending ostensibly civilian merchant ships to resupply its isolated Black Sea Fleet (, May 18).

Yet according to Klimov, “one of the most critical issues” in this area, as far as the Russian fleet is concerned, is the lack of container vessels. Moscow must quickly address this shortage. And it must also be sensitive to another problem: many Russian ships are currently operating under the flags of other countries. Moscow needs to reduce their number and also be willing to compel Russian companies to obey mobilization orders even if their ships are operating under foreign flags. This voiced argument indicates the Kremlin may plan to ignore international maritime law in the name of Russian national security. All these steps are necessary, the retired naval officer declared, to ensure that the Russian navy can operate effectively (Vzglyad, May 22).

Another retired VMF captain, Konstantin Sivkov, agrees. He noted that in the event of a military conflict, container ships will have to be commandeered to ensure Russian forces are adequately supplied. The value of such vessels, he argued was demonstrated most compellingly by the British experience in the Falklands War, in 1982; and the importance of container ships has only increased in more recent decades. In addition, the military specialist said, Russian naval commanders will want to mobilize ships capable of carrying oil and natural gas as well as bulk cargo of various kinds. They will also require that passenger vessels be put under naval control in order to move military personnel. All these measures should be included in the revised military doctrine. Taken together, such actions mean that Moscow views most of the 296 Russian civilian ships as part of its military reserve (Vzglyad, May 22, 2022; PortNews, December 11, 2020).

But Ilya Kramnik, a researcher on security issues at the Russian Academy of Sciences, noted that in taking the commercial fleet–related steps Borisov proposes, Moscow should not stop working to build a larger and more modern navy. Far more effort needs to be devoted there, he said, given that naval construction programs have been lagging (Profil, May 20). His words suggest that he and others fear the Kremlin may be looking to the civilian fleet as a quick fix to its broader naval problems. If that is the case, Russia’s position on the high seas will only continue to deteriorate, while conflicts between the country’s political leadership and the naval high command will intensify (see EDM, July 29, 2021).