The Russian Navy has played second fiddle to the Russian army in Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine. Indeed, it has suffered embarrassing losses including the Moskva flagship of its Black Sea Fleet and the drone attacks on that fleet’s home base at Sevastopol (see EDM, November 8, 2022). Russian naval planners have now been forced to consider how best to modernize its fleet and make it more combat-ready. And they are scrambling to do so; however, three factors have combined to limit their ability to achieve those goals anytime soon. First, the longstanding problems of Russian shipbuilding and the consequent difficulties Moscow has in building new ships or refitting existing ones remains a key issue (see EDM, October 5, 2021; October 12, 2021). Second, the proclivity of Russian naval commanders for large ships over smaller ones hurts naval modernization, even if the latter might prove more effective in conflicts such as the one in Ukraine (see EDM, November 1, 2018; Izvestiya, April 24). And third, the ever-expanding demands Russian President Vladimir Putin has been putting on the Russian Navy for service in the Arctic and against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have left naval forces spread far too thin and have blocked a fundamental refocusing of efforts on Ukraine, which the war current seems to require (see EDM, September 29, 2022).
Addressing any of these challenges would be difficult in the best of times, but doing so in wartime is especially difficult (see EDM, February 8; March 2). Some Russian naval planners are seeking what might be described as workarounds, including the traditional bombastic promises that Russia is finally in a position to do what it has never been able to do before—namely, modernize its navy in a timely fashion; expand reliance on older Soviet-era weapon systems renamed and only slightly modified, which Ukrainian forces have demonstrated can be rather effective; and even the use of foreign yards and the possible acquisition of ships owned by other countries. None of these tactics are likely to work, but all of them should be considered as both a window into the way business is conducted in Moscow and a sign of how Russian military planners intend to use their naval resources—not only in Ukraine but elsewhere as well.
When faced with problems, Kremlin officials have traditionally responded with claims that they have all been solved or soon will be. Russian naval commanders are no exception; and in recent weeks, these military officials have insisted that all the problems of the past have been overcome, that corruption in shipyards is at an end, that all money available for the navy is being well spent, that older ships will be refitted in a timely fashion and that new vessels will be put to sea before older ones are scrapped (Regnum, June 5; Topcor.ru, June, 6). However, independent reports, both by Russian and foreign analysts, dispute every one of these points and suggest instead that the Russian Navy will continue to suffer from the problems that have plagued it since the end of Soviet times (Topwar.ru, April 5, 2019; see EDM, April 25, 2019; November 28, 2022).
The second Russian tactic in such situations represents a kind of shell game in which something fundamentally old is presented as something entirely new. Remarkably, in this case, one Russian military analyst has suggested that Moscow should copy Kyiv when it comes to the use of older naval equipment. According to Vitaly Orlov, “The Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian military-industrial complex have much to learn from their Ukrainian counterparts” who have successfully used slightly modified Soviet equipment during the current war. He argues that the use of “obsolete” equipment will give “great opportunities to the Russian Navy to finally give an asymmetric ‘response’ to the sinking of the Moskva as well as the attacks on the Crimean bridge and Snake Island” (Svpressa.ru, June 18). That anyone in Moscow could recommend that the Kremlin should copy Kyiv is clearly a measure of Russian desperation and of how mired in problems its naval program remains.
But even more indicative of Russia’s problems with its naval forces has been the willingness of Moscow to look abroad for help. One Duma deputy has proposed buying back the aircraft carrier China acquired from Ukraine (RIA Novosti, June 1). Such a transaction is unlikely, but Moscow has already made two other moves to receive foreign help for its shipbuilding efforts: It has turned to Turkey for the construction of a dry dock that may allow Moscow to rebuild Russia’s only remaining aircraft carrier (see EDM, June 15, 2021) and to Iran for help in repairing its merchant fleet, something that may allow the Russian authorities to shift resources to wharves where military vessels are being constructed (Casp-geo.ru, June 20; Window on Eurasia, October 20, 2022). However, because Russia has been denied access to most other foreign yards due to international sanctions, these are more acts of desperation than of hope.
But there is yet another sign that Russian officials are far more concerned about the state of the Russian Navy than many in the West have assumed. As direct criticism of Putin and his policies are dangerous, Russians worried about where the Kremlin is leading the country are using a strategy often employed by critics of the Soviet leadership before 1991: they are citing in extenso Western criticism of what the top leaders of their country are doing and allowing readers to reach their own conclusions about the facts. In Soviet times, these people were often lumped together as specialists on “bourgeois falsifiers,” a group of experts who often introduced new ideas into debates in Moscow. Now, the Russian Military Review portal has taken this step and published a summary of a devastating American critique of where the Russian Navy currently stands (Topwar.ru, May 25; reproduced from Business Insider, May 24).
That critique describes how “the Russian Navy’s biggest warships are becoming its biggest headaches,” how the war in Ukraine appears to be “affecting Russia’s plans to modernize and upgrade its navy” and how Moscow is failing to correct the mistakes it has made in the past. For these reasons and those outlined above, it remains a virtual certainty that Moscow’s much-ballyhooed plans for modernizing the Russian fleet for use against Ukraine or anywhere else are unlikely to be realized as long as Putin is in power —and perhaps well after that time.