Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 15

The Russian navy announced last week that it had dispatched three warships from the Russian Pacific Fleet on a two-and-a-half month voyage into the Indian Ocean. The antisubmarine vessels Admiral Vinogradov and Admiral Panteleev, accompanied by the tanker Vladimir Kolechitsky, are scheduled to dock at the Indian port of Mumbai on February 14. There they will take part in an international naval parade, then set sail for Vietnam, where they are scheduled to dock at the Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay ports in March. During the voyage the crews of the three vessels are to take part in numerous training exercises.

Russian sources are portraying the mission as very significant, in part because it marks the first time in some ten years that Russian ships have embarked upon such a long sea journey. But more important is the assertion by Russian naval officials that the mission also reflects goals set out in a newly drafted Russian naval doctrine. Details have not yet been made public, but its essential point is apparently that Moscow intends to return to the high seas as one of the world’s great naval powers. As one Russian naval official put it: “The current voyage of the Pacific Fleet unit testifies to the seriousness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements about a new Russian naval policy and naval doctrine. Russia will regain its status of a great sea power.”

Such statements, like the launching of the current mission to the Indian Ocean, may raise more questions about Russian naval policy than they answer, however. Most obvious is the rationale for dispatching the three vessels now, a scant five months after the tragic loss of the Russian submarine Kursk. It is worth remembering that the naval exercises in which the Kursk was lost were themselves preparations for an initial “first” Russian naval mission onto the high seas. As is the case with the current Russian naval mission to the Indian Ocean, the Kursk was to have been part of a Russian naval group sent to the Mediterranean Sea primarily in order to “show the Russian flag” and to announce Russia’s reemergence as a naval power to the world. The Kursk’s demise spelled the end to that poorly conceived effort, and it is troubling to think that the Russian political and military leaderships have now chosen to launch what probably has been a hastily planned voyage far from Russian waters.

Indeed, the current naval mission, together with the draft naval doctrine itself, suggests that the Kremlin is adopting a dubious approach to naval policy. The Russian navy right now can aptly be described as a crippled fleet, with tremendous problems involving financing, infrastructure and personnel. According to a recent Russian television report, the number of vessels available to the navy has declined by about 85 percent over the past decade, and, owing also to fuel shortages, only about a dozen nuclear submarines, another ten diesel subs, and some thirty-seven ships are considered to be fully combat ready. Spending on the navy has declined precipitously, now making up about 12 percent of a meager defense budget when some five years ago it totaled 15 percent. More than 150 decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines are now sitting in port rusting, each a potential nuclear catastrophe in the making (Russian Public Television, October 29, 2000; BBC, August 14, 2000; Segodnya, January 15).

Against this background, it would seem to make little sense to employ Russia’s scarce financial resources either in voyages abroad important mostly for their symbolism, or in an attempt to reconstruct a world-class blue water navy. Yet the draft Russian naval doctrine, which is being authored by naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov and reportedly has the support of Putin, is said to reject the notion that the Russian navy should at present aim primarily at defending Russia’s coastal zones. Kuroyedov is apparently also intending to strengthen the strategic deterrent role of the navy and hopes to field a new generation of nuclear submarines equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles. What is unclear is where the Russian government will find the money for such an ambitious expansion of Russian naval power, and whether prioritizing an expensive plan like this will undermine the Kremlin’s broader military reform efforts (UPI, AVN, January 15; The Russia Journal, January 19; Obshchaya gazeta, January 18-24; Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 18).