Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 44

The commander-in-chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, has recently made several public pronouncements which seemed to give the impression that his beleaguered service is on the rebound. In fact, its prospects remain decidedly gloomy. Kuroyedov admits that the fleet has been decimated over the last decade, losing nearly 1,000 vessels ranging in size from cruisers to motor-launches and new construction at a standstill. Last year only one new ship was commissioned–a 1,900-ton frigate designed for the export market (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 1). With no foreign buyers, the Russian Navy has had to absorb what is really an unwanted vessel.

One of Kuroyedov’s most surprising announcements was that the Navy would repair and retain its four nuclear-powered Kirov-class battle cruisers (Russian agencies, January 17). The lead ship of this class, now named the Admiral Ushakov, is more than twenty years old and has been laid up at Severomorsk for most of the last decade following an engineering accident. It had been widely expected that the Ushakov would be scrapped. Kuroyedov insists instead that the ship is to be repaired and modernized–provided the money can be found. A public charity campaign to save the Ushakov got underway last year but voluntary contributions are unlikely to produce the millions needed. Another Kirov-class warship in the Northern Fleet, the Admiral Nakhimov, is newer and in better shape, but is also laid up in Severomorsk for repairs. Only the Northern Fleet flagship, the Peter the Great, can be considered ready for combat. Commissioned in late 1995, it is the last of the Kirovs produced. The sole Kirov in the Pacific fleet, the Admiral Lazarev, was removed from active service in 1997 and was to have been sold for scrap.

Kuroyedov faced a dilemma with the Kirovs. These formidable warships represent a “blue water” offensive naval strategy which many feel is not suitable for Russia today. They exist, however: probably a case of “a bird in the hand” (even a wounded one) being better than a bird in the bush. As they are nuclear-powered, scrapping the Kirovs would be an expensive and difficult option. The likely outcome is that at least two of these ships will never sail again, but instead linger in the shipyards for years under the pretense that they are being repaired.

With the army regaining some of its domestic prestige with its effective–if brutal–performance in Chechnya, the navy needs to do something to keep pace. One way would be to show the Russian flag in foreign waters aboard the navy’s finest warships. Last November then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov would sail to the Atlantic and Mediterranean sometime this year. Putin also said that money would be provided to refurbish the old Soviet naval base at Tartus, Syria and to improve the facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam (Jane’s Defense Weekly, December 1, 1999). Kuroyedov recently announced that the carrier would be accompanied by the Peter the Great and the Admiral Chabanenko–the Northern Fleet’s newest destroyer. In late 1995 the Kuznetsov embarked on a similar six-month cruise which proved to be somewhat of an embarrassment. The ship had difficulty producing the fresh water it needed and limped home at the end of the deployment with engineering problems. It has been under repair in Severomorsk ever since. The Kuznetsov is the Russian Navy’s first and only true aircraft carrier. To the advocates of a blue water strategy for the Russian Navy, it represents qualitative parity with the U.S. Navy. Such proponents have called for a fleet of at least six such ships for the future Russian navy. While such a building program is clearly impossible in the near term, the defense ministry apparently wants to keep this option open. A high-ranking naval aviator, Lieutenant General Ivan Fedin, recently revealed that the Kuznetsov now boasted an airwing consisting of thirty-six Su-33 strike fighters (double the number aboard when the ship last deployed). This would mean that naval aviation has received more new planes than the Russian Airforce itself. Fedin also noted that his pilots were only able to fly twenty to twenty-five hours per year, roughly the flight time an American naval aviator gets each month (Russian agencies, February 19). It is statistics like this–and not a one-off demonstration cruise–which reflect the true state of the Russian Navy. Even if the deployment were to go off without a hitch, most observers will continue to believe that the service is living on borrowed time.