New Dimensions of the Russian Naval Presence: Prospects Versus Realities

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 213

Admiral Tributs anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyer

Before departing for the APEC Summit in Singapore President Dmitry Medvedev signed into law new legislation concerning the use of Russia’s armed forces abroad. While retaining the stipulation that the armed forces would only be used under extreme circumstances, the new law stated that force could be applied to protect Russian citizens and interests around the globe. Medvedev had asked for the legislation in August just after the first anniversary of the Russo-Georgian War. On signing the bill Medvedev stated: “Our citizens must be protected in any part of the world, and they must feel protected by the state.” The legislation provides a legal basis for the use of the armed forces abroad to repel attacks on Russian forces deployed overseas, to repel or deter attacks on foreign states seeking protection from Russia, defend Russian citizens abroad, fight piracy at sea and to protect Russian maritime commerce (RIA Novosti, November 9).

The mention of anti-piracy operations and protection of maritime commerce underscores the importance the Russian government has now placed on having a naval presence as a means of protecting Russian interests. To make that point even more apparent, Medvedev’s attendance at the APEC summit had a distinctly naval aspect with the visit of the missile cruiser Varyag, the flag ship of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Singapore, which maintains littoral naval forces to protect shipping in the vital Straits of Malacca, is hosting this port call. Russian anti-piracy flotillas have been transiting the Straits during their deployments from the Pacific Fleet’s bases to the coast of Somalia and back home. The Varyag docked at Singapore’s Changi naval base. President Medvedev, despite his busy schedule of multilateral and bilateral meetings with heads of state, took time to make an official visit to the Varyag, and met with its crew in the officers’ mess (ITAR-TASS, November 16). Medvedev used the occasion of the visit to the cruiser to announce the government’s intention to increase naval presence around the world. He confirmed the trend of increased deployment, which began in 2007, and when asked by a crew member if this would continue, he said: “Yes, it is planned” (ITAR-TASS, November 16).

On the same day, the Pacific Fleet announced the return of the anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyer, Admiral Tributs, and her escorting oceanic rescue tug, MB-99 and tanker, Boris Butoma, to Vladivostok after the completion of its 141-day deployment to the coast of Somalia. On its way home the flotilla made a port call in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Krasnaya Zvezda, November 17). The Admiral Tributs was the latest of the Russian warships to conduct anti-piracy operations in the theater. The destroyer carried a detachment of naval infantry trained for special operations and two KA-27 (NATO-designation Helix) ASW helicopters, which were employed in an anti-piracy role on this deployment.

In a recent interview onboard the Varyag, Rear-Admiral Sergei Avakiants, the commander of the flotilla that included the cruiser, addressed the challenges the Pacific Fleet met during this year’s training, exercises and deployments. He paid special attention to the long-range cruises undertaken by Russian naval detachments off the coast of Somalia at a time when the navy was undergoing major changes in personnel policy, training and education, and an increased operational tempo. Rear-Admiral Avakiants emphasized the need for new vessels to replace those long in service. Avakiants, a surface warfare officer with command experience in the Northern Fleet, took pride in the current level of naval activities: “Indeed, I was very pleased that many of the fleet’s ships, as they say, do not rust at the pier, and solve various problems away from home, at different points in the oceans. It just creates the familiar rhythm of this seaman naval service, [and] adds confidence about the future” (Krasnaya Zvezda, November 11).

Other professional observers are not so confident in the navy’s ability to meet the demands of change. The prominent defense correspondent Viktor Litovkin wrote a critical article on the main naval staff and its enthusiasm for signing contracts without doing the groundwork necessary to ensure their efficient execution (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 2). He drew attention to the purchase of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship from France. Litovkin was responding to an interview on Ekho Moskvy by Vice-Admiral Oleg Burtsev, the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Burtsev had listed a long series of priority projects that the Navy High Command was addressing. In addition to the acquisition of the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship from France, he enumerated the construction of similar ships in Russia, the acquisitions of helicopters for them, the establishment and modernization of a Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria, to support long-range deployments, the re-commissioning of two nuclear-powered cruisers of the Peter Velikii (Peter the Great) class, and the construction of new surface combatants and submarines.

Litovkin expressed doubts about the naval leadership’s ability to complete all these projects in a timely and efficient manner. Litovkin noted the admiral’s silence on one timely topic, the recent abandoned test-firing of the failure-plagued Bulava missile from the Dmitry Donskoi strategic nuclear submarine (SSBN) entering service. He particularly noted the delays associated with construction in Russia’s naval shipyards. He concluded the article with a stinging indictment of a leadership prone to dream, but poor in the planning and execution of projects (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 2).

Recent events have raised questions about the competence of the navy. The recent spectacular explosion of naval ordnance at a base near Ulyanovsk and the crash of a Pacific Fleet Tu-142M3 long-range reconnaissance aircraft because of engine failure lend credence to Litovkin’s concerns. Professional naval officers will strongly argue for long-range cruises and active deployments as the best way to prepare crews, develop élan, and forge combat-effective squadrons and flotillas. But the naval leadership must provide an infrastructure to support such cruises. In the absence of that, the cruise becomes only an episode and not a foundation for further growth and development. That is the real challenge before the Russian navy: it is not new.