One of the hallmarks of Vladimir Putin’s leadership has been the steady rise in capabilities and mission sets for the Russian navy—the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF). Already in February 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu outlined an agenda for a network of global bases for the VMF (RIA Novosti, February 26, 2014), not coincidentally on the same day as Russian forces began their invasion of Crimea. The timing strongly suggested that Moscow’s Ukrainian war, from its outset, was somehow connected to a larger strategic plan. And more recent developments have further buttressed this supposition, revealing that, along with the quest for naval outposts in all corners of the world, Russia is apparently endeavoring to achieve a global strike capability.
Certainly, the latest military exercises over the past month suggest an ambitious set of mission requirements and training to achieve those capabilities. Upon concluding its annual nuclear exercise, Grom 2019, which gave the nuclear navy a prominent role (Mil.ru, October 14), Russia then sent 12 submarines and 17 supply vessels into the North Atlantic. The location and makeup of this latter force grouping clearly suggested an intention to rehearse either missile strikes on North America and/or training for interdiction of allied naval forces or assaults on lines of communication in that ocean. Those forces also deployed first into the Barents and Norwegian seas, thus pointing to the heightened role that the Northern Fleet now plays in Russian military planning (Interfax, November 8).
In September, the VMF confirmed that, for the first time, it had launched the nuclear-capable Oniks supersonic cruise missile from the Bastion ground-based missile system, after it had been deployed for about ten years (TASS, September 27). The missile’s range, based on fuel exhaustion measurements, is more than 600 kilometers. Russia’s move toward underscoring nuclear scenarios or at least of suggesting them is also visible in other recent developments. For example the navy is now discussing building Project 636.3 submarines armed with dual-use Kalibr cruise missile for the Baltic Fleet, hitherto a non-nuclear fleet (TASS, November 15). The Black Sea Fleet has also, until now, been a non-nuclear naval force. But Tu-22M3 strategic bombers have conducted patrols over the international waters of the Black Sea to remind everyone that Russia considers this area fully within its private preserve (TASS, March 14). Similarly, last month, for the first time ever, Russia fired the Bulava ballistic missile from one of its new Borei-class submarines (Vedomosti, October 30). Even if, reportedly, the Bulava can only launch from west to east (Vedomosti, October 30; see EDM, November 7), the successful demonstration nevertheless clearly enhances—and showcases to outside observers—Russia’s naval nuclear capabilities.
Moscow is also undertaking exercises and maneuvers beyond Russian territory to improve its already visibly enhanced capability for joint operations. Thus, the Russian Armed Forces recently conducted joint air and naval joint exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean (UA Wire, November 8). Since those exercises occurred near the Israeli border, they probably were intended to remind Israel that Russia now claims to own Syrian air space and is not above retaliating if Israel launches strikes against Iran or other targets of which Moscow does not approve. Consequently, these exercises clearly surprised the Israelis.
Nor is the Middle East the only area where Moscow seeks to project power. Notably, Venezuela has offered Moscow a naval and air base at La Orchila (Vaaju.com, December 17, 2018). The site could become an outpost for Russia to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles, either conventional or nuclear, aimed at the continental United States and bringing all of Latin America and the Caribbean under Moscow’s nuclear umbrella—or shadow, depending on the target government’s level of friendliness. Indeed, Putin has already threatened to do this (Kremlin.ru, February 20, 2019). Likewise Moscow is pursuing bases for air, ground, and naval forces in and around Africa (The Guardian, September 11, 2018; see EDM, February 28, 2019, June 4, 2019, October 15, 2019).
When these trends are added to the ongoing improvements in Russian amphibious assault forces (see EDM, November 15), it becomes clear that Moscow is aiming at developing a global strike capability tailored to contingencies across the full spectrum of conflict, from so-called gray-area phenomena all the way up to inter-continental nuclear warfare, if necessary. Few Western analyses take Russian military and foreign policy developments sufficiently seriously and, indeed, often ignore Moscow’s actions, goals and accomplishments by preferring to dwell on its admittedly serious problems. But it is not necessary to gainsay the severity of those problems to simultaneously recognize the gravity of the proliferating threats—conventional, nuclear, informational, etc.—that Moscow is sponsoring. Complacency in the face of Russia’s aggressive behavior will not resolve the global opportunities and challenges it seeks to exploit. And as the foregoing discussion shows, the Russian navy has become a major instrument of choice for establishing these impending global strike and expeditionary capabilities, which could put countless US and allied forces around the world at greater risk.