International naval exercises in the Baltic Sea, which begin on June 2, will see 15 European nations and the U.S. joined by the landing ship Kaliningrad and the escort vessel Neustrashimy, representing the Russian Baltic Fleet. These high-profile exercises will showcase the Baltic Fleet and help generate an impression within the Russian Navy that all is well.
However, the successful prosecution on May 18, in a Moscow military court, of Admiral Gennady Suchkov, former commander of the Northern Fleet in Russia’s ailing navy, highlighted the continued absence of any serious attempts to get to grips with the real challenges facing the contemporary Russian Navy.
Suchkov, in an atmosphere of surreal unwillingness to face the truth facing Russia’s deteriorating navy, had pleaded innocent to the charges during the hearings, which saw the culmination of official attempts to pin the blame on a senior figure within the naval senior command structure for the sinking of a K-159 submarine in August 2003. He was found guilty and given a four-year suspended sentence, leaving relatives of the ill-fated submarine crew calling for a harsher penalty (ITAR-TASS, Moscow, May 18).
President Putin had promptly suspended Suchkov from his post after the deaths, last August, of nine members of the 10-man submarine crew, as it was being towed to a scrapyard through the Barents Sea. The storm which resulted in the vessel’s sinking triggered a political storm in Moscow, following the Kursk tragedy in 2000. It appears, on this occasion, that the search for a scapegoat began in earnest. Many commentators had expected Putin to sack Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, commander of the Russian Navy, widely seen as culpable in both submarine disasters, since he has presided over the continued decline of the navy. In fact, Kuroyedov’s attack on the commanders of the Northern fleet was swift and sustained. He argued that commanders had patently flouted safety rules and took no action to evacuate the submarine, even after the storm was known to have ripped off pontoons and forced the vessel to tilt onto its stern.
Suchkov, recently interviewed on Russian television in Moscow, made clear his intention to appeal the court ruling. Suchkov denied his guilt. In an expression of defiance, he said, “It was not just a trial. The Northern Fleet was on trial, first and foremost” (NTV, Moscow, May 18). Suchkov’s belief that many naval personnel supported him, or at least offered tacit approval for his cause, underscores widespread concern in Russia that he was, in fact, carrying the burden for his superior Kuroyedov.
Kuroyedov has clearly remained entrenched within thinking, which has contributed to an ongoing sense of crisis and lack of strategic direction in the development of the Russian Navy. At the heart of this, lies his belief, reflected in political and security circles, that Russia needs a “blue water navy,” which can compete with U.S. sea power. This analysis singularly ignores the realities of the post Cold War period, and the transformation of the international security environment. Kuroyedov, has clung to these grandiose ideas, while the Russian military in general has declined and the navy in particular.
Instances of bullying, endemic within the Russian armed forces, continued abuse of servicemen by their fellows, low morale, poor training and living conditions have served to steadily sap the strength of an ailing branch of service. Putin’s military reforms have failed, thus far, to address how the navy should or could be successfully reformed. The Russian defense industry, far from seeking to replace the ageing vessels of the Russian Navy, now principally looks to foreign markets in China and India and elsewhere to export surface vessels and fund domestic research and development. Severodinsk is Russia’s only remaining shipyard capable of constructing and maintaining nuclear-powered submarines, though it too has had to look to the commercial sector, constructing offshore platforms. Indeed, testimony to that sense of decline came from the Northern Fleet in March 2004, when the Peter the Great, the Northern Fleet flagship, was ordered back to port because of fears concerning its safety. The Peter the Great displaces 28,000 tons, stretches the length of three football fields, and carries a crew of 610. It reportedly can carry 20 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Suchkov, may be a political casualty in the process of coming to terms with the loss of K-159. But his case serves to illustrate the wider failings of the Russian Navy’s top brass, which persists in its near terminal decline. He is a symptom and not the cause of a wider malaise affecting the navy. Kuroyedov’s removal may not be enough to halt its future failings. But this token step has been, for the time being, eschewed by his political superiors in Moscow. Ultimately, addressing the problems of the navy will necessitate President Putin’s rethinking the priorities of military reform.