Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 166

On September 4 Russian President Vladimir Putin fired Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy. While the stated reason was the admiral’s age, other factors clearly influenced the decision. Indeed, Putin fired Kuroyedov one day before his 61st birthday, when he would have retired anyway.

Though not officially stated, Kuroyedov was sacked because he had presided over too many naval disasters: the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the loss of the Priz, a submersible or bathyscaphe AS-28 vehicle in August 2005, the failure of submarine-launched ballistic missiles to fire when Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov were observing military exercises in 2004, and his own memorable statement that he could not guarantee the safety of the Peter the Great cruiser at that time.

These were by no means the only naval debacles. Indeed on September 5 an Su-33 fighter crashed when it missed a landing on the deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. Meanwhile reports of abuse and dedovshchina (hazing) in the navy continue to appear in the press. While Kuroyedov, in the tradition of navies everywhere, is responsible for what occurred on his watch, these disasters point to a greater crisis, namely Russia’s continuing inability to fund the global navy that Kuroyedov wanted. Kuroyedov and his colleagues have consistently argued for a large ocean-going navy, which Moscow could no longer fund.

Admiral Vladimir Masorin, Kuroyedov’s replacement, clearly has his work cut out for him. But he also has a fundamentally different view that is more in tune with current economic realities. Along with Putin and Ivanov, Masorin believes that the navy should stay only where Russia has definite interests and at the same time they all assign priority to the development of the submarine and nuclear naval forces rather than big ocean-going platforms for both conventional and nuclear weapons. Masorin also was responsible for promptly calling for foreign assistance when the Priz went down, thereby saving the ship and not repeating the tragedy of the Kursk. Undoubtedly this show of initiative and his pledge of being rather more honest with the press about failures demonstrated his ability to Putin and Ivanov. But there is no doubt about the scale of challenges he faces.

In 2004 naval training was reduced because of the high price of oil (in a major energy-producing country, no less) and equipment is generally substandard. Masorin repudiated Kuroyedov’s ridiculous remarks of August 2005, expressing satisfaction with the navy’s underwater rescue capabilities. Instead Masorin truthfully admitted that they did not measure up to foreign navies’ standards and that Russia cannot even afford to buy new capabilities for several years.

But this candor also testifies to his honesty as compared with the old guard’s unwavering instinct for prevarication and concealing the truth. Masorin will need this honesty because present plans indicate further cuts in the Navy in order to fund air and air defense, the largest part of the 2006 defense budget and the reforms of the ground forces to meet the real threats that Russia faces from terrorism. The nuclear navy will receive new missiles like the Bulava and Iskander, but few — if any — platforms will be built. And it is likely that they will go either to the submarine force to accommodate the Bulava and to protect it against foreign anti-submarine warfare, or to the Caspian Fleet, which is the only segment that has steadily grown since 1991.

Thus it is not surprising that Masorin’s views accord with those of the president and defense minister. But it must also be said that the views currently in vogue, calling for a smaller navy, more attuned to the nuclear submarine fleet and Russia’s coasts are only the most recent manifestation of a constant trend in Russian naval thought that is ascendant when Russia is weak. This view opposes the big navy and global power projection concepts, nuclear as well as conventional, that has characterized Russian naval strategy in the years of Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Obviously this view is now in the ascendancy and more accurately reflects Russian economic and strategic realities. But it remains to be seen how long Masorin and those around him will be willing to put up with this situation. Kuroyedov and his colleagues were constantly pushing for more funding and for a big navy, but with no success. And the disasters that occurred on his watch reflected the failure to support this still over-large navy adequately. Retraction and living within its means will be the Russian navy’s new watchwords for now. But how long will it last when the enduring impulse for power projection and the big navy come back to the fore?

(RIA-Novosti, September 5; Interfax-AVN Military News Agency, September 5; Krasnaya zvezda, September 1; Strazh Baltiki, August 9; Interfax, September 5; Moscow Times, September 4; Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 1)