Russia Develops Niche Military Capabilities for 21st-Century Warfare

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 50


Senior Russian officials have publicly rebuked to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) ongoing (April 5–12) naval exercise in the Black Sea—Sea Shield 2019. The large-scale multinational exercise will involve warships from Romania, Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, the Netherlands and Turkey. In addition, NATO countries will conduct joint exercises in the region with military forces from Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow appears to be watching these developments with some level of concern (see EDM, April 8). Illustratively, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, has pointed to the naval exercise as supposed proof that Kyiv is preparing “fresh provocations.” While there are certainly tensions between Russia and NATO in the Black Sea region, it is also worthwhile to note the growing level of confidence in Moscow about niche military capabilities being developed for the Russian navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) (, April 5).

An important illustration of this confidence, and the nature of the niche capabilities currently being built into the VMF was recently set out in an article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer by Captain 1st Rank (ret.) Vadim Kulinchenko, a submariner veteran. Kulinchenko was responding to an earlier article in this publication, released in late February, that had set out a series of arguments in support of the idea that naval warfare in the 21st century will be dominated by aircraft carriers and clearly Russia would be left lagging behind. Kulinchenko retorts by suggesting that it is worth thinking about cheaper but still effective alternatives to aircraft carriers. First, he stresses multi-purpose submarines such as Project 971 Bars; though Russia’s future plans to strengthen submarine capability are less clear. Second, he proposes to further develop the numbers and quality of surface ships of limited displacement—mainly frigates and corvettes. This is aimed to provide for effective strikes against the enemy. Finally, Kulinchenko highlights aviation speed coupled with stealth technology. The author considers that, when combined, these three elements will protect the maritime interests of the Russian Federation and constitute a serious threat to foreign aircraft carriers (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 2; Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, February 26).

Those themes are examined in more detail in a subsequent article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye by Colonel (ret.) Anatoly Tsyganok, a corresponding member of the Academy of Military Sciences. Tsyganok explores 21st-century naval warfare through an analysis of foreign naval powers and recent conflicts, before returning to consider key features of the Russian VMF. He notes the importance of access to the latest technology and advances in weapons systems. Moreover, he references the Western intervention in Libya, pointing out that there is appetite for land power on the part of the political-military leadership in the United States and NATO, raising the importance of naval capabilities in such operations. In terms of Russia, the author indicates the increasing presence of Kalibr cruise missiles and their deployment on surface ships and submarines. Tsyganok argues that the massive surge in the delivery of these weapons to the VMF and throughout the Russian military is linked to the final collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and suggests that this will help shield Moscow from an arms race (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 5).

Tsyganok further assesses the performance of Russia’s navy in support of military operations in Syria. In terms of naval capability, the important feature, in the author’s view, was the first use of Kalibr cruise missiles against terrorist targets in Syria from small rocket ships (Project 21631) in the Caspian Sea. In the political realm, this was aimed to showcase the Russian defense industry and the capabilities of the Armed Forces. But importantly, these cruise missiles can be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads. Tsyganok presents this development as posing a serious challenge to the United States (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 5).

Moreover, the Syrian campaign saw the first large-scale employment of Varshavyanka-class submarines and small missile ships of the Buyan-M type, armed with Kalibrs. The Rostov-on-Don, a Project 636.3 diesel-electric submarine, was directed to strike targets in Rakka. “This missile firing was the first case of the use of sea-based cruise missiles at real enemy targets in the history of the Russian fleet,” the author explains. Tsyganok also singles out the operational use of naval aviation during the Syrian campaign, and turns to the issue of deploying a naval grouping in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, near Syria. These actions solved three issues for Moscow, the analyst writes. First, it was meant to reduce the possibility of further Western intervention in Syria. Second, the presence of the naval grouping offered additional protection and security for Russian military facilities in Syria. And, finally, the presence of additional powerful air-defense systems in the naval grouping helped to deter the creation of a no-fly zone over northern Syria, or elsewhere, by other outside powers (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 5).

Tysganok’s article compliments the ideas expressed by Kulinchenko in his defense of the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet. Clearly, the emphasis on high-precision strike systems is designed to offer an important niche capability for the navy, similar to these approaches elsewhere in the Armed Forces. In particular, Tsyganok argues that the move to boost the presence of Kalibr cruise missiles within the VMF effectively caught the US and NATO by surprise.