The “tradition” of staging an annual naval parade in St. Petersburg was established by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017, and every year the show has become more extravagant. Last Sunday (July 26), Russia’s Navy Day, 46 combat ships led by the newly built frigate Admiral Kasatonov produced a picture-perfect presentation on the Neva River; and the nuclear submarine Orel, on a special visit from the Northern Fleet, was the star of the parade at the nearby Kronstadt naval base (Izvestia, July 25). In order to add gravitas to the spectacle, the remains of Admiral Fedor Ushakov, who gained glory for the Russian Navy in the 18th century, were brought to St. Petersburg from Mordoviya (Fontanka, July 24). Every possible security measure was enforced by a sizeable legion of federal agents: even a movie screening group was caught up in the security sweeps (Znak.com, July 24). The port city, meanwhile, continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, presently registering about 200 new infections a day, one of the highest rates in Russia (Covid19.rosminzdrav.ru, July 25).
The benefits derived from this yearly exercise of transporting several Caspian Flotilla ships via Russia’s long internal waterways to St. Petersburg to partake in the parade appear questionable (Svobodnaya Pressa, July 25). The contemporary Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) is not in good shape, and most of its major surface combatants, including its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, are in need of an overhaul. Meanwhile, Russia’s main dry dock sits at the bottom of the Barents Sea after an accident in October 2018, and a new one will not be built anytime soon (Kommersant, May 21). Earlier this month, Putin partook in the ceremony of laying the keels of two new amphibious assault ships (Project 23900), which are supposed to replace the Mistral-class vessels ordered from France years ago but that were never delivered because of European sanctions. It is unclear, however, whether the Kerch shipyard, which has no experience executing projects of such complexity, will be able to accomplish the task (Gazeta.ru, July 20).
Ignoring the serial delays and accidents, Putin embraces the most ambitious vision of “blue-water” battle-squadrons and the most expensive naval buildup plans his admirals are able to produce (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, July 24). Such a navy, if it could be created, would, indeed, come in handy for performing overseas interventions on an even grander scale than Russia’s current mission in Syria; and an improved VMF would also presumably contribute to the ongoing “hybrid” engagement in Libya. In the latter case, Moscow has sent some weapons and mercenaries to support the forces of the self-proclaimed “field-marshal” Khalifa Haftar. But the recent defeat of his ragtag bands near Tripoli has reinforced official Russian denials of any involvement (RBC, July 16). Russia would much prefer to reach some sort of deal on dividing Libya with Turkey, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan drives a hard bargain (Kommersant, July 22). His geopolitical ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean anger not only Greece but also Egypt, which insists on the key Libyan port of Sirte remaining off-limits for the Turkish-backed forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 22). Russia resists becoming caught in the middle of a Turkish-Egyptian clash, and it is reluctant to commit to the role of a powerbroker, which would require a strong, on-the-ground expeditionary force (Izvestia, July 24).
Undercutting Russia’s ambitions is the fact that the “victory” in Syria, achieved by executing a protracted bombing campaign, has now turned into a trap, which demands the deployment of more ground forces than Russian commanders feel comfortable sending as well as an expenditure of greater resources to support Bashar al-Assad’s bankrupt regime than the strained Russian budget can afford (Interfax, July 2). Despite the new military engagement in Libya, Turkey keeps blocking Russia’s plan for “pacifying” the rebel-held Idlib province, so the risk of ambushes for Russian patrols remains heavy (TASS, July 14). No less worrisome for Moscow are Iran’s efforts at strengthening its positions in Syria, which have attracted a new series of Israeli air-strikes (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 23). Russian experts argue over the apparent deepening disagreements between Moscow and Tehran regarding the aims and means of bolstering the al-Assad regime (Kommersant, July 23). Struggling with its own severe economic crisis, Iran has sought to expand ties with China, and the Russian leadership is not privy to the real intentions of its mistrustful strategic partners (Rosbalt, July 22).
Russia’s capacity for projecting power ultimately depends upon the strength of its economy, but the depth of the current recession remains a major unknown. Putin has acknowledged only some evident difficulties and lengthened the horizon for his prosperity-boosting “national projects” until 2030, implying he will preside over their implementation at least that long (Forbes.ru, July 24). The Ministry of Finance must, inherently, be more precise, and it has stressed the imperative to cut State Armament Program expenditures by 5 percent in the next three years (RBC, July 20). This parsimony is certain to be fiercely contested by the military-industrial complex. Yet, in fact, Russian social programs face even deeper cuts, and the contraction of budget revenues is certain to necessitate far greater reductions to investments than the government is presently ready to admit (Novaya Gazeta, July 23). When it comes to distributing painful underfunding, shipbuilding typically suffers the most. Patriotic perspectives and desperate demands from the admirals notwithstanding, delays in the construction of ordered Russian frigates, submarines and icebreakers will only grow worse.
The sudden arrival of a new sharp crisis presents a difficult test for the Russian leadership, which was expecting to be able to continue the course of its controlled confrontation with the West while consolidating the autocratic structures of power. Putin seemingly cannot understand the complexity of these new challenges. And his responses—whether to the explosion of public protests in Khabarovsk (see EDM, July 20) or to Turkey’s assertive maneuvering in Libya and Syria—betray his inability to internalize the shifting conflict landscapes. Staging expensive parades may satisfy his vanity, but it also reinforces his propensity to apply military force as the first instrument of choice. Russia is changing under the pressure of unfolding misfortunes faster than the Kremlin is prepared to acknowledge; however, the deepening discontent cannot be dispelled by shows of military muscle or overseas adventures. Tensions between public demands for policies addressing social needs and the authorities’ determination to proceed with policies enforcing autocratic order are coming to a head. The next domestic protest or setback in Syria could well trigger a dangerous overreaction.