Russia’s troubled naval forces continued to grab headlines this week as President Vladimir Putin attended a ceremony on December 4 marking the handover of a new nuclear submarine to the Northern Fleet while unofficial sources said that new commanders had been appointed to head both the Northern and the Pacific Fleets. These latest developments come hard on the heels of a decision Putin took on December 1 to dismiss or demote some fourteen top Russian naval officers, all of whom were connected with the tragic loss of the Kursk submarine last August (see the Monitor, December 4). Russian naval officers were reportedly rocked by Putin’s unexpectedly harsh move, which at least one source described as a “decapitation” of the Northern Fleet’s command. Among those who lost their posts were fleet commander Vyacheslav Popov and several of his top deputies. Also disciplined were a number of ship captains who had been involved in the naval exercises last summer that ended in the Kursk’s demise.
And negative reactions to the firings were not limited to those Russian naval commanders who might have felt that Popov and the rest were being unfairly made scapegoats for the Kursk tragedy. Murmansk Governor Yury Yevdokimov called the dismissals of the Northern Fleet commanders a “serious mistake,” and was quoted by TV-6 as saying that “to behead such a powerful structure” as Russia’s premier naval grouping “is bound to have serious consequences at some point.” The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, meanwhile, reported that a top General Staff officer, General Vladislav Putilin, and the chairman of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, retired General Andrei Nikolaev, each believe that the disasters and accidents that have dogged the armed forces in recent years are primarily the result of chronic funding shortfalls. The newspaper suggested that their views applied also to the Kursk and to the most recent firings (TV-6, AFP, December 3; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 4).
The Kremlin-backed Strana.ru website, meanwhile, quoted the Russian navy’s press service yesterday as saying that Putin had signed decrees naming new commanders for both the Northern and the Pacific Fleets. Appointed to the Northern Fleet post was Vice Admiral Gennady Suchkov. He had been serving, albeit only for the previous five months, as Pacific Fleet commander. Vice Admiral Viktor Fedorov, in turn, was named to Suchkov’s vacated Pacific Fleet post. The Strana.ru website, which serves in some respects as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, tried yesterday to present the new appointments as an integral part of the political leadership’s broader efforts to reform the armed forces and, specifically, to improve training in the navy. Quoting unnamed Defense Ministry sources, the website described Suchkov as a real comer who is especially qualified for the Northern Fleet post both because of long years spent serving in the Russian north and because he is said to be a standout in organizing training drills. That description of his strengths dovetails nicely with a key justification used by the Kremlin for Northern Fleet commander Popov’s sudden sacking: namely, that the fleet’s exercises had been shoddily organized under his command. Thus, Strana.ru concluded, the recent personnel changes were “connected with the objective need to raise the effectiveness of military training in the fleets,” and there were none better to do this than Suchkov and Fedorov. Strana.ru also reported yesterday that the disgraced Popov had been given a post in Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry. It provided no details as to what his new duties might entail (Strana.ru, December 5).
Against this background, the Russian president traveled to Severodvinsk on December 4 in order to preside over a ceremony in which the country’s newest nuclear submarine–the Gepard (“cheetah”)–was officially handed over to the Northern Fleet. The visit, which came one day after Putin had used a cabinet meeting to emphasize the high priority he was attaching to military spending and defense reform, was presumably intended to help mend fences with what is left of the Northern Fleet’s command and to portray the president once again as backer of Russian military might.
And, indeed, the official launching of the Gepard was an important event for the navy. Russia’s latest third generation Akula II-class (by NATO designation) nuclear attack submarine, it is the most modern and capable of its type in the Russian navy and is the first nuclear submarine to be launched by Moscow in some five years. The Gepard reportedly matches up well in terms of speed and stealth with America’s own Los Angeles-class subs, and may have the capacity to dive deeper and carry more firepower. The sub, moreover, has long been associated with Putin’s name. As prime minister he attended a similar ceremony at which the Gepard was launched for trials in 1999, and he is believed to have been a factor in ensuring that construction of the vessel was finally completed and its delivery to the navy assured. Construction of the Gepard was begun in 1991, but as Russia’s naval construction programs languished through the 1990s it too sat for much of this period unfinished at the giant Sevmash plant in Severodvinsk. In his remarks to workers at the Sevmash plant on December 4, Putin spoke of his government’s “acute concern about the navy and its modernization.” He promised funding for the construction of several new submarines and surface ships (AP, Strana.ru, December 4; ABCNews.com, June 8).
As Putin was devoting himself to defense matters in Russia’s north, his defense minister was embarked this week on a lengthy tour of military bases and facilities in the Russian heartland. In stops on December 4-5 in Samara and Yekaterinburg, Sergei Ivanov met with regional commanders and laid out again the latest version of the Kremlin’s military reform plans. In Samara he reemphasized the importance that the political leadership is attaching to the North Caucasus and the Volgo-Ural Military Districts and particularly to those force groupings located along Russia’s Central Asian borders. But he appeared to focus especially at the Kremlin’s own recent accent on the strategic changes that have accompanied the global war against terrorism, and on the need to shape Russia’s armed forces according to these new realities. “The priority directions in the construction and development of the armed forces,” he told staff officers in Samara, “is to bring the tasks, staffing, structure, and size of the army and navy into conformity with the real threats to national security.” He also spoke of the need to maintain Russia’s nuclear forces at a level of “minimum sufficiency,” and to concentrate on raising the mobilizational and fighting capabilities of Russia’s general forces, and especially to increase the number of constant readiness units (Strana.ru, December 4-5; Krasnaya Zvezda, December 6).
SERGEI MIRONOV REPLACES YEGOR STROEV AS FEDERATION COUNCIL SPEAKER.