Vladimir Putin talks boldly about expanding the Russian military and especially the Russian fleet, but any expansion of the latter is, at best, many years away. Not only does it simply take a long time to build and launch new ships, but the largest planned naval vessels themselves come with enormous costs to build and deploy—costs that Russia has little hope of meeting anytime soon. Additional obstacles to expanding the navy include corruption and other major shortcomings in the Russian shipbuilding sector, which even Moscow admits are horrific, as well as the growing impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s defense industry, which Moscow officials now concede is all too real (Versia.ru, January 14, 2018; Newsru.com, January 17, 2018).
Two years ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense assured China that it has 100 ships patrolling the world’s blue water oceans (Russian.people.com.cn, December 1, 2016; Gazeta.ru, October 30, 2016). But a number of Moscow-based military experts say that the actual number is only about half that and is too geographically dispersed to meet the maritime challenges the Russian fleet faces. Thus, for all of Moscow’s rhetoric that Russia is back as a naval power, it in fact has been cutting back spending in almost all areas of the military and shifting what new resources it has to less expensive branches, like the infantry, rather than the more expensive one, like the navy (Graniru.org, May 13, 2017; Vedomosti, May 17, 2017; Newsland.com, May 19, 2017).
But the Kremlin’s plans to boost defense spending by $30 billion a year over the next decade have prompted some commentators in Moscow and the West to speculate about the revival of the Russian blue water navy, a force that has declined in size and reach since Soviet times and whose shortcomings were very much on display in Moscow’s Syrian operation (see EDM, October 27, 2016; December 15, 2016; Lenta.ru, December 26, 2017; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, December 27, 2017). Correcting this situation, Russian experts say, will cost far more than what Putin is proposing; but Russia simply does not have enough money to even deploy new submarines, despite the fact that those appear to be the highest priority (Lenta.ru, July 16, 2017).
Indeed, according to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the problems the Russian navy faced even in the case of the limited Syrian operation were so great that Moscow will not be able to replicate such a mission any time in the next decade unless it swiftly modernizes and expands its fleet (Svpressa.ru, July 10, 2017). However, Russian experts say, Moscow cannot afford to build new ships, especially not ones intended for blue water operations, at anything like the rate that would be required for that to happen (Regnum, Charter 97, July 13, 2017). Moreover, other Moscow specialists say that the country has not addressed even the most basic communications problems any serious blue water navy must overcome (Polit.ru, Kasparov.ru, October 3, 2017).
One of the major obstacles for Russia in rebuilding its blue water naval presence is inherent in the nature of military shipbuilding itself. It simply takes a long time, often many years, to construct a major vessel, even once the decision is made to do so. During that time, the budgets involved are always tempting targets for those who need money for other, more immediate, defense projects—or even non-defense ones. Consequently, even if one takes Putin’s bombast at face value, the ships he says he wants will not appear anytime soon. And the situation in Russia is such that Moscow experts say it takes twice as many years for the Russian shipbuilding industry to put a ship in the water as it does American yards (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 7, 2017). That problem, in fact, appears to be growing worse given problems in defense budgeting, Russian officials say (Vpk-news.ru, January 8, 2018).
Moscow will likely not be able to overcome these problems anytime soon for three main reasons: (1) massive corruption in the defense industry and especially in the shipbuilding yards, (2) sectoral problems, including antiquated and inadequate facilities, (3) and last, but far from least—Western sanctions. Because the price tag for naval vessels is so high and the length of time to build them is so great, Russia’s shipbuilding industry long has been among the most corrupt parts of the military-industrial sector (Kasparov.ru, August 7, 2017; Svpressa.ru, February 3, 2017). Its yards are in such poor shape that Russian defense officials concede they will not be able to deliver even icebreakers and other coastal vessels until sometime in the mid to late 2020s, if then (Nnm2.com, January 7, 2018; Forum-msk.org, January 8, 2018). Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, says that if Russia is to have a new aircraft carrier, it must do so by building parts of it at three different sites and then assembling them because no one yard has the capacity to do the entire job (Zloy-odessit.livejournal.com, January 8, 2018).
But it is Western sanctions that may be placing the largest brake on any Russian fleet development. Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov said, in mid-January 2018, that the US sanctions are introducing enormous difficulties in the shipbuilding sector. He suggested Moscow should nonetheless be able to cope with them; but independent Russian experts disagree, saying the sanctions will delay the launch of a significantly modernized blue water navy for some years (Newsru.com, January 17, 2018).
Faced with these problems, Moscow is considering establishing foreign naval bases, which would allow its naval fleet to use smaller ships further away from Russia. But increasingly, those too appear out of reach—not so much because of Western opposition but rather because they, too, cost more than Russia can now afford and thus may prove to be albatrosses around the neck of the Russian economy (Versia.ru, January 14, 2018). That is not to say that Moscow will not launch any ships in the next several years—it will. Nor do Russia’s fiscal challenges mean it will fail to open any new bases abroad—it may succeed in establishing several of those as well. But considering its mounting and systemic setbacks, Russia is not about to recover its status as a blue ocean power anytime soon.