Russian Navy Preparing to Take on US

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 116

Russian Main Naval Parade in St Petersburg, July 29, 2018 (Source: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Russian President Vladimir Putin loves the navy. Growing up in St. Petersburg—the old imperial capital built by Tsar Peter the Great as the center of Russian naval power—Putin may have been enthralled with the sea and ships. Yet, he graduated from the legal faculty of Leningrad University and enlisted in the KGB to become a spy—a middling career that ended in a discharge with the rank of lieutenant colonel. After being appointed successor by then-president Boris Yeltsin and taking over the Kremlin in 2000, Putin has many times donned a naval uniform, stood aboard vessels of Russia’s Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF), and gone underwater on a nuclear submarine. In 2017, Putin resumed the Soviet ritual of an annual Main Naval Parade in St. Petersburg, held on national Naval Day—the last Sunday in July. On July 29, 2018, the second such display of naval power was held on the Neva River, in St. Petersburg. Putin personally observed the gathered ships, while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stood in attendance. Some 40 VMF ships, 38 aircraft and about 4,000 sailors took part in this year’s spectacle (RIA Novosti, July 29).

Similar naval “parades” were held the same day at many other Russia naval bases as well as abroad—at the Russian base in Tartus (on the Syrian coast), in Azerbaijan and in Iran, where vessels of Russia’s Caspian Flotilla were visiting. In St. Petersburg, Putin announced that by the end of this year, the VMF will obtain 26 new ships, including 4 armed with Kalibr cruise missile launchers. In 2017, the navy received 23 new ships, according to Shoigu. On display at the Main Naval Parade in St. Petersburg was the newly built stealth frigate Admiral Gorshkov, the recently built assault landing craft Ivan Gren and the intelligence-gathering ship Ivan Khurs. Last year, the nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy and the world’s biggest operational strategic nuclear submarine, the Dmitry Donskoy, were relocated from the Northern Fleet—Russia’s biggest and most powerful—to St. Petersburg. And in 2018, the VMF moved to St. Petersburg a Slava-class missile cruiser, the Marshal Ustinov, as well as an Oscar-2-class attack nuclear submarine, the Orel (K-266). Both the Marshal Ustinov and the Orel were built in Soviet times, but they were recently renovated and are now back in active service (TASS, July 29).

Russia is running a big ship-building program, which has suffered constant delays and problems (, August 1). The long-range ocean-going frigate Admiral Gorshkov, the first of its class and proudly demonstrated in St. Petersburg on July 29, was laid down on February 1, 2006. It was not commissioned until more than 12 years later, in 2018. And this delay was not because of lack of budgetary financing. Other sister ships of the same “Project 22350” ran into problems with their main engines, which were previously built at the Mykolayiv Shipyard, in Ukraine. At present, the Ukrainians have blocked the sale of ship engines to Russia because of the latter’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the fighting in Donbas. But the Admiral Gorshkov received its two main diesel engines long before the Ukrainian crisis erupted. Instead, the extended delay in building and commissioning this frigate resulted from problems with its armaments—in particular, the new anti-aircraft missile complex Poliment-Redut. Built by the Almaz-Antey corporation, the Poliment-Redut features long-, middle- as well as short-range interceptors. But reportedly, there are problems with its radars and missiles. The Admiral Gorshkov was apparently sent from the Northern Fleet to the Main Naval Parade in St. Petersburg this year with its advanced onboard anti-aircraft system only partially functioning. It is unclear when the Poliment-Redut will be ready to fully enter active service. Some observers have proposed that the Admiral Gorshkov might begin to sail the globe and demonstrate the Russian flag (act as a “fleet in being”) despite its Poliment-Redut system still being dysfunctional—and anyway the United States would have no way of knowing for sure whether or not it was truly defunct (, July 27).

Despite ongoing problems with building the Gorshkov-class frigates, the authorities have announced plans to lay down new stealthy Lider-class nuclear-powered destroyers by 2022. These ships are destroyers in name only—better classified as cruisers, with a displacement of 14,000 tons (maybe more) and 64 standard launchers for land-attack Kalibr, anti-ship P-800 Oniks and (in the future) hypersonic anti-ship 3M22 Tsirkon cruise missiles (, July 29). Lider-class ships are the modern equivalent of Soviet-era Kirov-class nuclear cruisers, but smaller and stealthier. Indeed, they are designed to fulfill the same mission: to cut wartime transatlantic (or transpacific) communications between the US and its allies by destroying carrier groups or troop convoys bringing heavy US Army divisions over the ocean to fight the Russians. Nuclear power will allow Lider-class ships to hide (for example, in the fjords of eastern Greenland) before the outbreak of hostilities and then, without needing to refuel, swiftly proceed to carry out a sudden attack, using a heavy array of weapons and an impressive multi-layer anti-aircraft/anti-missile defense system to neutralize US air superiority.

The Russian VMF seems to be emulating the Soviet Red Navy by investing in highly specialized and expensive assets designed specifically for an all-out war with the US, while neglecting more universal ships usable against other possible enemies in local wars. The Lider-class currently exists only on paper. But in the meantime, Moscow is expending great effort and money to revive and modernize its four 28,000-ton Kirov-class battlecruisers. The Admiral Nakhimov—the third of the Kirov-class vessels built—is under reconstruction to replace its Soviet-made heavy Granit anti-ship cruise missiles with multiple universal Kalibr launch tubes, which can also fire Onikses or Tsirkons. The old Osa and S-300F anti-aircraft systems of the Nakhimov are being replaced with the universal Poliment-Redut—promising to massively increase the battlecruiser’s firepower capabilities and effectiveness. The repairs are scheduled to conclude in 2020, at which point, the Nakhimov’s sister-ship Pyotr Velikiy will undergo analogous renovation (, July 9).

Despite multiple technical problems, the planned Lider-class frigates illustrate the VMF’s aspirations to be able to send an impressive force to sea that would also include nuclear attack Oscar-2 and newer Yasen-class submarines. The mission of these vessels would be to take out enemy carrier groups and sever the United States’ transoceanic communications. Granted, while their key armaments, including the Poliment-Redut system, remain dysfunctional, Russia’s newest naval assets may be able to do little more than “show the flag.” However, with Washington’s transoceanic connections to its allies frequently undermined by President Donald Trump himself (see EDM, July 12), showing the flag may for now suffice.