Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 75

The Russian Black Sea Fleet may or may not be deploying a naval task force to the Adriatic to monitor NATO’s air offensive against Yugoslavia. Russian and Turkish reports on this topic have contradicted each other. Further, the first of several windows for Russian warships to transit the Turkish Straits have come and gone without any Russian naval vessels leaving the Black Sea. Given the sorry state of the Russian Navy and the impressive array of NATO naval forces in the region, it might be best for the Russian fleet to remain in home waters. A sortie into the Mediterranean would only serve to illustrate how far the fleet has fallen.

A decade or so ago, the Mediterranean Sea was a major operating area for the Soviet Navy. On average, forty to forty-five combatant and support ships were deployed there, most from the Black Sea Fleet. However, the restrictions of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governs maritime traffic through the Turkish Straits, was a problem for the Soviets and remains one for the Russian Navy today. Russia must give Turkey eight days’ notice before sending a warship through the Straits. To allow for more timely reactions to developments in the Mediterranean, the Soviet Navy made regular use of “contingency” transit notifications–issuing far more than they intended to honor. The current Black Sea Fleet seems to be reverting to the same pattern. Reports from Ankara last week indicated that an eight-ship Russian naval squadron was to pass through the Bosporus in three groups beginning April 15. A similar force had previously been announced for April 3-16 (AFP, Ankara, April 14).

The Russians do have one naval vessel in the Adriatic. The unarmed intelligence-gathering vessel Liman passed through the Turkish Straits on April 4. Known to NATO as AGIs, such vessels regularly shadowed American carriers during the Cold War, particularly in Vietnam. Should a more powerful force be deployed, it would reportedly be led by the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Kynda-class guided missile cruiser Admiral Golovko. Put into service thirty-five years ago, the Admiral Golovko is unlikely to be in top condition. Far more modern warships have proved to be an embarrassment when exposed to the glare of international attention. On its only operational deployment–to the Mediterranean in 1995–the Northern Fleet aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov had problems producing enough fresh water for its crew. With thirty-three NATO warships in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas–including three aircraft carriers–a Russian squadron is likely to suffer in the comparison. Any benefit to the Serbs would be symbolic at best.