While operating in Black Sea waters near the mouth of the Bosporus, on April 27, the Russian naval reconnaissance vessel Liman sank after colliding with the Youzarsif, a Togo-flagged livestock freighter. The incident did tremendous damage to Russia’s self-promoted image as a global sea power, particularly when looked at in the context of two other important events that occurred only a week before.
First, in an interview with Russian state television, on April 23, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Korolev, vividly and with extreme bravado extoled the merits of the contemporary Russian fleet, declaring, “The Navy has everything in order to control the situation in any area of the world ocean” (Russia 1 TV, April 23).
Then, on April 24, the HMS Daring, a British Type 45 air-defence destroyer, passed through the Bosporus, heading toward the Black Sea in order to conduct military drills with the Romanian and Bulgarian navies. In the United Kingdom, some newspapers called the deployment a “message to [President Vladimir] Putin” in Russia’s own back yard (The Daily Mail, April 24). The Kremlin responded that the Russian Black Sea Fleet would keep an eye on the British vessel (RIA Novosti, April 25). The HMS Daring itself left the Black Sea on April 30. Purportedly, the Liman was in the area at that time specifically to monitor the UK-Romanian-Bulgarian exercises. The Russian signals intelligence ship did not, as was earlier reported, seek a request from Turkish authorities to enter the Bosporus Strait, because the vessel’s tasks at the time of its sinking were confined to the western Black Sea (Interfax, April 28).
Russia had used the Liman on multiple occasions in the past to keep tabs on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces operating in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Notably, the vessel had monitored the United States naval group in the Adriatic Sea during the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. More recently, the signals intelligence ship observed the multinational exercise Sea Breeze 2016 and was again deployed for the same purpose during the joint NATO military exercise Sea Shield, in February 2017 (Flot.com, February 1).
A small portion of the sunken Liman has already been transported to Sevastopol, and Russia will be attempting to recover the rest of it off the seafloor in a costly joint operation with the Turkish authorities (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 29).
Underscoring the Liman’s importance to Russian operations in the Black Sea and Mediterranean, Moscow briskly sent the Yury Ivanov–class intelligence ship Ivan Khurs to replace the sunken vessel in the Black Sea Fleet (Interfax, April 27). The new ship will have much more advanced tactical and technical characteristics compared to previous generations of Russia’s operational reconnaissance vessels, such as the Kildin (launched in 1970), Preazovie (1987) and Ekvator (1968). The Ministry of the Defense had previously promised to deploy the Ivan Khurs to the Pacific Fleet (Flotprom.ru, April 21). Considering the intensification of military tensions in the Far East (see EDM, May 3), Russia needs new naval platforms as urgently in the Pacific as in the Black Sea. But right now Moscow is focused on “saving a face” after the sinking of the Liman, hence the Ivan Khurs will go to strengthen the Black Sea Fleet. However, everything will depend on the unfolding situation on the Korean peninsula.
When the Liman struck the civilian freighter off the coast of Turkey, the Turkish Coast Guard provided assistance to the shipwrecked Russian crew, and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım quickly called his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, to express “sadness” about the incident. And yet, right after the incident, some Russian politicians and experts warned that the Liman’s intelligence technologies and documents could be apprehended by NATO member Turkey. The ship sank in relatively shallow water, potentially allowing divers easy access. Russian media urgently expressed concerns regarding the future of the sunken ship and its intelligence “cargo,” which supposedly included valuable information after the monitoring of the “Sea Shield” exercise in February and the vessel’s almost-three-month-long deployment near Syria. (Topwar.ru, April 28).
The Liman was equipped with a Don radar and the Bronza hydro-acoustic system, as well as radio reconnaissance equipment. All this equipment is “of great interest to a potential Russian adversary,” and during the first hours Turkish intelligence may have already tried to pilfer it from the shipwreck, mused Vice Admiral Peter Svyatashov, the chief of Staff of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in 1992–1997 (Vz.ru, April 27).
In Russian memory, the incident is reminiscent of an interesting case from 1976, when a Soviet MiG-25 jet landed in Hokkaido. Allegedly, the aircraft was carefully disassembled and studied by the Japanese and Americans. After that, Soviet Union had to fully dismantle the friend-or-foe identification system (IFF) it had been using up to that point (Blackseafleet-21.com, April 28).
Besides suspicious accusations hurled in Turkey’s direction, some conspiratorial Russian commentaries made several allegations of the UK’s involvement. According to one source, British intelligence was behind the tragic incident; and the livestock freighter Youzarsif, which was owned by a Crimean Tatar, had purportedly been in direct contact with the HMS Daring (Cont.ws, April 28). But other prominent Russian experts, such as military expert Vasily Kashin and Alexey Podberezkin, of the Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), refuse to accept any elements of NATO sabotage in the incident (Rbth.com, May 2).
The sinking of the Liman is a profound embarrassment for the Russian Navy—one much greater than last autumn’s ailing passage of the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov through the English Channel while belching black smoke, or even the follow-on incidents of losing two of its fighters in training exercises (see EDM, October 27, 2016; November 15, 2016). However, it would be a mistake to point to such examples and thus underestimate the actual strength and capabilities of the Russian fleet. To compensate, Russia will undoubtedly make a tremendous and frenetic effort to heal its immediate wounds. The Kremlin needs to restore its harmed image—both domestically and internationally—as soon as possible. Perhaps the first hint of such an effort was the sudden decision, immediately after the Liman’s sinking, to send the newly launched Russian frigate Admiral Essen to the Black Sea (Sevastopol.su, April 28).