The Russian Navy: To deter the US and to Compete With China

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 102

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Russian Armed forces are becoming the main element of the government’s “patriotic propaganda.” Currently, the Ministry of Defense is overwhelmingly focused on preparing to celebrate the 320th anniversary of the Russian Naval Fleet. Even the Dmitryi Donskoyi, the last remaining Soviet-era Project 941 nuclear submarine, will take part (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 26). State television incessantly repeats that it is the biggest submarine in the world—a dubious achievement meant to symbolize Russia’s military power. Such remnants of Soviet military might can similarly be observed in the “Fundamentals of Russia’s State Naval Policy Through 2030,” a strategic planning document recently approved by decree of President Vladimir Putin (, July 20). The document is interesting for two main reasons: First, it provides insights into how the Kremlin views the world. Second, it allows one to judge the extent to which Moscow’s naval ambitions correspond to reality.

First of all, the document analyzes the global maritime situation and forecasts future developments. “In recent years, intensified competition among countries for access to the natural resources of the World Ocean amplified the desire of some states to acquire control over strategically important transport routes.” It adds, there is a “growing tendency of some states to acquire sources of hydrocarbon resources in the Middle East, in the Arctic and the Caspian Sea.” Not only that, the growing “economic, political, international legal and military pressure on the Russian Federation [is reducing] the effectiveness of its maritime activities in the World Ocean, weakening its control over the Northern Sea Route.” Such threat assessments harken directly back to Soviet times: according Vladimir Lenin’s dogma, imperialist states fought amongst themselves for the redistribution of an already partitioned world (Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916). However, in contrast to the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia considers itself a party to this purported wild imperialist fight.

If any country is actually starting conflicts with other states over access to ocean resources and control over sea lanes of communication (SLOC), it is China, Russia’s strategic partner. Among other examples, China is embroiled in disputes concerning the South China Sea with four countries in the region. However, this fact did not inhibit Moscow from inviting the Chinese Navy to participate in joint drills in the Baltic Sea (Joint Sea 2017) this past July (TASS, July 25). Judging by the composition of the participating ships, the maneuvers looked quite modest: China deployed three ships—the destroyer Hefei, the frigate Yuncheng and the supply vessel Lomahu. The Russian Navy was represented by two corvettes—the Steregushchy and Boiky. However the political value of the exercise is significant. Beijing and Moscow demonstrated an ability to help each other in case of military conflict. It is appropriate to recall that last year’s joint maneuvers were held in the South China Sea.

This readiness to support Chinese naval ambitions is apparently driven by a belief in Moscow that the US and its allies are Russia’s main and only adversaries. “The ‘[prompt] global strike’ concept developed by the United States […] poses a new challenge to international security and directly threatens the military security of the Russian Federation. An important role in the implementation of this concept is attached to [US] naval forces,” the aforementioned Fundamentals of Russian Naval Policy document states. The Russian Navy is “one of the most effective instruments of strategic (nuclear and conventional) containment, including the prevention of a ‘global strike.’ ” This is ensured by naval strategic nuclear forces and general-purpose naval forces. The Russian Navy must, therefore, be able to operate in “practically any area of the World Ocean”; Russian naval groupings must be able to deploy “within short time limits” to areas of emerging conflict and showcase a high degree of preparedness for such operations, including for delivering strikes against an enemy’s critically important facilities” (, July 20).

What the document leaves unclear is how precisely the current Russian fleet is supposed to prevent the emergence of “significant superiority of other states’ naval forces over the Russian Navy.” Today the Russian Navy is four times smaller than the US Navy in total tonnage. The aircraft-carrying cruiser Admiral Kuznetsov, currently being overhauled after its brief operations off the Syrian coast, would need to confront a dozen US carrier battle groups. Three Russian missile cruisers stand against two dozen analogous US vessels. And most of Russia’s blue-water ships were built in Soviet times. Although the new naval policy document insists on constructing a new “aircraft carrier complex,” Russia lacks any shipyard capable of building it. In fact, the declining Russian shipbuilding industry now focuses mainly on corvettes and frigates, with future plans to build somewhat larger destroyers. But because Ukrainian producers now refuse to sell Russia the engines for these ships, even the implementation of these modest plans is under question. Recently the authorities touted a breakthrough in “import substitution,” whereby Russia would begin to produce these engines itself. However, no ships equipped with those Russian-made engines have appeared to date (see EDM, May 4).

For Russian naval strategists, the solution to this contradiction is the deployment of long-range cruise missiles, which can be placed on small ships and which reportedly are able to sink even enemy aircraft carriers. High-precision cruise missiles are the main element of the strategy of “non-nuclear deterrence,” but they can also deliver Russia’s planned non-strategic nuclear warheads. In such a strategy, sheer numbers are key. Apparently, Russia recently began the serial production of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu proudly reported in the Duma that 180 cruise missiles were produced last year (Krasnaya Zvezda May 26). The United States, on the other hand, already has several thousand of these weapons.

In fact, Russia’s naval strategy to 2030 does not differ significantly from its general military strategy, which relies heavily on nuclear saber rattling. Indeed, only nuclear might can realistically “preserve” the Russian Navy’s status as the second most powerful fleet in the world “by combat capabilities.” Russia maintains nuclear parity with the US Navy. However by other indicators, Russia seriously lags behind China, which annually inaugurates new destroyers. So Russia’s naval strategy seeks to deter the US while also conducting an arms race with China.

The only practical goal of this document seems to be to strengthen the weakened position of the Navy in the bureaucratic battle over the new armament program (Vedomosti, July 23). Not coincidentally, the document ends with the phrase: “the program can be adjusted as a result of changes in the socio-political situation.” Thus, the last word will belong to the Ministry of Finance.