What Does Russia’s New Maritime Doctrine Signify in a Strategic Sense?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 155

On July 31, Russia issued its new maritime doctrine, though the reasoning behind its timing remains unclear (Kremlin.ru, July 31). No compelling maritime or bureaucratic pressures seemed to trigger this new strategic outlook. Neither have there been any signs of operational lessons from the Russian navy’s lackluster performance against Ukraine.

Therefore, we must look elsewhere for the reasoning behind this event. To begin with, this doctrine differs significantly from the maritime doctrine of 2015 and the naval doctrine of 2017, signifying a decisive strategic turn in Russian defense and foreign policy (Pravo.gov.ru, July 20, 2017; Digital-commons.usnwc.edu, February 4, 2019). This does not apply solely to the navy. Rather, like its 2015 predecessor, it encompasses the entire infrastructure of maritime policy, including commercial vessels and the overall system of scientific ships, shipbuilding and ports, among others.

The new doctrine is also significant because it openly expresses the enormous ambition driving Russian maritime policy, despite the well-known limitations that were in place even before Western sanctions and the war. In other words, the new maritime doctrine defies the revelations of shortcomings vividly displayed in the war in Ukraine by proclaiming a global mission and threat assessment. It begins its analysis by postulating the increased exploitation of the “world ocean” and thus its growing importance for Russia, not least due to Arctic interests.

By asserting the importance of oceans to Russia’s future economic development, the document provides a clue to what spurred this renewed strategy now. Specifically, it argues the development of maritime activities and potential are among the decisive factors for Russia’s stable socioeconomic progress. This postulate represents a new assertion of Russian ambitions as a major global maritime power (Kremlin.ru, July 31).

Moreover, as the document states, “The directions of such developments are determined by the nature of the Russian Federation’s national interests in the world ocean and by the need for their guaranteed support and protection (i.e., a powerful navy).” The necessity for a strong navy (at least rhetorically) is thus as much for protection of economic interests as it is for the defense of Russia. Consequently, adequate naval forces are necessary because Russian national interests as “a great maritime power” extend to the entire world ocean as well as inland seas, including the Caspian Sea.

These interests go beyond merely defending the state’s territory, including its waters and exclusive economic zone, and ensuring Russia’s unhampered access to global trade. Thus, the doctrine captures two critical points in Russian security policy. One is the ambition of a global economic and maritime (not just naval) reach. But perhaps even more telling is the obsession that Russia is a great (maritime) global power. Therefore, the policy desperately seeks to validate this assertion even if the means are clearly insufficient.

The doctrine then asserts the development of the Arctic zone as a strategic resource, including the Northern Sea Route (Kremlin.ru, July 31). Placing naval interests at the top of Russia’s hierarchy highlights Moscow’s repudiation of its traditional European orientation and represents Putin’s long-running wager on the Arctic as the future treasure trove for Russia. Indeed, the doctrine admits that the Arctic’s natural endowment drives Moscow’s policy.

Furthermore, as the Arctic could become the equivalent of the early modern Northwest Passage to the Asia-Pacific, the placement of the Arctic atop Russia’s maritime hierarchy of interests reflects a new policy emphasis on the Asia-Pacific as Moscow’s future priority. Thus, the doctrine goes into great detail about the priority of comprehensive state support for the entire range of maritime activities in the Arctic. In addition, reflecting the new policy emphasis on Asia, the doctrine also assigns major priority to the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific and the Caspian Sea. It also envisages a heightened role in the Indian Ocean.

Logically, the discussion then segues into a broader depiction of Moscow’s critical security interests. These comprise waters adjacent to Russia’s borders (e.g., the Sea of Azov, Kuril Straits and Black and Baltic seas). Also included are global sea transport and communication lines. This demarcation of key maritime zones testifies to the global scope of the Kremlin’s naval ambitions. Moreover, it also reveals some of the abiding strategic imperatives underlying Russian strategy and policy.

As the doctrine points out, the role of force in geopolitics is not diminishing, and hostile naval powers (i.e., the US) are supposedly building up their naval presence ever closer to Moscow. Moreover, the West seeks to deny Russia its great-power status globally. Therefore, this delineation of key territorial and maritime zones bespeaks the Russian navy’s ambition to project power in all these areas, even those that are nowhere near Russia’s borders (Kremlin.ru, July 31).

In this sense, Putin’s Russia has, despite its reduced material endowment, reasserted a late Soviet trope. For instance, Moscow believes that Russia, by virtue of being a Black Sea power, is also a Mediterranean power. Indeed, an anonymous high-ranking official in the Russian Ministry of Defense on November 21, 2017, said that the “Russian military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean is necessary for keeping the balance of power and the interests that we lost after the USSR’s disintegration 25 years ago” (Memri.org, November 27, 2017).

Meanwhile, like other Russian strategic documents, this one lacks any introspection that Russia’s behavior might have triggered the hostility it claims to be experiencing. Therefore, this great-power ambition is the main motive for issuing this utterly unrealistic doctrine now. The consequent frustration regarding the perception of all-encompassing Western maritime pressure to thwart Russia pervades the doctrine. Thus, the document furnishes a long list of supposed Western threats and obstacles to Russian maritime interests.

Finally, after the long discussion of state support for the entire range of maritime activity in the Arctic, the doctrine also emphasizes the maritime development of the Caspian, including enhanced cooperation with the littoral states and further development of the Caspian Flotilla. In this context, the doctrine expressly links the Caspian orientation to expanded cooperation with Indian Ocean littoral states, such as India, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

This cooperation is overtly tied to the “preservation and maintenance of the Russian Federation’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf area based on logistic support points in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.” This demonstrates the plan for a series of permanent facilities in the Indian Ocean, which again underscores the vaulting ambition for global power projection and status that now characterizes Russian military policy, as well as the renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific.

Yet, the ambitious new doctrine fails to reconcile the realities of economic stringency and the difficulties that persist with the Russian shipbuilding industry. Overall, these problems are ignored, reflecting Putin’s overall approach to the war in Ukraine. Thus, it remains to be seen exactly how Moscow intends to overcome the gap between its actual maritime, economic and political capabilities and its assertion as a grandiose global maritime and naval power. One can easily argue that the failure to reckon with existing “Putinism” and link policy to realistic capabilities lies at the root of Russia’s failures in its war against Ukraine. Nevertheless, this doctrine defiantly proclaims its unwillingness to learn from that debacle. Therefore, Moscow’s ability to realize these objectives remains moot.