Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 197

As the media has focused in recent weeks on the risky mission to recover bodies from the lost Russian submarine Kursk, there has been less attention directed at the related but broader issue of what the Kursk disaster says about Russian naval capabilities and the navy’s plans for the future. The issue is an important one because, prior to the August 12 disaster, President Vladimir Putin had appeared to lavish special attention on the navy and to signal his readiness to back plans aimed at quickly restoring at least some of the fleet’s Soviet-era prowess.

In the wake of the Kursk tragedy and the Navy’s feeble attempt to mount a rescue operation, however, it seems likely that the Kremlin and the naval leadership have been forced to put some of the more grandiose aspects of that planning on hold. Thoughts of quickly rebuilding the navy may also have been dampened by the problems which Putin and his Security Council have had in finalizing a broader plan for the reduction, reform and restructuring of the armed forces. Opposition within the military leadership and the country’s various security structures appears to have hindered the Kremlin efforts–propelled in part by the Kursk disaster–to move quickly to begin putting the country’s armed forces in order.

In terms of Russian naval planning, the most concrete and immediate effect of the Kursk disaster has been the decision to cancel a planned visit by a large aircraft carrier battle group to the Mediterranean Sea. Some ten to twelve of the Russian navy’s best vessels–including the nuclear-powered cruiser Petr Veliky, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and the Kursk itself–were to have departed Russian waters this month for the long voyage south. In fact, the large-scale naval exercises in the Barents Sea which saw the loss of the Kursk this past August were to have been a final tune-up for the Mediterranean mission. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Kursk disaster, plans apparently continued for dispatching the carrier group. It was only on October 10 that the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov (who is now overseeing the operation to recover the bodies of the Kursk crew), finally made the navy’s decision to cancel the mission public.

As Russian news sources suggested, the reasons for the cancellation were prosaic in their details but extremely significant in their implications. Thus Russian naval officials suggested that money was the overriding consideration behind the cancellation of the Mediterranean mission. The fleet wound up expending considerable amounts of fuel–and equal amounts of scarce funding–both in the rescue mission which followed the Kursk’s sinking and in patrolling the area of the disaster in the ensuing weeks. The operation to recover the bodies of the Kursk crew has also been an expensive one for the Russian government (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 12; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 20).

In claiming that financial considerations were primary in the decision to cancel the visit of the carrier group to the Mediterranean, Russian naval leaders may have been minimizing the degree to which the Kursk disaster also undermined the government’s faith in the ability of the navy to mount the mission successfully. They may have likewise been minimizing the degree to which the Kursk disaster demonstrated just how fragile and thinly stretched Russia’s navy has become. Some reports said that the Mediterranean mission was also hurt by the fact that there was no other Russian sub well-enough prepared to immediately step in for the Kursk. The dispatch of the carrier group to the Mediterranean is also unlikely to take place next year. The Admiral Kuznetsov is the only aircraft carrier in the Russian navy, and it is scheduled for repairs in 2001.

The collapse of the Mediterranean mission says much about the abject state of the Russian navy and the wishful thinking apparently underlying some recent Russian naval planning. Analysts say that Putin has attached special importance to rebuilding Russian naval might. He reportedly understands that the country lacks the resources to build a conventional fleet capable of challenging the U.S. navy directly. But he reportedly had hoped to quickly restore Russian naval power in two specific areas–the Arctic and the Mediterranean Seas–to provide capabilities there to deter and, if necessary, counter U.S. and Western naval operations. Kuroyedov spoke in similar terms. In late July of this year when he announced “World Ocean,” a plan to rebuild the Russian navy over fifteen to twenty years and to provide a counterbalance to Western naval power. Russian determination to rebuild the country’s naval force might was reportedly driven in part by the frustration that Moscow felt in 1999 over its impotence in the face of NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia. During that conflict the Russian navy could do no more than send a single small intelligence gathering vessel to the Adriatic Sea off the Yugoslav coast (UPI, August, 15; Los Angeles Times, August 27; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 20).

The planned dispatch of the carrier group to the Mediterranean had been planned to redress Moscow’s earlier absence and more generally to show the flag about the region. Indeed, the order issued by Putin on March 4 said that the operation was intended “for the purpose of restoring Russia’s naval presence in the most important parts of the world’s seas” and also “to support peacekeeping activities, fly Russia’s flag in the given region, and improve crew combat skills.” A Northern Fleet commander reportedly claimed that the multipurpose aircraft carrier group being dispatched form Russia would “excel even the Soviet-era Mediterranean squadron in its composition.” Among other things, the group was planning to conduct a large-scale air exercise over the North Atlantic; it would reportedly have been the first such exercise in the history of the Russian navy (Vremya novostei, October 11).

It remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will recast its goals for naval reform in the wake of the Kursk disaster and the cancellation of the Mediterranean mission. For now, there has been a suggestion that Russian naval chief Kuroyedov (among others) has been left twisting in the wind. The Russian daily Segodnya has speculated that some top military officials could lose their jobs if the recovery operation aboard the Kursk goes awry. Kuroyedov, who seems to have had some reservations about the operation, seems a likely candidate (see the Monitor, October 20). Another Russian newspaper, meanwhile, has observed the Kremlin’s failure to offer any comment on Kuroyedov’s announcement that the naval mission to the Mediterranean has been canceled. The newspaper suggests that the naval leadership has disappointed the Kremlin with this failure, but provides no estimation of what the political leadership’s next step might be (Vremya novostei, October 11).