[The short version: "Russia's power aspirations are therefore, more local than global"]
Naval overhaul slides off Russia’s agenda
By Roger N McDermott
The Russian military top brass continues to make officially ambitious and upbeat assessments concerning the navy, mainly alleging that it carries out all "tasks assigned to it".
For example, on June 1, the official Ministry of Defense (MoD) publication Krasnaya Zvezda hailed record tactical exercises of two divisions, naval minesweepers and small anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ships, organized by the Black Sea fleet.
These claims often emanate from the Black Sea fleet information and public relations service, clearly tasked with presenting a positive view of naval activities. For instance, they emphasize that seamen recruited in the draft last autumn participated in recent exercises.
Drafted mainly from Russia's central regions, these latest recruits passed the relevant tests and expressed their desire to serve on surface vessels. "The vessel crews worked skillfully and in a coordinated fashion," said the information service. This was in stark contrast, however, to the reported accidental shelling of a village near St Petersburg on May 28 by a vessel in the Northern fleet.
Other elements of the Russian navy are also praised in official military sources, no doubt in an effort to boost the morale of its personnel. In 2008, the Pacific fleet made high profile visits to foreign ports, and a detachment from the fleet entered the Indian Ocean in May 2009 under command of Captain First Rank Ildar Akhmerov, preparing calls to the seaports of Salalah (Oman) and Manama (Bahrain).
The detachment was formed before its embarkation, in a "manner which would enable it to tackle the tasks which might emerge both in coordination and independently by individual ships". It included the Admiral Panteleyev, a large ASW vessel, Izhora and Irkut tankers and the MB-37 tugboat, and was similar in composition to a group that carried out international anti-piracy tasks earlier in the year. It was essentially tasked with convoying vessels along the so-called security corridor, following which the detachment separated.
The challenges of containing international piracy have also provided opportunities for an enhanced "footprint" by the Russian navy. According to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center, by early May 2009 the number of attacks on shipping in the Bay of Aden and the eastern coast of Somalia exceeded the figure for the entire year of 2008. Since the start of the year pirates carried out 114 attacks, 29 of which ended in seizure of vessels: compared with 2008, these figures were 111 and 42 respectively.
On June 1, the first deputy Minister of Defense Colonel-General Aleksandr Kolmakov, summarized the results of the winter training period. "During the past winter training period, Russian navy surface ships and submarines took to sea on 438 occasions. During the summer the navy will also participate in international exercises," Kolmakov explained.
He nonetheless admitted the improved figures were only marginal, and that mostly naval elements had underperformed in the winter training period. "In recent years more than 540 modern technical training systems have been delivered to train army and navy personnel. The Defense Ministry is currently completing the development of a blueprint for the development of technical training systems for the period through 2020," he said. Its results, however, appear a long way off.
Objectives: Local or global?
On June 15, Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchuk, the commander of the Caspian flotilla, confirmed that it will remain under the direct subordination to the main staff of the Russian navy, despite the current military reform, in which all formations will be transferred to permanent readiness.
Earlier, Russian media mooted the idea that the Caspian flotilla was scheduled to become an operational naval command subordinated to the commander of the Black Sea fleet by December 1, as part of the reform. "By December 1, 2009, the reorganization of the flotilla will be carried out by abolishing parallel structures and uniting the formations that deal with secondary goals. Twenty five percent of positions will be reduced. However, the Caspian flotilla as a separate combat naval force will remain. The flotilla will remain a force under direct command of the main staff of the Russian navy in Moscow," Kravchuk said.
In his view, this will give the flotilla a "new image", with the critical change being its transfer to permanent readiness. Moreover, he explained that the reorganization of its combat composition will entail reducing older types of weaponry and equipment, and the number of units tasked with duties "not characteristic of a naval force". After the completion of the structural reforms, the Caspian flotilla will consist of two brigades of surface ships, naval infantry, logistical support units and auxiliary ships.
He said that the unstable military-political situation in the Caspian region justified the strengthening of the flotilla's combat capabilities. "The main sources of instability are the problems of the unsettled international legal status of the Caspian Sea, disputed oil and gas fields in the southern Caspian Sea and illegal fishing of valuable species of fish," Kravchuk said.
Sources within the Russian MoD have also alleged that the navy plans to transfer eight to 10 submarines to the Black Sea fleet, which is fiercely opposed by the Ukrainian government. Vasily Kirilich, the press spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said that "the modernization or the introduction of new vessels of the Russian Black Sea fleet may be undertaken only with the consent of Ukraine, and this is specified clearly by the agreement between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on the parameters of the division of the Black Sea fleet of 1997."
Vice Admiral Oleg Burtsev, deputy chief of the Russian navy main staff, disagrees, arguing that Russia is entitled to replace the fleet's submarine forces without any reference to Kyiv. The Ukrainian Security Service also recently called on the withdrawal of all officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation attached to the fleet.
The status of the Black Sea fleet aside, it has become more strategically significant following the five-day war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Though naval combat played no meaningful role in the conflict, some naval officers have suggested that the fleet needs additional submarines. It currently has one permanent diesel-powered sub, the Alrosa, which is undergoing repairs; a painful situation for officers that recall around 40 submarines stationed in the Black Sea fleet in the Soviet period.
Economic issues challenge naval ambition
A series of setbacks has shaken the navy and the plans to carry out the reform program successfully. The much publicized though wholly unnecessary relocation of the navy headquarters to St Petersburg was "postponed" due to the costs involved and the opposition from admirals and senior officers who questioned its logic.
On June 18, a much more serious blow was disclosed by the deputy Defense Minister for Armaments Colonel-General Vladimir Popovkin, confirming that the planned development of six to seven carrier task groups in 2012 had also been "postponed".
The commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, first announced this ambitious program in July 2008. "Before going to the trouble, let us first decide what we need carrier task groups for. What strategic interests far from home do we have? There is more to a carrier task group than the aircraft-carrier alone. Aircraft-carriers need escorts. And the Russian navy only includes four fleets nowadays," Popovkin said.
Admiral Vysotsky said that such carrier task groups centered around nuclear-powered aircraft-carriers and capable of supporting strategic nuclear submarines were planned for the Northern and Pacific fleets. He emphatically promised that work on the project would begin in 2012.
If this postponement proves to be a diplomatic way of abandoning the plans, it will indicate that in practical terms the Russian military and security elites recognize the futility of pursuing global military ambitions. Moreover, these targets were announced prior to the global financial crisis while oil prices were relatively high on the world market.
There were also issues concerning which shipyards were capable of carrying out such construction work, while the long-running repairs to the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier earmarked for export to India has been underway for more than a decade, complicating bilateral negotiations on pricing. Popovkin also said that tests of the Yuri Dolgoruky, a Borey class nuclear submarine which will carry Bulava missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles, were scheduled to begin shortly; while the Bulava tests in 2008 resulted in 50% failure. More tests will commence in July, with four or five scheduled for this year. Equally, the MoD has decided to halve the number of ships scheduled for either repair or modernization.
On June 1, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin criticized the MoD leadership during a Russian government session. He reported that the defense industrial complex enterprise directors have complained about the lack of progress in conclusion of contracts within the framework of the state defense order. "The directors are saying that the money is not arriving at the enterprises. We have the money but real problems are emerging at the enterprises."
The state defense order is based on the program for rearming the army and the navy that has been approved by the government, which was calculated for 2007-2015. The sluggishness involved reflects poor management, weaknesses within the defense industry and state corruption often resulting in vast sums vanishing - originally intended for repair or modernization.
Colonel Yuriy Rubtsov, an expert on the strategic culture fund in Moscow's Academy of Military Sciences, explained: "Unfortunately, the main mass of the 300 ships, which are in the Russian navy's fighting strength today, have been operating for more than 20 years now. The eloquent statements about the state-of-the-art navy are empty promises."
Although Russian military reform plans are currently concentrating on implanting organizational changes, from the mass mobilization principle and abandoning the division based structure, moving toward permanent readiness, a mobile brigade-based system by the end of the end the year, it appears that the navy is being hardest hit by the economic downturn, as the Russian economy contracts.
This might entail a more realistic assessment within the Russian MoD and General Staff concerning global military capabilities, focusing instead on raising the potential to intervene in local conflicts, perhaps in support of a more limited resurgence of Russian power within its near abroad.
Equally, the critique in Western assessments, that the military reform is being conducted in a "crazy" order, without first rewriting the military doctrine, actually makes sense from a Russian military perspective; the need to overcome internal objections to reform meant rushing to first restructure the organizational table.
Having already passed the halfway mark, they have secured the reforms and ensured they cannot be easily unpicked. While this might have implications locally, it appears that the more ambitious elements of the modernization agenda, including the navy and its dream of multiple aircraft carriers, are being corrected: Russia's power aspirations are therefore, more local than global - a point which could take more than a generation for the navy to accept.
Roger N McDermott is an honorary senior fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) specializing in defense and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.