Lt Cdr KAMRAN, PN, discusses the relative importance of the Russian Navy and its future role in the light of past experiences

During the cold war the Soviet Navy was one of the largest and strongest navies in the world, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, due to political and especially economic crises, the Russian Navy as with all Russian Armed Forces is embroiled in the same crises as rest of the country. The Russian navy also suffered from downsizing. At this moment, Russia is facing a new experiment of democracy, political instability, economic crises, organised crime, food shortage, no/low wages for defence forces etc. But at the same time Russia wants to have the same status in the world to those of the Soviet Union, as she is still a permanent member of the UN Security Council, so the Russian Naval ambitions are similar as that of Soviet Union. Russia sees the enlargement of NATO, and the re-equipment of other countries as a threat to herself.

The Cold War was a unique period in history, in which the world was divided into two blocks. After the Cold War the world is facing new threats such as ethnic, religious, economic, territorial and other non-governmental controversies, and many of these conflicts are situated on Russian borders, or on the borders of Russia's old allies and partners.

This essay will examine, in the light of past experience, what is the Russian Navy's likely future role and relative importance?

Russia has the longest coastline in the world i.e. 38,000 km1 (its coastline is twice the length of that of the United States), it is washed by two oceans and twelve seas, seventy percent of Russian boundary lies in sea waters. The discontinuities in its maritime borders have forced the division of its navy into four independent fleet, i.e., Northern Fleet (at Severomorsky), Baltic Sea Fleet (at Kaliningrad), Black Sea Fleet (at Sevastopol), and Pacific Ocean Fleet (at Valdivostak). The Soviet Union was a major maritime power, and it has achieved this status after following consistent policies since 1950s. The question facing the Russia is now, whether she should or not attempt to retain that status, or whether the priorities of her national interests and economy dictate that the navy henceforth be reduced to its traditional roles of homeland defence and support of ground forces2.

Navies are costly and one of the main contributors to the collapse of the Soviet Union was spending a huge amount on defence, like Soviet military spending, estimated by western sources to be 12-17% of GDP during the mid-eighties3, which ultimately weakened the economy. The common citizen is not worried about the global role of Russia, he is worried about the basic needs of life. The economic reforms introduced by President Yeltsin will take some time and people are not prepared to pay the price and wait for the results. The effect of the poor economy is reflected in defence forces, for example the Commanders of 'Typhoon' and 'Delta' class nuclear submarines have refused to go out on patrol for the first time in the history of the Navy because they had not been paid for three months4. It is estimated the Navy is receiving less than 20 percent of the funds needed to pay for operations, new construction, maintenance, basing, support and personnel. The impact on operations has been acute, with fuel shortages, cutting sea time drastically, huge arrears of power supply to naval bases, dockyard and other shore facilities. There is also a serious environmental problem posed by the disposal of over 100 nuclear submarines laid up awaiting decommissioning. In early 1995 it was decided to channel most of the available new-construction funds into the completion of four major units; the 11th project 949 A 'Oscar II' SSGN Tomsk; a project 971 'Akula II' submarine; the project 1144.2 nuclear powered cruiser Peter Veliky; and the project 1155.1 frigate Admiral Chabanenko. The government is taking some stop - gap measures to try to ease the situation. President Yeltsin announced in 1997 that the Navy will be funded as a separate item outside of the main defence vote5. But due to economic conditions the defence ministry has not yet received the allocated funds.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy has been reduced by half. Russia retained only 66 percent (113) of the 170 factories and enterprises directly supporting naval shipbuilding6. A prime example was the loss of the Ukraine shipbuilding yards, as a consequence of which only one aircraft carrier, the new Admiral Kuznetsov, remains in service and the navy cannot refit most of its remaining cruisers. Similarly six of the Baltic Fleet's seven ship repair yards are now inaccessible. Such is the problem that the navy now claims to retain only 34 percent of the ship repair capacity which it requires. The supply of spares has also been disrupted by the fact that many factories which were traditionally monopoly suppliers are now abroad. Further blows to the navy's infrastructure were dealt with the loss of bases and training establishments which have proved difficult or impossible to replace7. The current state of the Russian Navy and the outlook for its future development are the cause of some concern to her sailors, due to, firstly, Russia's Naval power is diminishing, the shipbuilding industry will be incapable of turning out nuclear submarines and ocean going vessels. Secondly, since 1992, the inventory of vessels has shrunk by a half and naval aviation by 60 percent; ageing of vessels and armament varies from 70 percent to 30 percent according to the type. By the 21st century a mere 10 percent of all vessels will comprise new models8.

In order to deal with this, the Russian Navy has further reduced operations and removed from operational status those ships and submarines with less than half of their planned service remaining. This has resulted in the complete elimination of several classes of ships and submarines, remaining the need for many costly overhauls, nuclear refuelling, and a reduction in the navy's manpower requirements, allowing for the elimination and consolidation of some navy formations. No part of the Navy was spared9. It remains tasked with defensive operations.

According to Russian Military doctrine, the Navy is to protect sovereignty, territorial integrity, and other vital interests of the Russian Federation. The top priority is the prevention of wars and military conflicts. Other tasks include repulsing aggressors, protecting the country and its forces from attacks from the sea, defeating enemies, creating conditions for the halt of hostilities on term corresponding to Russia's interests, and conducting peacekeeping operations according to UN Security Council decisions, or the international agreements of the Russian Federations. Retaining nuclear deterrent force is key10.

Russia sees the development of NATO navies as a potential threat. Germany, Sweden, Turkey and Italy are building modern submarines and warships, the United States, Great Britain and China are building multipurpose nuclear submarines, including ballistic missile submarines, (with firing range of 8,500 to 11,000 km) and France has built a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. By the beginning of the 21st century, these developments will have strengthened the combat potential of these navies considerably. In the East, China and the countries of South East Asia are beginning a large scale rearmament and 20 - 25 countries are reportedly pursuing nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. In the short-term, the main threat to Russia lies in boundary and local conflicts, such as Chechnya, and Tajikistan. In the mid-term the threat could grow from South and East. A weak Russia will tempt the growing powers. In the long-term the outlook is more uncertain. If Russia can not restore finances, material resources, fuel and shipyards, in the 21st century then she will have no more than 6-8 ready SSBNs, which represents only 25 - 30 percent of the 1750 naval nuclear warhead limit established under the START II treaty and 3-4 times fewer warheads than carried by the US Navy. Nuclear parity will therefore be broken. The Navy will also be reduced to 20-25 relatively modern multipurpose SSNs and about 10 diesel submarine (SSKs). For surface ships, she will have not more than one aircraft carrier, 2-3 guided missile cruisers, 7-10 guided missile destroyers, 10-12 guided missile frigates, and 30 minesweepers and 30-40 guided missile boats. These ships will be spread over five isolated sea and ocean theatres, with no possibility of manoeuvring between these theatres11. If Russia continues to be weak in economic, political and military aspects, powerful neighbours and their allies may be able to realise some/many of their pretensions to Russia.

Russia has land borders with only 18 countries, and by sea it has dealings with and co-operates in the political, economic, commercial, cultural, scientific research and military sphere with some 125 states. The scale of Russian interests in the world's oceans are sufficiently illustrated by, firstly, the enormous continental shelf of the seas and oceans washing Russians coastline, with an exclusive economic zone with rich reserves of marine products, minerals and other resources. Secondly, Russia's possession of large transport, fishing and scientific research fleets and excessive sea lanes. Thirdly, deep water ports in all directions, as well as other marine infrastructure, including naval. Fourthly, military obligation vis-a-vis foreign states, and lastly, the need to maintain good neighbourly relations with contiguous states and to safeguard the rights and interests of Russian citizens overseas12.

There are two schools of thought regarding the future role of the Russian Navy. The first proposes a relatively large 'blue water' Navy capable of dealing with any or all threats; the other advocates a much smaller Navy designed solely to defend Russia's territory against likely local or regional threats.

Rear Admiral V Aleskin, Chief Navigator of the Navy advocates for a large ocean going Navy. He proposes, firstly, that Russia's economy has a strong maritime component with the potential for exploiting the rich resources of her continental shelf and maritime economic zones and her extensive use of ocean and sea lines of communications. Secondly, despite all that has occurred in the international arena, Russia will need to oppose likely attempts by other countries to settle emerging differences with the use of force, and finally, Russia still has national interests in the oceans and need to assure the defence of her maritime frontiers13.

According to Aleskin Russia's basic national security interests require a large ocean going navy. Firstly, to deter aggression by assuring a devastating retaliatory strike. Secondly, to promote Russia's national interests by 'showing the flag' around the world. Thirdly, to provide security for Russian economic activity on the world ocean, and finally to repel attacks from maritime axis, should deterrence fail14. But due to the economic situation, Russia cannot afford a big navy, so the Russian leadership and particularly naval leadership would prefer a smaller high tech Navy capable of providing coverage on Russia's coast, but one that is also capable of interacting with regional associations, with other naval powers or the United Nations. As Russia scrapes her older and manpower intensive units, she will retain only those units necessary to maintain her strategic nuclear deterrent i.e. SSBN and coastal defence. The Russian navy will provide the bulk of Russia's nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. Its ability to carry out blue water missions will decrease in the near term until sufficient new high quality, ships/submarine either already under construction or in design are delivered to the fleet. Unless there is a dramatic turn around in the Russian economy and a corresponding commitment to increase resources to defence, it is unlikely the Russian Navy will obtain the force it believes is necessary, 'to be superior to the navies of any neighbour and not inferior to coalition forces' in the foreseeable future15.

Russia wants to have good relations with neighbouring and western countries. The Russian Navy has carried out two joint communication exercises at sea with the Japanese Navy in 1997, and a Russian fleet visited Japan in 1997 also. This was the first visit since the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Russia also wants to conduct similar exercises with China in 199816. Russia and the United Kingdom will conduct Naval exercises in 1999 and have also agreed to have liaison between their certain training establishment17. RUKUS was established in 1988 in order to open constructive dialogue between Russia, United Kingdom and the United States navies. Similarly the Russian navy also conducted exercises with US and Royal Navy in May 9618. The NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security was signed in 1997. Its main features include, NATO and Russia no longer see themselves as adversaries, it also set up a new Russia-NATO Permanent Joint Council in Brussels and it secures an assurance from NATO that no nuclear weapons and no substantial permanent combat forces will be deployed on the territories of new members. As a surprising gesture Yeltsin announced that all nuclear weapons aimed at NATO states would be de targeted. By carrying out exercises, agreements and goodwill visit, the Russian Navy is performing the role of naval diplomacy effectively which will have long lasting effect.

Russia is passing through a very sensitive period, she is interested in carrying out a similar role to the Soviet Union, she wants to have an effective role in the United Nations' Security Council.

The co-operation include, firstly, liaison between Britannia Naval College, Dartmouth and the Frunze Naval Academy. Secondly, liaison between Maritime Warfare Centre at HMS Dryad and the Kusnetsov Naval Academy. Thirdly, liaison between the Flag Officer Sea Training and the Combat division of the Main Naval Staff. Fourthly, liaison between the Royal Marines and the Russian Naval Infantry, and finally, the continuation of a schedule of ship visits and training exchanges.

She views the enlargement of NATO and other emerging navies of the region as a threat for herself. The Russian Navy is also suffering from financial constraint. President Yeltsin has announced a separate budget for the Navy, this is a good step as it will allow the Navy to complete its priority programmes. The Russian Navy has decommissioned a lot of units and it is expected that the future navy will be smaller and relatively more modern, but it is highly unlikely that it will emerge as the technological equal of Western navies. Russia will maintain a smaller fleet of SSBN/SSN as a nuclear deterrent. Russia is still the largest country in the world. It possesses vast resources and has the potential to overcome its economic crisis. But considering the combination of Russia's problems and the relative importance of the Navy in her overall prioritisation, one can expect a continued decline in Russian Navalism (i.e., world wide engagement of the Navy to further Russian political objectives) over the next decade. The most encouraging thing is the naval units are regularly visiting and carrying out exercises with other countries especially western navies, exchanging officers, which is a good step to improve the image of Russia as well as the Russian Navy and to foster detente.

1. 'Lessons From the 300 Year History of the Russian Navy'. RUSI Journal August 1996, P 52.
2. Cdr Airey S E, 'Does Russian Sea Power have a Future', RUSI Journal December 1995, P 14.
3. 'The Military Balance 1985/1986', Brassey's for IISS, London, 1985.
4. Perra J, 'Russian Forces Edge Closer to Financial Ruin', Jane's Intelligence Review, P 69.
5 'Which Course will Russia's Navy Steer?' Jane's Navy International, Oct 96, P 18-20.
6. Earl Sheck, 'The Russian Navy: Dealing with Economic Declines', Proceeding Dec 96, P 73.
7. Cdr. Airey S E, 'Does Russian Sea Power have a Future', RUSI Journal December 1995, P 16.
8. 'Lessons From the 300 Year History of the Russian Navy', RUSI Journal August 1996, P 52.
9. Earl Sheck, 'The Russian Navy: Dealing with Economic Declines', Proceeding Dec 96, P 74.
10. Rear Admiral Aleskin V, 'Russian Needs a Strong Navy', Proceedings Dec 97, P 47.
11. Idem.
12. 'Lessons From the 300 Year History of the Russian Navy', RUSI Journal August 1996, P 53.
13. Earl Sheck, 'The Russian Navy: Dealing with Economic Declines', Proceeding Dec 96, P 75
14. Ibid, P 73.
15. Ibid, P 80.
16. 'Russia boosts Asian Naval Links', International Defence Digest, P 6.
17. Navy News Jan 1998, P 1& 16.
18. Jane's Navy international, Jun 96, P1.


1. 'Lessons From the 300 Year History of the Russian Navy', RUSI Journal August 1996 P 52.
2. Cdr Airey S E, 'Does Russian Sea Power have a Future', RUSI journal December 1995, P 14, 16.
3. 'The Military Balance 1985/1986', Brassey's for IISS, London, 1985.
4. Perra J, 'Russian Forces Edge Closer to Financial Ruin', Jane's Intelligence Review, P 69.
5. 'Which Course will Russia's Navy Steer? Jane's Navy International, Oct 96, P 18-20.
6. Earl Sheck, 'The Russian Navy: Dealing with Economic Declines', Proceeding Dec 96, P 73, 74, 75, 80.
7. Rear Admiral Aleskin V, 'Russia Needs a Strong Navy', Proceedings Dec 97, P 47.
8. 'Russia Boosts Asian Naval Links', International Defence Digest, P 6.
9. Navy News Jan 1998, P 1& 16.
10. Jane's Navy International, Jun 96, P 1.