April 20, 2017

RUSSIA: A Land Power Hungry for the Sea.

From the perspective of the United States and its allies, the current status of the Russian navy offers both comfort and consternation. On the plus side for the West, irrespective of how much money Russia throws at its navy, no serious analyst thinks that the Russian navy can contend for control of the world’s oceans. This is eminently logical because the Russian fascination with the sea does not rest on economic necessity. Moscow never had, and still today does not have, an economy that is dependent on global trade, much less one that demands control of the seas. In addition, Russia’s stark inability to build large ships (think, aircraft carriers) ties its hands in any attempt at blue water sea control and power projection. Plus, it goes unsaid that the Russian economy is always at risk. Continued stagnation in Russian GDP growth probably is the death knell of expanding its navy.

Nonetheless, Putin’s navy continues to perform the missions outlined by Peter the Great, which should begin to offer a stew of comfort mixed with consternation. First, defense of the homeland. The Russian navy’s principal focus is on real estate close to the Russian border. Most of its operations and exercises are in waters adjacent to Russia. Think of it as high firepower potential but limited range. This, however, is comforting only if you are not a NATO member in Eastern Europe near the Russian border. Russia’s resumed deployment of ballistic missile submarines in the Atlantic could be unnerving, but is more readily construed as defense of the homeland, since these submarines, more than ever, will constitute Russia’s second strike – that is, deterrent — capability. Tsar Peter’s secondary consideration – gaining international diplomatic respect and recognition – continues to be supported by Russian Navy port visits and exercises around the world. In recent months, Russian ships have visited Namibia, the Philippines, South Africa, and the Seychelles and also conducted fleet exercises with the Indonesian and Chinese navies. While Putin has lost no ground to Peter the Great, this activity need not keep us awake at night.

Indeed. The old Soviet surface fleet was impressive on paper, but was a huge expense for a country which could ill-afford it while providing zero benefit to the Soviet economy. Its buildup and maintenance helped to bankrupt the U.S.S.R., but the Kremlin was blindly determined to have a fleet to match Western seapower.

Russia’s geopolitical position today is no different that the U.S.S.R.’s — only weaker, and even less able to maintain a power-projecting, blue water surface fleet.

Putin, the former KGB officer, knows all this, and sees himself more in the mold of Peter the Great than the failed Soviet leadership.

So, no — no sleep lost over the Russian Navy.