The Russian Navy's Great Mediterranean Show of Force
News has been rippling across Western media of a Russian naval squadron headed by the country's only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, slowly making its way towards Syria. Originally announced on July 11th, the combat tour to Syria has been long in the works, together with a host of other Russian naval activities unfolding simultaneously this month. The Russian squadron has been lurching along at a steady pace as part of a tour de force around NATO countries and towards the Eastern Mediterranean. At the time of this writing, the ships were passing through the English Channel. While the military objectives of this mission are not entirely insignificant, Russia's chief purpose is status projection, leveraging its navy to demonstrate that it is a great power.
The squadron will first irk Russia's already apprehensive Western neighbors and then make its presence felt in the Middle East. Yet this latest bit of political theater and military showmanship is not without risk. Kuznetsov's fortunes will determine whether this becomes a demonstration of Russia's power projection, or an unintended embarrassment, leaving the impression that Moscow is only imitating great power status. The carrier is notoriously unreliable, while many of its fellow ships are also Soviet inheritances—capable but aging.
Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States. Both images will play well with a domestic audience. Behind the scenes, a two year battle over the future of the State Armament Program is also unfolding in Moscow, with military services fighting over a defense procurement budget on the ebb. Despite being a vast Eurasian land power, Russian leaders going back to Peter the Great have a history of lavishing disproportionate attention to the navy, believing that in the international system one must be able to show prowess on the high seas to be recognized as one of the great players in the system.
Vladimir Putin has not deviated from this traditional mindset, only exemplified it. He has at times quoted Alexander III's famous line that Russia has only two dependable allies: "its army and its navy." A commentary on geopolitics more so than military matters, but it still holds true to this day. Russia's navy has taken on considerable risk in a bid to convey to national leadership that it is an invaluable instrument for global status ambitions and national inspiration.
Though often a point of fixation, the Russian carrier Kuznetsov—or perhaps more accurately the originally Soviet-built 'heavy aviation cruiser'—is also accompanied by the nuclear-powered missile cruiser Peter the Great. This flagship of the Russian Navy packs an arsenal of anti-ship missiles, air defenses and combat capabilities worthy of its prominent name. Kuznetsov's mission is in part to make a combat debut in Syria, having sailed several times to the region, but never having fought. This is a public relations mission at heart, but also an important training event for Russia's tiny naval aviation component.
The military aspects of the operation should not be overlooked. Russia's carrier is often disparaged as a floating lemon, and such criticisms are fair, but the West has an unhealthy track record of underestimating Russian military capabilities for the sake of disparaging them. Unlike previous tours, which were largely for show, this time the ship will likely conduct combat operations, and it's not traveling alone either.
The Kuznetsov set sail on October 15th from Severomorsk for the Syrian coast together with Peter the Great, two Udaloy-class destroyers, a tanker ship and a large tugboat. Little noticed is that on the same day a squadron from Russia's Pacific Fleet departed Vladivostok on the other side of the world. The second grouping consists of two destroyers (Udaloy and Sovremenny class), together with a large tanker and tug, headed for the Indian Ocean. It's possible that this task force may choose to rally with the Kuznetsov in the Eastern Mediterranean, or perhaps standby on call in nearby waters.
A host of other naval movements are playing out simultaneously. One of Russia's newly completed Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates is transferring from the Baltic to the Black Sea Fleet, and may join the group off Syria to fire land attack cruise missiles. It's possible one of the Northern Fleet's nuclear-powered submarines has joined this tour as well. The Russian Navy's comparative strength, its submarine force, is unlikely to have been left completely without a role in this affair.
Two large corvettes from the Baltic Fleet have ventured out of port, either to escort the carrier or join it for exercises on its voyage south. Already on October 18th, the carrier began flight-training operations in the Norwegian Sea, shadowed by the British and Norwegian militaries. Traveling slowly, the Russian Navy will probably make several exercise stops as a pointed show of force to NATO along the way. Although planned well in advance, the first part of this tour will undoubtedly answer some of the 'deterrence messaging' by the United States 6th Fleet and NATO ships routinely visiting the Baltic and Black Sea.