The Russian Navy Is Back
Considering that he earned his spurs in the culture of the KGB, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated surprisingly strong navalist tendencies over the past eighteen months. Adding irony to this new focus on the sea, his presidency began with allegations that he mishandled the disaster of the sinking of the “Kursk” submarine in 2000, just three months after he was inaugurated as Russian president. However, last week’s deployment of Russian military forces to Syria confirmed that maintaining naval access has become a centerpiece of President Putin’s foreign policy and may shed light on future Russian foreign policy goals. Two other recent developments confirm this trend of restoring Russian naval power: the annexation of Crimea in March of 2014 and the release of the Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 in July of 2015.
The Russian annexation of Crimea restored firm Russian control over the port city of Sevastopol, which is the home of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet and Sevastopol Shipyard. Sevastopol Shipyard played a key role in modernizing the Russian Navy over the past decade—even though it was located on sovereign Ukrainian territory but leased back to Russia under the Black Sea Fleet Agreement of 1997.
The Maritime Doctrine of Russian Federation 2020 leads off with the provocative phrase: “Historically, Russia—the leading maritime power…” and goes on to divide Russian naval policy between six regions: the Atlantic, Arctic, Antarctic, Caspian, Indian Ocean, and Pacific. Upon release of the Maritime Doctrine in July, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly that “…the Atlantic has been emphasized because of NATO expansion, the need to integrate Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base into the Russian economy, and to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean.”
That last phrase (“…to re-establish a permanent Russian Navy presence in the Mediterranean”) serves as a clear signal of one of the principal policy objectives of Russian military forces to Syria last week—the preservation of Russian naval access to the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia. During remarks at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC on September 28, General Philip M. Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), said he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean. The second priority, in service to the first, is to prop up Russia’s host, the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Then third, he said, “After all of that, I think that they will do some counter-ISIL work to legitimize their approach to Syria.”
After Russian defense spending hit rock bottom in 1998, a decade of increased investment in modernization and maintenance has renewed Russian aspirations of exerting global influence with a similarly global navy. Although that navy is ready to sail, it still needs access to bases for logistics support for sustained deployments abroad. While the Russian Navy does not yet have the capacity to generate the scope and scale of Soviet Navy deployment patterns during the Cold War, it has restored its capacity to maintain presence where core Russian interests are at stake—such as in Syria.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Navy enjoyed access to bases in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Yugoslavia to sustain continuous naval influence in the Mediterranean Sea. The recent trend toward Russian maritime expansion could serve as a harbinger for future Russian foreign policy initiatives. In late August 2015, the Russians persuaded Spain—a member of NATO—to allow a Russian Kilo-class diesel submarine to refuel and re-supply on the Spanish island of Ceuta as it transited from the North Sea Fleet to the Black Sea Fleet.
Moving forward, keep an eye on Libya as another potential focus area for restoring Russian naval access. While the current political situation in Libya is tenuous, the conditions are set for Russia to attempt to restore its access to naval bases and further sustain naval presence in the western Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic oceans—all under the cover of “fighting international terrorism.”
Captain Sean R. Liedman, U.S. Navy, was the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven operating the P-8A and P-3C maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. He has twice served in the Air Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operation’s staff and also as the executive assistant to the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government. This piece first appeared on CFR’s website here.