Russia's Minor-League Navy

Russia's Minor-League Navy

Despite rumblings of new naval bases, Russia will remain a land—not sea—power.

Russia is going to acquire naval “supply and repair” bases in the Seychelles, Cuba and Vietnam, announced Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, commander of the Russian Navy. How much of this statement is wishful thinking, how much is a trial balloon and how much is talking out of school? It appears that the Russian naval chief was involved in a bit of each.

The statement quickly was disavowed by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD), which said the admiral was misquoted. No decisions on overseas naval bases were taken, and relations with foreign countries are not under the jurisdiction of the naval commander, the ministry spokesman stressed. And as usual, the brass blamed poor journalism.

Yet there is more to Admiral Chirkov’s statement than mere miscommunication. The MOD spokesman admitted that Russia is "working on" potential supply and repair facilities in Vietnam, the Seychelles and Cuba in addition to the existing one in Tartus, Syria.

In fact, a squadron of the Russian Northern and Baltic fleets passed Gibraltar and is steaming toward Tartus. The three amphibious ships (landing craft) in the squadron indicate a possible marine landing or a massive evacuation of Russian citizens from Syria.

Russia did not resume the leasing agreement with Vietnam for the giant Cam Ranh Bay in 2000 and later transferred the Lourdes signal intelligence facility in Cuba to the Chinese comrades. At the time, these steps were lauded as Russia’s attempts to establish an amicable relationship with the United States. The Seychelles is a newcomer on the bases list. Strategically located in the Indian Ocean, it boasts azure waters and is a prime tourist destination—not a naval port.

Russia previously has examined options for a supply and repair facility, which is less than a full-blown naval base, in Tripoli, Libya. In 2009–2010, there were reports about such facilities in Somalia and on Socotra, an extremely geopolitically important island in the Indian Ocean between Somalia and Yemen, where the Soviets used to have a base. Finally, reports appeared that Moscow is checking out a naval location in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, but nothing came of this either.

Naval real estate is expensive, and shopping for it is no picnic. The president of Vietnam already announced the Cam Ranh Bay would be available to "all countries." Vietnam will not provide an exclusive base to Russia, despite Moscow providing $10 billion in assistance loans. Hanoi is apprehensive of Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam is more interested in the large U.S. naval presence in Cam Ranh Bay than in a potential Russian base there.

As for the Caribbean, the Russian media speculates that as Cuba is interested in restoring relations with the United States, and with Moscow not providing economic aid to the island, a new Russian naval base in the Caribbean is highly unlikely.

Thus it is possible that the publication of Chirkov’s missives was a trial balloon to test international reaction to such a development. It also is clear that the Russian government is attempting to negotiate at least some new naval arrangements.

Deploying a global naval force with bases in three of the world’s oceans is a hugely expensive proposition, at least $700 billion over ten years. Despite a massive military-modernization program, it is unlikely that Russia will build significant surface combatant forces, such as several carrier battle groups. Moreover, such a force would need large-scale naval bases in all three major oceans. Having only supply and repair depots would relegate the Russian Navy to the minor leagues, where it historically belongs. Russia would be outperformed in each of the great world oceans—in the Atlantic by the United States and Great Britain, in the Pacific by the united States and China, and in the Indian Ocean by China and India.

Since the launch of the modern Russian Navy under Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, it mostly was victorious in battles with mid-size or declining powers, such as the Ottoman Porte and Sweden. The Russian Navy, poorly led and deployed, failed abysmally against the Japanese Imperial Navy in the Tsushima battle of 1904 and was relegated to coastal defenses against the Germans in both World Wars. While the nuclear-armed Soviet Navy was huge and, in some cases, enjoyed nuclear propulsion, it still fell behind its U.S. competitor.

Russia is and will continue to be no naval match for the United States, let alone to the combined naval forces of NATO members. For the foreseeable future, surface navies of the United States, China and India are likely to be bigger and better equipped than their Russian counterpart.

Russia was, is and will continue to be a land power. In addition, it is modernizing its nuclear triad and has an impressive sixty-year track record in space. Today, sea power just does not seem to be Russia’s cup of tea—or, if you prefer, not its shot of vodka.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.