Asia Defense

Russia’s Eastern Command at Sea

Russia is intent on returning to classic geopolitics backed up by naval power.

Russia’s Eastern Command at Sea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As the world focuses more nervously on Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and on NATO’s periphery in Europe, the Kremlin is also beefing up the military might of its Eastern command based in the Far East, including forces of the Pacific Fleet. Franz-Stefan Gady reported recently in The Diplomat on the procurement plans and order of battle for the Fleet.

For Russia, the U.S. pivot to the Pacific and East Asia is every bit as fundamental, and threatening, as it is for China. Russia has territorial disputes with Japan, as does China. Russia is a key stakeholder in the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula. And as a new operational requirement, Pacific Fleet units and bases are servicing expanded Artic operations. Pacific Fleet units will continue to join multi-national anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, while Russia and China will move into the fifth year of joint naval exercises.

Moscow is raising its investment in the infrastructure of the Pacific Fleet, as part of a general upgrade. In 2014, Deputy Prime Minister responsible for the Defense Industry, Dmitry Rogozin, announced plans to expand ship-building in Russia’s eastern city of Khabarovsk. Within a few weeks of the Rogozin anouncement, Russia declared its intention to rebuild a global naval presence. The Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, revealed a plan to establish new foreign naval bases and to set up access rights elsewhere. His list included Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles and Singapore. By October 2013, Russian naval visits to other countries had increased by 35 per cent compared with the previous year.

The upgrade of the Pacific Fleet is likely to include two French Mistral-class helicopter carriers, already named as Vladivostok and Sevastopol, once political issues between France and Russia over Ukraine are resolved.

The naval expansion is not without its growing pains, and the Pacific Fleet remains a pale imitation of the Soviet navy in its 1980s heyday, when it was the premier power projection fleet in the Russian navy, having more surface ships than its closest competitor, the Northern Fleet, headquartered in Murmansk (see The Armed Forces of Russia in Asia, 2000). But Russia is not counting on matching U.S. or Chinese naval capability in the Pacific any time soon. It is nevertheless intent on a return to classic geopolitics backed up by naval power. The expansion and (re)modernization of the Pacific Fleet is just one sign of that intent.