Some may wonder why Russia would risk the ridicule it received in the European and U.S. press by sending aging warships into the Mediterranean late last year. On December 5, 2016, Bloomberg even called the voyage of the Admiral Kuznetsov, the country’s only carrier, a “blunder.” But was it really? Among the factors for consideration, the Syrian conflict has provided an opportunity for Russia to deploy defensive systems to the Mediterranean, especially Tartus. Under the guise of aid to an ally at war and fighting ISIL, aircraft, cruise missiles and advisers could be moved in an operation that might otherwise have been countered as military expansionism by the Western powers. That window of opportunity had to be seized and the Northern Fleet carrier group was the only available means. A broader view of the mission raises interesting points about the actual status and future of the Russian surface fleets.
The traditional responsibility of the Russian Navy has been to provide a marine-based defense. It is not to serve as a Mahan-style world ranging commerce protector. It has been, and continues to be, an extension of the land-based defense force. If we view Russia’s recent Mediterranean mission in light of Mahan’s blue water strategy, it can be deemed as a failure. It did not operate in open oceans, but more of as a coastal fleet. The flotilla had difficulties mechanically, it was refused refueling; and it lost aircraft. It did make it to the Syrian coast, but had minimal effect on the war, including having seen its air wing fly from land bases, and then the Kuznetsov was quickly recalled. Furthermore, photos of the Admiral Kuznetsov belching smoke like an old Dreadnought did not portray the vision of a modern Navy at the peak of operational proficiency.
The Bloomberg assessment would be correct if the Kremlin were signaling a new Russian imperialism. However, that would indicate a quantum change in the mission of the naval arm of Russia’s military. Case in point, France’s termination of the Mistral projects was seen by Russian sources as the end of an idea out of place in the overall scheme of naval defense. The extension of military force through amphibious operations was seen as useful only for adventures in faraway regions. A shift to an overseas offensive fleet could also be seen as a miscalculation of the navy’s surface fleet’s current capabilities.
Russian naval plans for the future still show a force dedicated to the defense of the Russian homeland. The problem is that this is a future fleet. The ships that will someday comprise the modern Russian Navy are still on the drawing boards. In the case of new carriers, new ship building facilities are, as of yet, not available to build vessels capable of long term, open ocean operations with a capable air wing. Even with the acquisition of port facilities in the Crimea, the Russians lack the docks, tools or expertise in modern building techniques and propulsion systems needed to build an American-style blue water navy.
Russia is maintaining a legacy fleet which is quickly approaching the end of its operational life. The Admiral Kuznetsov itself has been slated for overhaul for some time. That said, the fleet can still be useful within the strictures of Russian naval doctrine as Moscow seeks to position defensive weapon systems in forward positions to counter NATO, and particularly United States, naval assets.
As such, the sailing fulfills the primary mission of the Russian Navy as a line of defense. The Navy is designed to provide defense in depth by being the first line, at sea. Their current and future weapons have tremendous capabilities in their many variants, but limited range. The effective range of aircraft such as the carrier based SU-33 is 2,993 km (1,860 miles) and the new SU-34 only 1,094 km; primary missile systems such as the Moskit and Sizzler 240 km, and Kalibr 1,500 km. All need to be forward deployed to be truly effective.
The inclusion of the Eastern Mediterranean in this strategy is nothing new. In Russian eyes, the Navy truly began with the riverine fleets of 9th century Kiev that protected trade routes through Constantinople. Russia became a sea power under Peter the Great (1672-1725). Aside from the Great Northern Wars with Sweden, the history focuses on the use of naval power in the 19th century to secure access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. There has always been a quest to secure bases in the Aegean or the Levant from which Russia’s only year round access to the maritime world can be protected. Reinforcing and expanding the base in Tartus, Syria fulfills that ambition.
In this respect, despite its shortcomings and age, the flotilla was successful. It did operate in the Mediterranean, demonstrating both at home and abroad that Russian weapon systems can be given the needed extension of range if the proper surface assets are available. The securing of naval and air force bases in Syria, together with the posting of bombers to Iran, extended Russia’s defensive ring to the Indian Ocean and Northern Africa.
The mission also provided training in the complexities of operating an air wing at sea and morale boost within the service itself. This “hands on” training is what gives the U.S. Navy an edge over most other Navies in the world.
As a public relations gambit targeting the Russian people and those holding the purse strings, the mission was a qualified success. It showed the capabilities of the Navy, in spite of its aging ships, and demonstrated the possibilities for a modernized fleet. The mission also helped erase the memories of the disasters of the subsurface fleet and the deterioration of the Black Seas Fleet following the independence of the Ukraine. Now, as the smoke from the Admiral Kuznetsov clears, it remains to be seen when funding for new surface ships becomes available.
Robert Cobb is a historian of American ideology, with an interest in the development of military strategy and planning. He has taught courses in American History, the History of Warfare, American Naval History, at a New England private school and as adjunct faculty of Syracuse University. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.