The Debate

The Pacific Fleet: Russia’s Diminutive White Fleet?

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The Debate

The Pacific Fleet: Russia’s Diminutive White Fleet?

Recent missions of Russia’s Pacific Fleet are reminiscent of the 1907-08 voyage of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet.

There has been an uptick in Russian Pacific Fleet aircraft flying into or near to U.S. defensive airspace. It is a sign of increased Russian naval activity in an ocean often viewed as the playground of the U.S. Navy, signaling an intent to challenge the status quo and break out of cold war isolation. In a strategy focused on avoiding open conflict with a superior force, Russia is using its small fleet to challenge the dominance of the U.S. Navy in the region.

This comes at a time when increasingly, the United States is sending messages to old allies that they need to take a larger role in their own defense. Allies and foes alike have seen an increase in isolationist rhetoric within the current administration, including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Another factor is the apparent confusing messages of the administration with regard to naval operations.

The announcement of a task force moving to Korea, when it wasn’t, has allowed Moscow to sow seeds of distrust within the region, including nations bordering the Indian Ocean. Along with the new administration’s preoccupation with Korea and a failure to challenge China in the South China Sea,  U.S. actions are portrayed as looking after its own interests, to the detriment of allied interests.

Together, the evidence would seem to indicate a diminished role of the United States on the world stage. It is at least a change in the vision of U.S. leadership in the Far East, in spite of rhetoric indicating an increase in U.S. fleet assets. Russia has leveraged this confusion in messaging as an opportunity to increase its own influence by portraying itself as a consistent regional neighbor.

Moscow may not possess ships in the number or size of the U.S. Navy, but it still makes its presence felt across Asia. In the Middle East, the Tarsus base has played a key role in the Syrian conflict. Further east, Russia has increased its cooperation with India. In the past few months, even the Bering Sea has been an active site of Russian training exercises.

Seeking new bases, vessels under Saint Andrew’s Cross visited Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea in 2016 and 2017. A mission reminiscent of the 1907-08 voyage of America’s Great White Fleet. Such visits show the Pacific Fleet working as an important part of Russia’s initiative to increase its role in the area and challenge the American hegemony.

To counter U.S. naval operations, Russia does not have to prove it can sink ships. It can develop relationships with heretofore allies making it increasingly difficult for the United States to find and utilize forward bases. With Asian nations, the Russian Pacific Fleet has the advantage of proximity. The presence of Russian naval assets so near the borders of the U.S. allies used to be seen as a threat, but Moscow now bargains proximity as a positive to countries looking at the rise of a nuclear North Korea and a sea going China. The seeming disinterest in the defense of the western Pacific by the United States only aides the selling of the point. Japan and even the Chinese have trained with the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Aside from proximity, the Russians have other advantages. In India, there is a similarity in assets. The Russians have sold to India, or supervised the building, of several vessels. The exchange offers Russia access to bases in the Indian Ocean and a friend with similar weapon systems. It also gives Russia access to year-round ship building facilities and new technologies. The bases in India are also repair facilities between the Mediterranean and Vladivostok.

Russian promotes itself as the protector of sovereignty in the Pacific, portraying U.S.-led military exercises as reinforcing foreign dominance over Asian nations. Taking advantage of Philippine disillusionment, Russia has made overtures to President Rodrigo Duterte. Manila has been increasingly unhappy with the United States, a situation made worse by the U.S .decision to withhold arms shipments.  Once again, the Russian Navy played a key role in the diplomatic game to arrange future military cooperation.

In Vietnam, Russia is familiar with the facilities owing to years of war against the United States. While the Vietnamese continue to support a policy of no alliances, Russia has deep historic ties with the country.  For Vietnam, Russia also provides a super power counter to its tradition enemy, China. To this end, a recent tour of Vietnam by Russian ships reinforced their mutual interests in the South China Sea.

Moscow is also taking advantage of the growth of independent forces. The Japanese Self-Defense Force has one of the largest ship contingents in the theater and recently launched a new helicopter destroyer, similar to a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) enabled aircraft carrier. While the United States and Japan cooperate off the coast of Korea, Russia and Japan recently held a joint exercise in the Sea of Japan. This comes at a time of increasing tensions between the Japanese and the US Navy.

With turmoil brewing in the Pacific, Russia’s small fleet is showing itself capable of challenging the U.S. Navy. While it may not be capable of defeating the U.S. naval forces in open battle, it has become a nimble part of Russia breaking out into the Pacific. Showing the flag in ports once reserved for U.S. ships, Russia is opening new opportunities and exploiting the cracks in the dominance of the U.S. presence in the Pacific.

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.