Russia’s New Naval Doctrine: A ‘Pivot to Asia’?

Recent Features

Features | Security

Russia’s New Naval Doctrine: A ‘Pivot to Asia’?

Russia’s new maritime doctrine gives increasing importance to the Pacific and the Arctic.

Russia’s New Naval Doctrine: A ‘Pivot to Asia’?

Russian Navy destroyer Admiral Tributs maneuvers as it prepares to dock in Manila’s South Harbor Monday, April 8, 2019, in Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

On July 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an updated version of the Naval Doctrine of the Russian Federation. This is a top-tier strategic-planning document, elaborating Moscow’s official approach to the maritime domain. The new edition reflects significant changes compared to the previous one from 2015.

It is tilted toward global confrontation with the West, pre-eminence of the security prism in defining national goals, and reorientation of Russia’s foreign policy toward the Global South following its invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin intends to strengthen its naval combat capabilities worldwide and announces its higher readiness to employ military means to further its interests in international waters, including an intention to increase its naval presence on the high seas. In order to do so, the new doctrine calls for a complete restructuring of the shipbuilding industry, with a qualitative scale-up in its technological and production capabilities, both in the military and civilian domains.

In the energy field, the doctrine stipulates reinvigoration of seabed exploration and production of fossil fuels. The 2015 text required Russia to establish a “strategic reserve” of geologically explored areas for future exploration; the lack of a similar passage in 2022 implies that Russia is going for maximal exploitation of hydrocarbons in the next years, probably fearful that the climate change agenda will diminish the future possibilities for exports.

Similar to the 2015 text, the new doctrine divides the world into six geographical “directions,” though their order has changed. The Arctic and the Pacific directions, previously mentioned in the second and third places, have been upgraded to the first two spots, at the expense of the Atlantic direction, now numbered third. One of Russia’s main goals in each of these three directions is to “ensure strategic stability” (a euphemism for mutual nuclear deterrence), stated in more assertive and urgent language, compared to 2015.

The Doctrine explains that the Arctic has turned into a region of global military and economic competition and lists as major goals sustaining Russia’s leading position in this region and “wide exploitation” of its mineral reserves. Russia intends to utilize the “Northern Sea Route” (NSR) as its internal waters. Thus, the resource-intensive NSR, initially promoted by the Russians as an alternative to the Suez Canal, has been redirected eastwards since the war began to expedite the export of Russian commodities to Asia.

It seems that Russia seeks to avoid an image of being increasingly dependent on China following its disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Whereas the 2015 version of the Naval Doctrine stated that the “development of friendly ties with China is a key component of national maritime policy in the Pacific direction,” China is completely absent from the current document. Instead, there are new “key components”: lowering the threats to Russia’s national security, assuring strategic stability in the region, and developing friendly relations with the countries in Asia-Pacific. It is clear from the document that both the Arctic and the Pacific are conceived as areas of strategic confrontation between Russia and the U.S. and its allies.

The downgrade of the Atlantic direction (which also includes the Baltic, the Black, the Mediterranean and the Red Seas) to the third priority indicates the Kremlin’s loss of hope for any positive engagement with the West. Accordingly, the main Russian goal in the Atlantic direction is to “ensure strategic stability.”

Similar to the 2015 edition, the Caspian Sea is listed fourth, the Indian Ocean direction is fifth and Antarctica is sixth.

The reference to the Mediterranean basin (as mentioned above, a subregion of the Atlantic region) is updated and more detailed in relation compared to the 2015 iteration. It was determined, among other things, that Russia would like to strengthen its partnership with Syria; will ensure its military presence in the Mediterranean on the basis of the Russian military outpost in Tartus (Syria); will seek to establish additional techno-logistical outposts in the region; will work vigorously to ensure military-political stability in the Middle East; and will seek to deepen cooperation with Middle Eastern countries.

Another detailed reference to the Middle East also appears in the context of the Indian Ocean expanse: The Russians are interested in expanding cooperation with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq; and seek to develop diverse ties, including security and maritime cooperation, with all countries of the Indian Ocean basin.

Another goal set is the maintenance of a military-naval presence in the Persian Gulf, “based on techno-logistical outposts in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the use of the infrastructure of the countries of the region for the purpose of conducting Russian naval military activity.” This is a somewhat strange statement since Russian ships rarely visit the Persian Gulf, and Russia lacks permanent bases in this space. For the past three years, Russia has failed to force the Sudanese government to implement the long-term lease agreement for part of Port Sudan, signed with former dictator Omar al-Bashir.

A major innovation in the doctrine is the assertion that Russia is a “great maritime power” and has interests in all seas and oceans. The preservation and development of this status was placed first in the chapter “The Strategic Objectives of National Maritime Policy.” Another important change is in the classification of all maritime spaces in the world according to their vitality and Russia’s willingness to use armed force in these waterways. There are three ranks:

  1. “Areas of existential importance,” in which Russia can use all components in the defense of its interests, including armed force. Under this category are the territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Russia, the Russian part of the Caspian Sea, the Okhotsk Sea (near Japan), and large parts of the Arctic Ocean.
  2. “Important areas,” in which the use of force will be available as a last resort after the other options have been exhausted. These areas include the eastern Mediterranean basin, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the Baltic Sea, the Turkish, Danish, and Kuril straits, and even international shipping routes off the coast of Asia and Africa.
  3. “The other regions”: the rest of the international waters, where Russia’s interests will be promoted by non-forceful methods.

Moreover, the new doctrine establishes the supremacy of Russian law over international law. It gives a stronger emphasis than in the past to the production and export of energy resources from offshore reservoirs and the protection of underwater gas pipelines; strengthens the ability to mobilize all maritime capabilities, including civilian ones, in emergencies; calls for strengthening the Russian military and commercial fleet and developing the necessary technological and industrial capacity, including in the field of aircraft carrier construction; and calls for the acceleration of Russian diplomatic activity in the maritime context – in international organizations dealing with maritime issues, as well as the presence of Russian battleships and research ships “in the world ocean.”

When Doctrine Meets Reality

Since Putin’s rise to power, he has invested considerable resources in restoring Russia’s military (including naval) potential, which was severely damaged by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Russian commercial companies have increased their activities in offshore drilling, laying underwater gas pipelines, and developing the Arctic.

Despite ambitious national preparations and considerable financial investment, many problems that limit Russia’s development as a “maritime power” remain. The Russian industries, both military and civilian, lack technological knowledge, production infrastructure, and advanced manpower in many areas.

For example, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has had one outdated aircraft carrier that it has difficulty maintaining. After the sinking of the cruiser Moscow in the war in Ukraine, it has only four cruiser/battlecruiser-sized ships and about ten destroyers. All of these ships were launched or began to be built during the Soviet period. In the civilian sphere, Russia lacks a robust capacity for laying underwater gas pipelines or conducting deep-water drilling and building an infrastructure for production of liquefied natural gas; it relied on Western companies that stopped working in Russia following the onset of the Ukraine War.

Nuclear weapons submarines are the main power base of the Russian Navy, allowing Russia to pose a serious threat to other powers. In the coming years, Russia promises a unique array of submarines carrying supersonic torpedoes and armed with a powerful nuclear warhead (Poseidon). In the conventional field, the Russians manufacture corvettes, frigates, and diesel submarines and arm them with modern and precise cruise missiles (Kaliber up to a range of about 2,500 km, which was widely used against Ukraine, and soon Zircon, a missile with an approximate range of 1,500-1,000 km). Russia is also a world leader in the production of nuclear-powered icebreakers necessary for the development of the Arctic.

All Russian projects suffer from a multiplicity of models (which makes maintenance difficult); poor quality level and negligence (which leads to frequent serious accidents); and postponements in the schedule of development and production. The Western sanctions regime, which made it difficult for Russian industries even before the current war in Ukraine, is expected to pose significant challenges to the development of Russian naval power, which is embodied in the new doctrine.

Since the Russian Navy consists mainly of small ships (a “green water navy,” as opposed to a “blue water navy,” vessels intended for the open ocean), most of its activity is concentrated in the water basins near Russia’s borders (the North Sea, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Okhotsk Sea, and the Sea of Japan). The eastern part of the Mediterranean is an unusual and unique area where the Russian navy managed to establish a permanent presence in the post-Soviet era, on the basis of the two Russian bases in Syria, Hmeymim and Tartus, which were leased to Moscow for decades. The military importance of the eastern Mediterranean is now apparent – Russia has concentrated the lion’s share of its warships in it and the Black Sea, in order to deter NATO from deepening its involvement in the war against Ukraine.

Conclusion and Significance

The 2022 Naval Doctrine is the first national security document that Russia has published since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and reflects the Kremlin’s strategic thinking at the present time. The document focuses on Russia’s overall confrontation with the United States and NATO, and emphasizes a more central place for the use of force in defending Russian global interests and seeking economic and strategic alternatives for the West in the developing world. This document reinforces Russia’s tendency to turn international waters into a space for strategic competition and confrontation between the great powers. The militarization of maritime space found its expression in the document “Fundamentals of state policy of the Russian Federation in the military-naval sphere until 2030” (2017), derived from the doctrine from 2015, which detailed its military dimensions.

The pathos in which the naval doctrine was written provokes in many scholars a tendency to focus on the disconnect between Putin and his admirals and the grim reality of the Russian Navy. Indeed, it is very likely that Russia will find it difficult to meet its full ambitions, especially with regard to the “blue waters.” That said, the changes between 2015 and 2022 reflect a re-orientation of Russian foreign policy toward the Global South, following the war in Ukraine, and the perception of the Arctic as a new “milking cow” for the Russian economy.