Russia’s Black Sea Fleet

The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. I’ve written about the fleet in the past, but it may be worthwhile to provide an update, especially as there have been a couple of surveys of the fleet published in recent days in the Russian press and blogosphere.

The fleet currently consists of 40 combat ships, 28 of which are on active duty while the others are undergoing repair or modernization. The average age of these ships is 25, though the largest and most capable ships that are based in Sevastopol are also the oldest. (The average age of Sevastopol-based ships is 32.5) The flagship is the Slava-class cruiser Moskva. Large combat ships also include the Kara-class cruiser Kerch, the Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivyi, and two Krivak class frigates (Pytlivyi and Ladnyi). The Ladnyi is current being overhauled and is scheduled to return to active duty in August. A second Kara-class cruiser, the Ochakov, was decommissioned several years ago and has now been scuttled so as to block the exist of several Ukrainian Navy ships from Lake Donuzlav. These ships comprise the 11th brigade of ASW ships. The 197th brigade of amphibious ships includes six active ships: three Alligator class (Saratov, Orsk, Nikolai Filchenkov) and four Ropucha class (Novocherkassk, Azov, and Yamal), as well as one inactive Ropucha class ship, the Tsesar Kunikov. Together, these two brigades comprise the 30th division of surface ships. Smaller combat ships based in Sevastopol include three Grisha-class corvettes (Suzdalets, Aleksandrovsk, and Muromets) in the 400th ASW ship squadron, four mine warfare ships in the 418th minesweeper squadron, and 4-5 missile boats in the 295th missile boat squadron. There is also the Alrosa Kilo-class submarine. The newest of any of these ships were commissioned in 1990.

Ships based in Novorossiisk include three Grisha-class corvettes (Kasimov, Eisk, Povorino), two Nanuchka-class missile ships (Mirazh and Shtil), five active and two inactive mine warfare ships, and two hoverborne guided missile corvettes (Bora and Sivuch). These ships are generally newer than the Sevastopol-based ships, with an average age of 22.8. There are also several quite new patrol boats based in Novorossiisk.

Over the next few years, the BSF is expected to receive six new Admiral Grigorovich class frigates over the next three years. These are similar to the Talwar class frigates that Russia exported to India a few years ago. It is also expected to receive up to six new improved Kilo class diesel submarines in the same time period.

Finally, it may be worth briefly pointing out the Black Sea Fleet’s land and air forces, which include the 11th coastal missile artillery brigade armed with Bastion anti-ship missile systems. These are normally located in Anapa (2 on the map), though there have been some reports that they have been relocated to the Crimea in recent days. The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment is located in Sevastopol (5 on the map). Naval infantry forces include the 810th naval infantry brigade based in Sevastopol (3 on the map) and the 382nd independent naval infantry battalion based in Temriuk (4 on the map). The 431st naval reconnaissance post is located in Tuapse, near the border with Abkhazia (6 on the map). Naval aviation forces include facilities at Kacha (7 on the map) and Gvardeiskoe (8 on the map), both Crimea. The former houses (approximately) 20 Ka-27 and Mi-14 helicopters and 10 Mi-8 helicopters, as well as 10 Antonov transport planes of various types and 4 Be-12 amphibious planes. The latter houses 22 Su-24M attack aircraft.

Update: Thanks to Constantin Bogdanov, who highlighted some changes that I (and the authors of the surveys) missed: “The 1096th anti-aircraft missile regiment was disbanded in 2011; now there are two anti aircraft battalions (зенитно-ракетных дивизионов) combined with 810th brigade. Also, all Mi-14 are scrapped between 1995-2005.”

The role of the Black Sea Fleet in Russian naval strategy

The Russian military analyst Prokhor Tebin has put together a very useful article explaining Crimea’s military significance for Russia. He highlights the Black Sea’s economic significance for Russia: Russia’s Black Sea commercial ports carry 30 percent of its total maritime exports. The Black Sea also provides the closest access for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, which is important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. Tebin points out that the Black Sea Fleet is needed to ensure that access, as well as to deal with potential  instability in the Caucasus.  It will also serve as a logistics hub for the Mediterranean task force that the Russian navy has decided to form, though ships for the task force will come from other fleets as well. He ranks the fleet third in importance for the Russian Navy, behind the Northern and Pacific Fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla.

The composition of the fleet is currently inadequate for its missions. It has only a few old Soviet-era ships: one missile cruiser, three frigates, seven large amphibious ships, and one diesel submarine. It has not received any new combat ships since 1990, while almost all of its existing ships will need to be decommissioned fairly soon. Tebin compares the strength of the BSF to the Turkish navy, which includes 16 frigates, 8 corvettes, and 14 diesel submarines, with more ships on the way. To change the situation, Russia is currently building six new Talwar-class frigates and six improved Kilo class diesel submarines for the BSF. The fleet may also get some small missile ships and gunboats, as well as new minesweepers. Tebin considers this an absolute minimum for the BSF and argues that it will still not be enough to fulfill all of the fleet’s missions or to restore the balance of power in the Black Sea. He also calls for the development of additional shore-based infrastructure, especially in Novorossiisk. However, the latter port is inferior in location and climate conditions to Sevastopol, being subject to the extremely strong wind known as Bora. This relatively unpredictable wind, with speeds registered at over 200km/hour, has in the past damaged ships at pier. The location of Novorossiisk is also far less central than Sevastopol and the harbor is inferior. For these reasons, Tebin argues that Novorossiisk can only serve a complementary role for the Black Sea Fleet, while Sevastopol must remain its main base for the foreseeable future.

In addition, Tebin also provides a very nice map of Russian military facilities in Crimea, which I reproduce below.

The legend reads as follows:

The 1997 agreement permits a maximum of 25,000 personnel, including no more than 1,987 naval infantry and naval aviation personnel. 14,000 are actually deployed.

1) Sevastopol: main Black Sea Fleet forces, up to 30 ships; 810 naval infantry brigade; 17th arms storage facility, Khersones and Yuzhnyi airfields

2) Kacha airfield: Be-12 and An-26 aircraft, Ka-27 and Mi-8 helicopters

3) Gvardeiskoe airfield: 20 Su-24 bombers

4) Feodosiia: 31st naval armaments testing center

5) Cape Opuk: naval firing range

6) Otradnoe: 219th radio-electronic warfare regiment

7) Yalta: 830th communications post

8) Priberezhnoe: 1001st high-frequency communications post

 

The Russian Navy’s role in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy has just concluded its largest exercise in the Mediterranean in many years. The ships involved represented all three of Russia’s European fleets and included the missile cruiser Moskva, the  Udaloy-class destroyers Marshal Shaposhnikov and Severomorsk, the Yaroslav Mudriy and Smetliviy frigates, six large landing craft (the Kaliningrad, Novocherkassk, Alexandr Shabalin, Saratov, Nikolai Filchenkov, Azov), two submarines (one nuclear and one diesel-powered) and various support vessels. The total number of ships involved was over 20. In addition to the ships, the exercise included at least 20 aircraft. The exercise is being overseen by two senior MOD officials, deputy chief of the General Staff Aleksandr Postnikov and deputy Chief of the Navy Staff Leonid Sukhanov.

The timing and location of the exercise, as well as the heavy representation of amphibious ships, have raised questions about the Russian Navy’s goals in the Mediterranean. To my mind, this is another case of the Russian military trying to kill many birds with one stone. During the second half of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy had a virtually constant presence in the Mediterranean. Its squadron had a number of simultaneous tasks — ensuring the security of critical sea lanes to the Black Sea, deterring the United States Navy, ensuring continued access to the Suez canal for Soviet shipping, and engaging existing and potential allies in North Africa and the Middle East were probably the most significant of these.  The Russian military has long sought to restore its presence in the region and has in the last 5-6 years taken numerous opportunities to send ships to the region to engage in exercises and conduct port visits. This exercise, first and foremost, is simply an expansion of this effort.

Second, the exercise is designed to prepare the navy for possible future operations in Syria. Discussions about the possibility of the Russian fleet seeking to have a deterrent effect on potential US or NATO intervention efforts in the Syrian civil war seem to me rather misguided. The assembled Russian forces are no match for the NATO forces that would be assembled in the region in the event of an intervention. The Soviet navy was always exceedingly cautious to only get involved in conflicts (even just with show of force operations) only in circumstances where the balance of forces was favorable. While those days were a long time ago, the current leaders of the navy were trained in that tradition and are unlikely to get involved in adventures of this type. Furthermore, the composition of the task force indicates that the navy wants to be prepared for a potential evacuation scenario. Such an evacuation may be focused on Russian citizens living in Syria, or (less likely) it may be part of a bid to rescue defeated Alawite leaders from their coastal stronghold down the road. The presence of a large number of surface combatants may be an indication that the navy wants to be prepared to undertake such an evacuation even in circumstances where its ships may come under fire from hostile forces (presumably the victorious Syrian rebels).

The final goal, for the navy, is just to increase preparedness. The Northern Fleet likes to send its ships to exercise in the Med during the winter months. The weather is nicer, allowing for more complicated maneuvers. Official reports indicate that the exercise covers a wide range of naval operations, including counter-piracy and convoy operations, ship defense from small boat attacks, coordination with both naval and long-range aviation, ASW, opposed amphibious landing, and search and rescue. The navy has conducted exercises in the Med pretty much annually since 2008. The fact that this is the largest is in part a reaction to the geopolitical circumstances in the region and in part an indication that the Russian navy is gradually gaining confidence and increasing its capabilities.

 

Russian navy shifts strategic focus with China in mind

I’m off to Russia again this week, for a conference on the Russian military. I’ll blog about the conference next week, but in the meantime, here’s an Oxford Analytica brief I wrote on Russian naval missions. This is from February 2011.

SUBJECT: Navy rearmament and the implications for its missions and strategy.

SIGNIFICANCE: Recent announcements about shipbuilding plans strongly suggest that the navy no longer views the United States and NATO as its primary potential opponents. Over the coming decade, a revised strategy is likely to focus on attempting to counter China’s military rise, while also combating piracy and instability along Russia’s southern flank.

ANALYSIS: The shipbuilding plans outlined in the State Armaments Program (SAP) for 2011-20 show the likely direction of Russian naval strategy for the next decade. The key development is a shift in focus from countering US and NATO naval forces and towards the protection of Russian economic activity, accompanied by a shift in geographic balance towards the south and east.

Maritime Threats. According to official policy, the main maritime threats to Russia include:

  • the rise of naval activity by foreign powers, both near Russian borders and in the open seas;
  • the development by foreign states of naval forces more powerful than its own;
  • illegal economic activity (e.g. poaching) in territorial waters; and
  • the unclear legal status of the Caspian and Azov Seas and the Arctic Ocean – especially the existence of territorial claims in the Arctic.

Based on these threats, maritime policymakers have formulated three general goals for naval activity. They are:

  • defending national interests and security in the open seas;
  • maintaining Russia’s status as a ‘global naval power’; and
  • developing and effectively using naval potential.

These stated threats and goals are nebulous at best, and say little about how the navy will actually evolve over the coming decade.

Shipbuilding plans. However, shipbuilding plans provide useful signposts for determining the missions the navy will undertake. The main focus of Russian shipbuilding over the next decade, according to the SAP, will be on relatively small multi-purpose frigates and corvettes, as well as submarines and amphibious ships.

  • Frigates. The primary surface ships will include Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, twelve of which are to be built by 2020. These ships will be capable of long distance voyages, with an expected range of 5,000-10,000 kilometers (km).
  • Corvettes. Coastal defense will be provided by up to 20 Steregushchii-class corvettes, with a range of 2,000-5,000 km. Russia will also build ten amphibious-assault ships, including four Mistral-class ships to be built jointly with France and six Ivan Gren-class ships of domestic design.
  • Submarines. Submarine construction will consist of up to eleven Lada and Kilo diesel submarines, as well as up to three Severodvinsk-class nuclear attack submarines. Despite serious design challenges, strategic submarine construction will continue, with six to eight Borei-class submarines expected in the fleet by 2020.

Strategic Intentions. Notably, there are no plans to develop large surface combatants – though until quite recently, planners were talking about building aircraft carriers and destroyers, and renovating three old Kirov-class cruisers. All of these plans have been scaled back. Design work on new aircraft carriers and destroyers is proceeding, but none will be built in the next ten years. Only one cruiser is likely to be renovated, as the other two are not in good enough condition to make refurbishment worthwhile.

The shift in focus away from large surface combatants and nuclear attack submarines towards frigates, corvettes, and diesel submarines shows that Russia no longer sees NATO and the United States as realistic potential maritime opponents. Whereas the Soviet navy was focused on building ships designed to take on aircraft carrier groups, the ‘new’ Russian navy will be primarily focused on defending against smaller adversaries closer to home.

Naval missions. The navy is likely to carry out several missions:

  • Coastal Defense. The coastal protection mission will focus on offshore energy platforms and undersea pipelines, as well as the protection of Russian fishing fleets in areas where maritime borders are still disputed. This mission will be carried out primarily by the new corvettes and by older ships such as the Udaloy-class destroyers.
  • Multinational operations. While the navy’s global missions have been and will be sharply reduced compared to the Soviet period, it will continue to pursue some objectives around the globe. Most significantly, this will include participation in multinational counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Russian ships have maintained an almost constant presence off the coast of Somalia for several years; these deployments are likely to continue.
  • ‘Showing the flag’. In addition, the navy will send ships to visit states that are existing or potential arms industry customers. This was done two years ago in Venezuela and India, and is seen as having helped Russia secure several new contracts. Future trips may include states such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, and Syria. These visits do not reflect a desire to build up a truly global naval presence, but rather represent the defense industry’s commercial priorities.

South and eastern shift. Going forward, the Baltic Fleet and Caspian Flotilla will both focus on coastal defense missions, including protecting offshore energy infrastructure; the Caspian Flotilla will also be used against poachers and smugglers. It is likely that the Baltic Fleet’s large ships, which are unnecessary for these missions, will be transferred to the Black Sea Fleet (BSF). The BSF, along with the Pacific Fleet, is also expected to receive most new vessels. These trends reflect an ongoing shift away from the Northern Fleet, which was traditionally the mainstay of the navy. The emerging consensus that NATO is no longer Russia’s primary potential adversary will result in a drawdown of Northern Fleet capabilities, and a shift towards eastern and southern threats:

Northern Fleet decline. The Northern Fleet is now largely unnecessary as a major war-fighting force. However, it will remain the primary home of Russia’s strategic submarines, including all the Delta IVs. Conventional forces will focus on:

    • protecting Arctic fisheries;
    • maintaining the security of facilities built to extract Arctic undersea hydrocarbon deposits;
    • ensuring control of northern sea lanes, which will eventually see a significant increase in merchant traffic as a result of global warming; and
    • sending larger ships on long cruises to promote political and military partnerships abroad, including trips to Latin America and the Mediterranean.

    Pacific Fleet power. Over time, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important in Russia. It will receive most (if not all) of the newest Borei-class strategic submarines, to replace its aging Delta III fleet. It will also receive the first of the Mistrals. The fleet’s missions will include:

    • countering the rapidly modernizing Chinese navy;
    • ensuring Russian sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands;
    • protecting offshore energy infrastructure off the Sakhalin coast; and
    • showing the flag in South and South-east Asia.

    Black Sea rearmament. Because of its poor condition, the BSF will receive the largest number of new ships, including six frigates, six diesel submarines, and at least two amphibious ships. It will have three primary missions:

    • controlling maritime access to Georgia in the event of a new conflict there or elsewhere in the Caucasus;
    • protecting shipping in the Black Sea; and
    • deploying for anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean.

    CONCLUSION: Despite occasional hostile rhetoric, Russian leaders recognize that a conflict with NATO is extremely unlikely. Military planners clearly regard China as the most important potential threat to national security – even though great efforts are under way to enhance diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing.

    Mistrals to the Pacific

    Russian news services reported yesterday that both of the first two Mistral ships to be built for Russia in France will be stationed in the Pacific fleet. Previous reports had suggested that just one would go to the Pacific. This announcement was made in the context of rising tensions with Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. President Medvedev also announced that Russia will invest heavily in the modernization of the defense infrastructure on the four disputed islands and will upgrade the weaponry used by units deployed on these islands.

    This announcement reinforces my previous point that Russian leaders have decided to make the Pacific Fleet the most important fleet in the Russian Navy. But rather than focusing primarily on the potential Chinese threat, they also want to counter any efforts by Japan to reclaim the Kurils.

    Hopefully this announcement will calm the panicked claims about how the sale of these ships to Russia will destabilize NATO and threaten former Soviet states such as Georgia and the Baltic republics. I still think that Russia will eventually place a Mistral in the Black Sea Fleet, but if it is the third or fourth ship of the class, rather than the second, this will not happen until close to the end of the decade in the best case. And if the inevitable delays in assimilating new shipbuilding technology strike, it may take as long as 15 years for the fourth Mistral to enter the Russian Navy.

    Russia’s Black Sea Threat?

    That is the title (without the question mark) of a piece by LTC Mowchan in the current issue of the USNI Proceedings. The article is only available to subscribers, unfortunately. The article articulates a vision of Russia that is in many ways at odds with reality. For this reason, it deserves a commentary that will also act as a rebuttal.

    Early on, the author refers to the Black Sea Fleet as Russia’s Sword of Damocles hanging over southeast Europe and the Caucasus. If so, it’s a rusty sword indeed. Mowchan himself notes in the conclusion of that section of the article that:

    Currently, the BSF’s only viable warship is the Slava-class guided-missile cruiser Moskva…. If current modernization and manning trends persist, the BSF will be unable to effectively accomplish any of its assigned missions in the next five years.

    So how can a fleet comprised of ancient, barely seaworthy ships serve as an existential threat to the entire region? According to Mowchan, the threat lies in the fleet’s coming resurrection. As readers of this blog well know, the Russian government has announced grand plans to modernize the fleet by sending up to 15 new combatants to the fleet by 2020. However, readers also know that in the current Russian military, such plans are rarely accomplished. Nevertheless, I am sure that the fleet will be substantially more capable in 2020 than it is now. It will at a minimum have the two Neustrashimyi-class frigates (transfered from the Baltic Fleet), three new updated Krivak-class frigates, and perhaps 1-2 new Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. A Mistral and 1-2 new Ivan Gren amphibs are also likely. Add in a couple of new diesel submarines and a minimum of 10 new combatants seems highly likely. So in 2020 the BSF will undoubtedly be much more powerful than it is now, though it will probably still be outclassed by the Turkish Navy.

    But what will Russia do with these forces? LTC Mowchan believes that the fleet “will become a tool by which Moscow exerts greater influence over other Black Sea nations.” Well, of course, one of the main reasons countries build military forces is to increase their political power, so that statement seems fine on its face. The problem comes with the author’s assumption that security in the region (and perhaps in the world as a whole) is a zero-sum game where any gain for Russia is automatically a loss for the United States. He sees the BSF’s modernization as leading to “an increase in the possibility of conflict between Russia and those Black Sea states seeking greater integration with the West” and positioning Russia “to threaten U.S. vital interests in the region.”

    This is perhaps the core of my disagreement with this article, as I see the potential for regional security to be a positive-sum game (or, if things go badly, a negative-sum game) where improvements in regional security can help secure the interests of both sides. In my view, improvements in Russian naval capabilities will lead, inter alia, to greater and more effective cooperation with NATO and other states’ warships in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. LTC Mowchan explicitly rejects this view and that’s fine.

    But I wonder, does he really think that Russia might go to war with NATO in the foreseeable future? He argues that France’s decision to sell the Mistral to Russia “sets a dangerous precedent that could result in such capabilities being used against NATO or other U.S. allies.” He believes that Russia bought the Mistral ships in order to “create inter-alliance frictions that could undermine NATO’s cohesion and decision-making in a crisis–especially if Russia is an active participant in such a conflict.” Actually, I think Russia bought the ships because its leaders realized that a joint construction program was the best possible way for them to modernize their shipbuilding capacity. And besides, quoting one French source, “the Mistral is just a ferry painted grey.”  It is not some Dreadnought.

    Again, I question the possibility of Russia and any NATO state going to war any time in the foreseeable future. But perhaps I am naive in this. If so, I would welcome those who disagree to comment with plausible scenarios that lead to military conflict between Russia and NATO–especially given the deplorable weakness of Russia’s conventional forces and the sad state of their conscripts.

    Finally, there is the question of whether Russian activity in the Black Sea can “threaten U.S. vital interests in the region.” According to the author, these include democratization, regional stability, and access to energy supplies. I would argue that the Black Sea is a fairly marginal territory for the U.S. Europe may care about access to energy supplies (i.e. natural gas) from this region, but the U.S. does not get any of its natural gas and very little of its oil supplies from this area. (In fact, the U.S. gets twice as much oil from Russia as it does from all the other post-Soviet states combined.) So energy is a U.S. interest only indirectly, via its effect on Europe. And Europe has recently focused on developing alternatives such as LNG and shale gas to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies. Most new Caspian and Central Asian energy resources developed in the coming decade will be going to China, not Europe. Turkey gets gas from Russia through the Blue Stream pipeline that traverses the Black Sea, and may participate in the coming South Stream project across the Black Sea, neither of which the Russians are likely to cut off—they need the money.

    Regional stability is important, but as I already argued, this is something that can best be achieved by working with Russia, not against it. Because of simple geographic proximity, the Black Sea will always be more important for Russia than for the U.S., much as the Caribbean is more important for the U.S. Russia will have more interest in regional politics and greater staying power in the event of political conflicts, so the only way to truly achieve regional stability is to engage in a partnership with Russia that integrates it into regional political institutions, including those in Europe, for which the Black Sea is quite peripheral.

    Finally, there is democratization. As recent events in the Middle East have shown only too clearly, this is an interest for the U.S. primarily when nothing else gets in the way. Stability, alliances, access to resources all trump democratization. Furthermore, the governments brought in by “color revolutions” in the former Soviet states (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) have all (in different ways) failed at building democracies in their countries. Ukraine’s leaders failed by engaging in internecine squabbling that prevented them from institutionalizing their gains and led to the return of Yanukovich. Saakashvili in Georgia made some early moves against corruption but has since been gradually building a populist demagogic regime that has shut down opposition media outlets and used violence against protesters. Both states are more democratic than they were prior to their revolutions, but they have certainly failed to meet the expectations with which the new regimes came to power.

    This is not to say that the U.S. does not have one vital interest in the Black Sea. It plays an important role in transporting goods and people to Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network and overflights of former Soviet states. This is a network in which Russia plays a critical role and has proven quite helpful in reducing U.S. dependence on supplying its troops through Pakistan. In other words, the most important reason for maintaining U.S. access to the Black Sea is an area in which Russia and the U.S. act as partners.

    Given this reality, I would recommend that the U.S. work to improve relations with Russia in the region by engaging it in bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities, including greater mil-to-mil contacts. Military cooperation can, over time, build trust (consider the role of military contacts with the U.S. in the Egyptian army’s response to the recent protests in that country). Working with the Russian navy will gradually reduce suspicions of the other’s intent on both sides. And (again gradually) this will in turn lead to greater security in the Black Sea region.

    UPDATE: USNI has ungated LTC Mowchan’s original article, so I now link to it above.

    Reviving the Black Sea Fleet

    While I’ve been traveling over the last month, there has been a lot of news (mostly hopeful) about the Russian Navy. Today, I want to discuss the recently announced and long-awaited rebuilding of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The recent renewal of Russia’s naval basing agreement with Ukraine, much of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the fleet dissipated. Given the poor state of the fleet’s existing ships, some kind of modernization announcement was necessary lest the fleet disappear entirely over the next ten years because of a lack of sea-worthy ships. (I covered the decline of the fleet here.)

    Last week, Vladimir Vysotsky, the Commander of the Russian Navy, announced that the Black Sea Fleet would receive 10 new surface ships and 5 new submarines in the next ten years. The ship types remain somewhat uncertain, probably because a final decision has not yet been made. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, two contradictory views about ship types appeared in the Russian press. The more widespread argument stated that most of the surface ships will be Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, while the submarines will be Lada-class (aka St. Petersburg) diesel subs. These are both relatively new projects that are still not ready for rapid serial construction. Construction of the St. Petersburg submarine, which began in 1997, was completed in 2005, but the ship was not accepted into the fleet until May 2010 because of various problems during sea trials. Even now, it is listed as available only for “limited use,” reportedly because of problems with the main power plant. Completion of the first of the Admiral Gorshkov frigates has been repeatedly postponed. It is now scheduled for 2011, but may have to be postponed again.

    If these reports are correct, it will be difficult to procure all 15 new ships and submarines for the Black Sea Fleet by the 2020 deadline. Russian shipyards have been quite slow in building new ships and some will undoubtedly need to go to the other three fleets, which are also faced with aging fleets.

    The alternative view, as spelled out in an article in Vedomosti, is quite intriguing. This article argues that the new surface ships will include 3-4 Talwar class frigates (improved Krivak IIIs), which until now have been built exclusively for export to India, and six smaller Buyan-class corvettes. Russian shipyards have shown that they can build these types of ships relatively quickly. While the first three Talwars were each built approximately one year behind schedule, the three being built currently are all on schedule to be delivered in 2011-12.

    Similarly, instead of building the problematic St. Petersburg-class diesel submarines, the fleet would receive three modernized Kilo-class submarines, of the type that have been successfully exported to a number of countries in recent years.  Each of these ships could be built in about three years, and with serial construction, the whole modernization project could be completed easily in ten years. Furthermore, if production of the newer ship types goes better than expected, some Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines could be added to the fleet toward the tail end of the ten year window.

    It will be interesting to watch further developments on this story. If the Navy announces that the new ships will consist of Admiral Gorshkov frigates and Lada submarines, the Black Sea Fleet is likely to be in for more delays and disappointments. But if the modernization does end up consisting of Kilo submarines and Krivak III frigates, then it is much more likely to happen quickly and successfully.

    The strategic significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

    Pretty much all analysts are in agreement that the strategic value of the Black Sea Fleet is limited. This is due to factors that go beyond the age of the fleet and its limited warfighting capabilities, which were addressed in my last post. It is obvious that even if the most optimistic Russian projections for rebuilding the fleet over the next 10-15 years are fulfilled, it will remain much weaker than Turkey’s navy, not to mention that of NATO as a whole. Furthermore, Russia just does not face any particularly serious threats in the Black Sea. Georgia, the only remotely possible adversary, has not rebuilt its Navy after the 2008 war. Despite the occasionally belligerent rhetoric from Moscow and the text of Russia’s new military doctrine, NATO does not present a threat to Russia and there is no chance of conflict between Russia and NATO in the foreseeable future.

    Finally, the Black Sea Fleet does not have (and has never had) any strategic value in a large scale conflict. In the absolutely unlikely event of a conflict between NATO and Russia, it would be very simple for Turkey to block the Bosphorus to Russian ships to prevent them from entering the Mediterranean. In that situation, the BSF would be bottled up in the Black Sea, able only to harass Turkey, Romania, or Bulgaria. Given the likely scale of such a conflict, this battles would be insignificant. Even during the Georgia war in 2008, the Black Sea Fleet had a distinctly secondary role.

    In the words of Leonid Radzikhovsky, the Black Sea Fleet is a “prestige fleet” or a “PR flotilla.” Its value for both Russia and Ukraine is primarily symbolic. For Russia, the symbolism has to do with past greatness and sacrifice, both during World War II and earlier, during the 19th century Russo-Turkish war. For Ukraine, the symbolism has to do with either independence from Russian domination or with maintaining ties with Russia, depending on which side of the political divide one stands.

    Despite the fleet’s military and strategic irrelevance, the extension of the leasing agreement is quite important for Russia. First of all, allowing the base to remain in Sevastopol means that Russia will not have to spend a great deal of effort and financial resources to relocate the base to Novorossiisk or elsewhere. Novorossiisk is not an ideal location for the fleet because of its less central location in the Black Sea, poor climate, and limited space for military ships in the port, which is dominated by commercial shipping.

    The strategic value of the deal for Russia is even more significant. It is in effect a public announcement that Russia and Ukraine are resuming a partnership that was dissolved five years ago after the Orange Revolution. This partnership will have major economic and political benefits for both countries.  Various economic cooperation projects have been proposed, including the politically highly contentious possibility of a merger between Gazprom and the Ukrainian Naftohaz. Of more direct benefit, Russia has promised to increase its investment in infrastructure and economic development in Crimea. Ukrainian anti-Russian forces will undoubtedly see this as yet another step in a gradual Russian takeover of the region, but the reality is that the region is in desperate need of investment and given its current economic crisis Ukraine simply does not have the money to invest in Crimea. Russian newspapers have published articles discussing the rapid influx of Russian businessmen coming to Crimea with proposals for joint projects in the week after the announcement of the basing treaty.

    There have also been several proposals for increased cooperation in military construction, including the possibility of joint shipbuilding projects using Ukrainian shipyards in Nikolaev/Mykolaiv and the possible merger of the Ukrainian airplane builder Antonov with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation.  Of course, both of these manufacturers are not in any better shape in terms of physical plant or staffing than the equivalent Russian plants. For them, cooperation with Russian defense industry may make survival possible, but is unlikely to lead to a genuine revival. For Russia, working with Ukrainian defense industry will not reverse the decline of its own industry.

    Finally, the deal allows Russia to score symbolic points against two long standing betes noir. Russian experts believe that as long as the Black Sea Fleet remains in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s accession to NATO is off the table, as the alliance prohibits members from hosting bases of non-NATO states. In reality, Ukrainian accession has probably been off the table for several years, due to the unpopularity of membership among a majority of the population and increasing “Ukraine fatigue” in Europe caused by that country’s unstable politics since the Orange Revolution.

    The deal also allows Russia to settle some scores with Ukraine’s opposition in general and with former President Yushchenko in particular. Given the glee with which Yushchenko strove to stick it to Russia over the last five years over this issue, this deal must have felt like especially sweet revenge for Putin and Co., and especially the sight of the opposition being helpless to stop the deal’s ratification in the Rada despite resorting to acts of assorted hooliganism (egg throwing, smoke bombs, etc). Even if the deal did not help Russia’s geopolitical goals, this last factor was probably enough to make it all worth while for Putin, given how personally he takes slights from other world leaders.

    Military significance of the Sevastopol basing agreement

    Much has been written in the last few days on the political and economic implications of the agreement signed by Ukraine and Russia to extend the Sevastopol naval base lease through 2042. Important as they are, I won’t reprise those arguments here. Instead, I would like to briefly discuss the consequences of the agreement for the future of the Russian military.

    As I have written before, the Black Sea Fleet is essentially a dying enterprise. One recent Russian report argues that 80 percent of its ships will need to be written off in the near term. Its current order of battle consists of 37 ships. The missile cruiser Moscow (currently on an extended deployment) is the flagship. There is also one other cruiser, one destroyer, two frigates, 13 corvettes and missile boats, and 3 patrol craft. There are also 7 littoral warfare ships, 9 minesweepers, and 1 diesel sub. The average age of these ships is 28, which makes it the oldest fleet in the Russian Navy. The Alrosa submarine recently suffered an engine fire and almost sank. It is likely to be under repair for the foreseeable future. The Kerch cruiser was recently overhauled, but is old enough that it is likely to be retired in the near future anyway. All reports indicate that it cannot go out into the open sea. The other ships will last a bit longer, but by and large just about all the current combat ships of the Black Sea Fleet (with the exception of two relatively new minesweepers) will need to be retired within 10-15 years.

    Along with the lease extension, several Russian officials and experts have stated that the Black Sea Fleet will now receive a number of new ships, including the first two Gorshkov-class frigates, currently under construction in St. Petersburg, two new corvettes (presumably Steregushchiy-class), and 2-3 diesel submarines. The likelihood of the fleet receiving all of these ships in the near term is close to zero. First of all, completion of the Admiral Gorshkov has been repeatedly postp0ned. A recent report indicates that it is still only 28% completed, despite having been under construction for four years already and having an expected commissioning date of 2011. The second ship’s keel was laid in 2009. Even if construction speeds up, it seems to me that the BSF will not get either ship before 2013 at the absolute earliest, with 2015 a more likely target. The Steregushchiy class of corvettes seems to be more successful, and given the expected completion dates of ships currently under construction, the BSF could well get two of those within the next two years. As for the submarines, the first sub of the Lada class has had a lot of problems during sea trials. It was finally delivered to the Navy last weekend, six years after it was launched and 13 years after construction began. Construction of the first Lada that is destined for the BSF began in 2006. Even if the process is far smoother than with the St. Petersburg, I would expect it to enter the fleet no earlier than in 2013.

    Finally, there’s the speculation about the Mistral. I have previously argued that Russia would be unlikely to place a Mistral ship in the Black Sea Fleet. I still think that’s the case, though if it purchases/builds 3-4 of them, it may potentially consider placing one in each fleet, as command ships and for the prestige value. But again, not only has construction not started on these ships, but the deal has not even been finalized. Given the construction tempo of  Russian shipyards (and assuming that at least some of the ships will be built in Russia), the third ship of this class is unlikely to be completed much before 2017.

    But even if this shipbuilding program is carried out in full, this will still mean that the BSF ten years from now will be significantly less powerful and numerous than it is today, even though today’s fleet is already just a shadow of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet. The Gorshkov is a fine frigate, but it’s still a pretty small ship by comparison with the cruisers and destroyers that the fleet has had until now, not to mention the United States’ Arleigh Burke and Zumwalt destroyers.

    Furthermore, the current deal has left unclear the question of whether new ships will be allowed to be based in Sevastopol. The 1997 treaty prohibited the basing of new ships there, so all new BSF ships have been based in Novorossiisk. The new agreement does not explicitly address this question, but does state that it is simply an extension of the 1997 treaty. This implies that the basing of new ships in Sevastopol will still be prohibited. I would imagine that either a side deal will be made in fairly short order to allow the basing of new ships or (less likely) such ships will simply be sent to Sevastopol without an explicit change in the rules. In either case, though, this will cause another round of political strife in Ukraine and provide the opposition with another opportunity to cast President Yanukovich as a traitor.

    Overall, the military capabilities of the BSF will remain relatively low and will continue to decline over the next decade, though the agreement does allow for the possibility of a revitalization sometime down the road. I will address the strategic implications of this agreement for Black Sea security in my next post.

    The Future of the Sevastopol Russian Navy Base

    The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.


    The recent election of Victor Yanukovich as president of Ukraine has brought the future status of Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol back to the forefront of Russian-Ukrainian bilateral relations. When Victor Yushchenko was president, it was clear that the Ukrainian government would firmly oppose any possibility for extending the basing agreement. While many Russian analysts believe that the election of Yanukovich means that the likelihood that the lease will be renewed is substantially higher, the calculus is potentially more complicated, with constitutional, political and economic issues all standing in the way of a renewal.

    The Recent History of the Sevastopol Basing Issue

    The current agreement on the status of the Russian Fleet’s Sevastopol Navy base was signed in May 1997. According to the agreement, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet (BSF) was initially divided evenly between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine subsequently transferred most of its portion of the fleet back to Russia. In the end, Russia received 82 percent of the former Soviet Black Sea Fleet’s assets. The agreement recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over Sevastopol and its harbor facilities, but allowed Russia to lease the bulk of the fleet’s Sevastopol facilities for 20 years for a payment of $97.75 million per year. Russia also retained criminal jurisdiction over its troops in the city.

    The agreement expires in 2017, though there is a clause stating that it will be automatically renewed for a further five years unless one of the parties gives one year’s advance notice in writing that it wishes to terminate the accord in 2017. While the official position of the Ukrainian government has always been that the agreement would not be renewed, the political tension caused by the summer 2008 war in Georgia brought this issue to the fore. Ukrainian politicians stated that the Russian Navy should begin preparations for withdrawal from the base and provided the Russian government with a memorandum on the timing and steps necessary to withdraw the fleet in a timely manner. The official Russian position is that the Russian Navy would like to negotiate an extension of the lease, but is planning for the possibility that it will be forced to leave Sevastopol at the end of the agreement. The Russian government has stated that it will not consider withdrawal plans prior to the agreement’s expiration.

    Recently, some nationalistically-minded politicians and retired admirals have made statements indicating that Russia has no intention of ever leaving the Sevastopol base.  For example, former Black Sea Fleet commander Admiral Igor Kasatonov at one point stated that 2017 is a significant date only for “Russophobic” politicians. “The Black Sea Fleet is in Sevastopol forever… It will retain its base in Sevastopol, another will be built in Novorossiisk, Tuapse, maybe also in Sukhumi, if there is a need.” More recently, Mikhail Nenashev, a Russian State Duma deputy who serves on the Duma’s Committee on Defense and also heads the Russian movement to support the navy, argued that Moscow plans to continue to develop the Black Sea Fleet’s infrastructure, both in Russia and in the Crimea.

    The Impact of Recent Political Developments

    While President Yanukovich certainly has a more pragmatic attitude toward Russia than his predecessor, this does not necessarily mean that he will be eager to extend Russia’s lease on its naval base. It is after all a very controversial political issue in Ukraine and he may not want to take any actions that exacerbate existing regional and ideological divisions. One poll, conducted last fall, indicates that only 17 percent of Ukrainians support an extension, while 22 percent want the Russian navy out even before the agreement expires in 2017. For a president who is seen by a large part of the population as excessively pro-Russian and who was elected with less than fifty percent of the total vote, going against public opinion on this issue may prove tricky.

    Second, there is the constitutional issue. The Ukrainian constitution prohibits the placement of foreign military bases on Ukrainian territory. The current Russian navy base is permitted because of a separate article that allows for the temporary placement of foreign bases as part of a transition period that was designed to smooth the process of Ukraine solidifying its independence in the mid-1990s. As one of his last acts, President Yushchenko asked the Ukrainian Constitutional Court to rule on the contradiction between these articles. Regardless of the impact of any future court ruling based on this request, there is widespread consensus in Ukraine that the renewal of the basing agreement would require a constitutional amendment, which would in turn require a two-thirds vote in the Ukrainian parliament.

    Finally, there are economic issues. The initial signals given by Yanukovich in his first weeks in office indicate that he is willing to discuss the future status of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but only in the context of a wide-ranging negotiation that includes a whole set of issues. Without doubt, he will ask for a significant increase in the amount paid by Russia to lease the base – Russian sources believe that the absolute minimum that Ukraine would agree to is $1 billion per year (i.e. a tenfold increase), while the Ukrainian side may ask for as much as $5-10 billion per year. In addition, Yanukovich is likely to seek additional Russian investments in regional infrastructure. He may also tie other issues, such as an agreement on border delimitation and even favorable terms on natural gas transit and import pricing, to a positive outcome on the basing issue. On the other hand, the departure of the Russian fleet is likely to lead to significant economic dislocation in Sevastopol, where it is one of the largest employers. This may in turn lead to social protests and even anti-government political agitation among the mostly pro-Russian population. Thus, even if the basing agreement is eventually renewed, it will not be an easy process and is likely to result in significant tension with Russia.

    Alternative Basing Options

    Given the relatively poor relations between Russia and Ukraine during the Yushchenko presidency, it is not surprising that in the last few years Russian naval officials and military analysts began to discuss possible alternatives for basing the Black Sea Fleet. One obvious alternative is the existing naval base at Novorossiisk, which has been expanded over the last several years and currently hosts a variety of smaller ships, including the fleet’s two missile hovercraft, some small anti-submarine warfare ships, and the fleet’s newer minesweepers. The commander of the BSF argues that while it would be theoretically possible to expand this base to house all the BSF ships, the reality is that doing so would have a negative economic impact on the region by creating bottlenecks at Novorossiisk’s busy commercial port. The resulting delays could lead commercial shippers to increase their use of Ukrainian ports at Russia’s expense. Russian commanders also contend that the base is unsuitable because of climate conditions in the area. An additional base at Temriuk will only be useful for smaller ships and has the disadvantage of being located on the Azov Sea, making it easy in the event of hostilities for enemy navies to trap ships there by blockading the Kerch Strait.

    Some analysts propose building an additional base near Novorossiisk, either to the northwest on the Taman peninsula or to the southeast at Tuapse or Gelendzhik. These would both be possible locations, though the expense of building a new naval base from scratch would be quite significant, especially if it becomes necessary to buy out tourist infrastructure along the coast. Another, even less likely, possibility is to establish a second base at a foreign location. Two such locations have been proposed: Ochamchira in Abkhazia and Tartus in Syria.

    In the aftermath of the Georgia War, Sergei Bagapsh, the President of Abkhazia, offered to have Russian ships based at Ochamchira. While this offer was initially taken up as a serious possibility by the Russian media, subsequent discussions led Bagapsh to issue a clarification in which he said that Abkhazia will not become a permanent base for the Black Sea Fleet, though facilities could be developed to host BSF ships when necessary to counter potential Georgian attacks. In any case, the harbor at Ochamchira is too small to host more than a few Russian ships. For this reason, the basing agreement signed last month between Abkhaz President Bagapsh and Russian President Medvedev will provide the Russian Navy with the opportunity to temporarily base some ships in Abkhazia. At least two patrol craft belonging to the maritime border guard will be permanently based at Ochamchira, but there will not be a permanent Russian naval presence there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it is possible that the Russian Navy will at least temporarily base its missile ships there after 2017 if forced to relocate from Sevastopol while an alternative base is prepared. This would free up pier space for the larger ships in Novorossisk.

    Even before the Georgia War, the Russian government announced that it was cleaning and upgrading its existing base in Tartus, Syria. This base served as a refueling and repair station for the Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean squadron, but has been largely vacant since 1991. It has facilities to house several large ships. Speculation about the relocation of all or part of the Black Sea Fleet to Tartus in 2017 arose in conjunction with the Syrian President’s visit to Moscow in mid-August 2008. Bashar Assad’s strong support for Russian actions in the Georgia War and offer to further develop the Russian-Syrian military partnership led to speculation that a number of Black Sea Fleet ships could be relocated to Tartus. Efforts to expand Russia’s naval presence in Syria continue, as made clear in a recent semi-official review of Russian military policy toward the region, which indicated that the potential closure of the Sevastopol base was one of the factors that obligated Russia to further develop the base at Tartus.[2] However, the base currently only has three piers, which would be insufficient for more than a small part of the Black Sea Fleet. Any expansion would face large construction costs plus the likelihood of high fees for the lease of additional land. It is far more likely that Tartus will resume its role as a maintenance and supply base for the Russian Navy, especially given government promises to expand the Navy’s presence in the Mediterranean and perhaps even to reestablish the Mediterranean squadron.

    Prospects for the Future

    Russian leaders are not willing to openly discuss the likelihood of the fleet’s departure with considerable time remaining on the existing deal since they believe that in time they can reach agreement with Ukrainian leaders on a renewal. At the same time, for Yanukovich there is little political benefit, and potentially a high cost, to compromising. Given that seven years still remain on the lease, while President Yanukovich’s current term will end in five years, it seems likely that little progress on resolving the basing issue will be made before 2015.

    By that time, the Black Sea Fleet’s situation could be very different. Most Russian navy specialists believe that the fleet will have few seaworthy ships left by then. The deputy mayor of Sevastopol recently noted that the Russian and Ukrainian Black Sea Fleets combined currently have less than 50 combat ships, compared to over 1,000 in Soviet times.[3] By 2017, most of the remaining ships will have exceeded the lifespan of their engines by a factor of three or four. As one Russian expert indicated, Russia does not currently have the capacity to rebuild the fleet by 2017 given the state of its shipbuilding industry. In this light, there may not be any need to build a new base in Novorossiisk or anywhere else, as the current facilities there will be more than sufficient to house the remaining seaworthy ships. Accordingly, the most important goal for the Russian Navy is to restore its domestic shipbuilding industry, a step that it is now starting to take by contemplating building French-designed ships under license in St. Petersburg.

    For Ukraine, the most important goal is to design and enact a program for the economic development of the Crimea in general and Sevastopol in particular. The Russian Navy’s eventual departure will leave a giant hole in the region’s economy. Ukrainian politicians would be well served to be prepared to fill this hole before it leads to social unrest among the largely pro-Russian population of the region.


    [1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.

    [2] The other factors included its potential to support anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and the political need for an enhanced Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean.

    [3] This seems an obvious exaggeration, as the total number of combat ships in the Soviet Navy at its peak in the mid-1980s was 2500, and the Black Sea Fleet was the third largest of four fleets. Nevertheless, the total number of combat ships has declined by approximately a factor of ten.

    The following article recently appeared in the Russian Analytical Digest.[1] Some of the research for this article was carried out under the auspices of CNA Strategic Studies.


    [1] The Russian Analytical Digest is a bi-weekly internet publication jointly produced by the Research Centre for East European Studies [Forschungsstelle Osteuropa] at the University of Bremen and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), and the Institute of History at the University of Basel. It is supported by the German Association for East European Studies (DGO). The Digest draws on contributions from the German-language Russland-Analysen, the CSS analytical network on Russia and Eurasia, and the Russian Regional Report.