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.