What will the navy do with its ships?

Surprisingly, developments in the Russian military have continued apace over the last two months while I’ve been more or less away from writing new material. Now I’m back and at some point will write about some of the things I learned about Caspian security.

But first, I came across a very interesting analysis of likely Russian naval strategy for the next ten years based on plans announced in the State Armaments Program. This was published two months ago, but I haven’t seen it covered in English, so it seems worth noting. The author notes four situations in which Russia will have to depend on its naval forces:

  1. Protecting undersea pipelines and offshore energy deposits.
  2. Protecting Sea lanes of communication and trade (i.e. anti-piracy).
  3. Defending Russia from China. The author argues that since Russian ground forces could not withstand a Chinese attack, Russia’s only hope (other than its nuclear deterrent, which he doesn’t mention for some reason) is to defeat the Chinese Navy and threaten its major population centers on the coast.
  4. Showing the flag in areas where it’s important for Russia to have influence. The author specifically lists Latin America, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia. He ties previous ship visits to these areas to subsequent arms sales to Venezuela and Vietnam.

These are likely to be the four main missions of Russia’s conventional naval forces for at least the next decade. Note what is missing from this list. Based on its shipbuilding plans, Russia no longer considers the US an opponent. Instead of ships aimed at destroying US attack submarines and aircraft carriers, Russia plans to build smaller multipurpose ships such as frigates and corvettes.

Furthermore, ship building plans indicate that in the coming years, the Pacific Fleet will become the most important Russian fleet, taking over from the Northern Fleet. Its main mission will be to deter potential Chinese aggression against Russia. It could also be used in the event of a conflict with Japan over the Kuril Islands, though I can’t imagine that how that dispute could lead to an armed conflict. Because of the priority given to this fleet, the first of the newly purchased Mistral ships will go to the Pacific Fleet.

The Northern fleet will remain the main base for strategic submarines, while its big surface ships (and especially Peter the Great, which is nuclear powered and does not need to depend on accompanying refueling ships) will be restricted to “show the flag” types of cruises around the world.

Now that the Sevastopol basing issue has been resolved, the Black Sea Fleet will be substantially modernized. Plans call for it to receive six diesel submarines and 12 new corvettes and amphibs. These will be used for three missions — to protect undersea energy pipelines, control maritime approaches to Georgia, and conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

Finally, the Baltic Fleet has no potential opponents and will be turned into a coastal protection force. All of its large ships are being transferred to Sevastopol and its sole mission will be to protect undersea pipelines. To this end, it will have a larger contingent of naval special operations forces.

Of course, all of this depends on the Russian ship-building industry actually completing the construction of various ships in a timely manner. Plans call for the construction, over the next ten years, of 8 strategic submarines, 22 multi-purpose submarines (both nuclear and diesel), 12 frigates, 20 corvettes, and 10 amphibious ships. Given the track record, the likelihood of Russian ship-builders being able to build this many ships in ten years is more or less zero. Building half of those ships is perhaps a realistic target, if all goes well. But note that the first of the Ivan Gren amphibious ships, six of which are supposed to be built, has been under construction since 2004 and is currently listed as “in early stages of construction.” The first of the new Admiral Gorshkov frigates, laid down in 2006, was recently floated out of its launch dock but is still listed as only 40 percent complete.

Despite the inevitable problems and delays that will push back this reconfiguration, the shipbuilding program spelled out in the SAP shows the likely strategic direction of the Russian Navy for at least the next decade. According to these plans, the conventional Russian navy will remain primarily a coastal defense force, while its older larger ships will primarily be engaged in friendly visits to other parts of the world.


Debating NATO arms sales to Russia

Robert Farley responds to my post on NATO arms sales to Russia:

I can certainly understand the logic of the argument that arms sales should create dependence, which should lead to reluctance on the part of Russia to irritate the West. However, there are problems both logical and empirical. First, “France” and “the West” aren’t identical; it may be possible to engage in certain adventures that bother Washington, but not Paris. Second, I’m not sure about the empirical question. We can certainly identify cases in which an arms transfer relationship did not prevent war. Type 42 destroyers, for example, fought on both sides of the Falklands War.

Robert makes a fair point in noting that France is not the same as the West. However, I was making a larger point here, one that goes beyond just the Mistrals and just France. If Russia continues to conclude major arms deals with NATO states (with the Mistral being the largest so far, but not the only), then over time the Russian military would become more closely tied to NATO, which would do two things.

1) Increase interoperability, allowing for greater cooperation for common ends — such counter-terrorism or anti-piracy operations. This seems to be a relatively uncontroversial point.

2) Reduce the likelihood that “Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests.” This is obviously a judgement call and open to debate. I was thinking along the lines of the commonly made argument that European dependence on Russian energy sales makes European states (such as Germany) less willing to provoke Russia. One might argue that weapons are not the same as natural gas in terms of the effect they have on states’ foreign policies. And obviously there are other factors that would come into play.

The physical object represented by a particular platform or weapon system doesn’t matter at all. What matters is the policy line represented by military cooperation between two states. After the Iranian revolution, for example, Iran still used US-made weapons and equipment, such as the F-14, but further cooperation was out of the question. Over time, these planes have deteriorated and become less and less useful.

But absent a radical change in government or policy, it seems to me that Russian arms purchases from NATO states would over time create a situation where Russia becomes dependent on these states for both additional equipment and for maintenance of weapons already purchased. Russian leaders clearly hope that this is just a temporary phenomenon, during which they can absorb Western know-how and start building advanced weapons systems domestically against in the near future. I have my doubts that this will happen any time soon. Russian dependence on Western military technology is most likely here to stay for at least a decade, maybe longer. And that will make Russian leaders think twice before taking military action that will lead to an end to such exports.

Russia-NATO arms deals could bolster regional security

Another Oxford Analytica piece, this one from late September. Some of the details have been overtaken by events (i.e. Mistral sale), but the overall point is still valid, so it’s worth posting.

I’ll have one more of these next week. New posts will resume in mid-January. Happy holidays!


EVENT: Russia and France have finalised the details on the long-discussed sale of Mistral-class ships, according to comments yesterday from a senior Russian naval officer.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russian efforts to procure Western military equipment are gradually bearing fruit, as the taboo on NATO sharing sensitive military technologies with Russia is fading.

ANALYSIS: Moscow’s cooperation with NATO and its member states is accelerating, as the Russian government and military adjust their threat assessments to focus more on Russia’s unstable southern neighbours and on China. In recent years, Russia and NATO states have conducted joint anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. They have also reached agreements for extensive intelligence-sharing in the area of counter-terrorism. Russia has played a critical role in NATO operations in Afghanistan by allowing for the transit of both lethal and non-lethal cargoes to the region by both land and air routes.  One of the potentially most fruitful areas for further cooperation involves the rapidly accelerating trend toward Russian procurement of military equipment from NATO countries.

Signed contracts The Russian military has considered a number of purchases from NATO countries. Contracts have been signed to purchase:

  • UK sniper rifles and Austrian pistols for special forces units;
  • thermal imaging equipment for T-90 tanks, to be manufactured at a Russian plant in Vologda under license from the French firm Thales;
  • avionics for Russian military aircraft, manufactured in France by Thales; and
  • communications units for armoured vehicles, also purchased from France.

Procurement possibilities Negotiations are underway to purchase the following equipment:

  • The French Safran Corporation manufactures infantry integrated equipment and communications units (FELIN).  The FELIN units include a set of navigation tools, secure radio communications equipment, computer equipment, GPS receivers, helmet sights for individual small arms and integrated electronic targeting devices. A limited number of these may be purchased for Military Intelligence Directorate special forces units.
  • The Defence Ministry is also interested in Italian armour for installation on Russian-designed armoured vehicles.  This scales back previously discussed plans to license production of Italian LMV armoured vehicles to be built in Russia.
  • The most visible of Russia’s negotiations has been the ongoing effort to procure French Mistral amphibious assault ships.

In addition, the Russian military has received 12 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israel, with another 36 (worth 100 million dollars) to be delivered later this year. Those received so far include:

  • two Bird Eye 400 systems (worth 4 million dollars);
  • eight I View MK150 tactical UAVs (37 million dollars); and
  • two Searcher Mk II multi-mission UAVs (12 million dollars).

Russian and Israeli negotiators are currently discussing the possibility of forming a joint venture to build more UAVs for the Russian military, which estimates it will need 100 or more UAVs to ensure effective battlefield reconnaissance.

Mistral negotiations The purchase of up to four of these ships has been under discussion for over a year. Recently, the Russian military announced that it would conduct an open tender for an amphibious assault ship, rather than negotiating exclusively with the French. Other potential participants include amphibious assault ships such as:

  • the Spanish Juan Carlos class;
  • South Korean Dokdos; and
  • the Dutch Johan de Witt class.

The Russian United Shipbuilding Corporation is also expected to make an offer, though its spokesman announced that it would participate in cooperation with foreign partners. In other words, Russian shipbuilders have admitted that they are not capable of building such a ship without foreign assistance.

It is likely that the tender is purely a formal exercise, designed to satisfy Russian laws and mollify domestic critics who oppose such a major platform being purchased abroad. There have been no discussions with the other potential foreign sellers, so the French Mistral will most likely win the tender, with two ships being built in France and two more in Russia under license.  Furthermore, top Russian military officials have recently announced that if Russia purchases the Mistral, it will have the same equipment as the French version, excluding only the codes for communicating with NATO battle control systems. This means that the Russian military would be allowed to purchase French communication, navigation and weapons control systems for these ships.

NATO worries Some Central-East European governments, as well as some Western analysts, oppose NATO arms sales to Russia on the grounds that Russia continues to pose a military threat to parts of Europe. The argument is that the Russian Navy could use these ships to launch an amphibious assault on Georgia or the Baltic states.

Setting aside Russia’s lack of desire to invade these countries except to defend against another attack — as was the case in the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war — such a scenario is highly unlikely for several practical reasons. Russian naval commanders have stated that these ships are intended primarily for the Northern and Pacific Fleets. Furthermore, even if some of the ships were assigned to the Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, possession thereof  would not significantly increase Russian amphibious capabilities in those areas. The Russian Navy’s current amphibious landing ships are as fast and can carry as many troops as the Mistral-class ships.

Instead, the Mistrals would be used by the Russian Navy primarily as command and control vessels for overseas operations.  However, the main purpose of the purchase is to revitalise domestic shipbuilding capabilities through the introduction of Western technologies and methods for construction of the two ships to be built domestically.  The ships would be able to carry 450 troops and as many as 40 tanks, capabilities similar to existing Alligator-class landing ships, as well as the Ivan Gren-class ships currently under construction.

Revitalising cooperation? On the other hand, arms sales have the potential to bring Russia and NATO member states closer together on military and security issues. Using NATO equipment would lead to greater ‘interoperability’ between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such as piracy, smuggling and counter-terrorism than they are to actually fight each other, selling NATO equipment to Russia is likely to lead to improvements in security for NATO states.

Greater ties between states generally reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or other NATO states sell military equipment to Russia, they will not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO. This would further lessen any perceived threat arising from Russia.

CONCLUSION: Major arms sales by NATO states to Russia would increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests. Such sales would also enhance regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO against threats to their mutual interests.

The Future of the Russian Navy Part 2: Smaller Surface Ships

Continuing today with Part 2…


In recent years, the Russian navy has had few frigates in service. Most of the Soviet navy’s frigates were decommissioned between 1989 and 1992. What remains are 3 old Krivak I and II ships, built in the late 1970s and almost certain to be decommissioned in the next few years. There are also two Neustrashimyi class frigates, currently in service in the Baltic Fleet. Both are likely to be moved to the Black Sea Fleet sometime in the next year. There has been some talk of completing the third ship of this class, which is currently at 40 percent completion, but no definite moves in this direction have been made. Finally, there is the first ship of the Gepard class, currently serving in the Caspian Flotilla. One more ship of this class is under construction and will likely enter the Caspian Flotilla next year. There are vague plans for further construction of these ships, though priority is being given to the export market.

Several years ago, the Russian navy decided to build a new class of frigates that would be one of the mainstays of the fleet in coming years. The Admiral Gorshkov class (Project 22350) frigates were designed to be truly multifunctional, with a modular construction that would allow them to carry out escort, patrol, anti-piracy and a range of other missions. They are to be armed with anti-ship, ASW, and AAW weapons, as well as a helicopter.

The Navy began construction of the first ships of this class in 2006, with the goal of completing it in 2009 and the procurement of a total of 20 by 2015. Since then, construction of the Gorshkov has bogged down so that the first ship will not be ready until 2011 at the earliest. There is no way the Navy will be able to get more than 3-4 of these ships by its 2015 target date, and that’s only if there is no further slippage in the schedule.

Given the slow pace of construction of these ships, it has recently been decided that the navy will procure several Krivak IV class frigates. Previously, these ships were built purely for the export market, with six serving or currently being built for the Indian navy. In the short term, the Russian navy will build three of these frigates for the Black Sea Fleet. Subsequently, more may be built depending on how quickly shipbuilders are able to resolve the problems that are causing delays in construction of the Admiral Gorshkov class ships. The goal of having 20-24 new frigates by 2030 is certainly achievable if the navy shows willingness to continue to build Krivak IVs in place of Gorshkovs if the latter continue to have problems.


The Russian navy still has a large number of corvettes built in the Soviet era. These include approximately 20 Grishas, 8 Parchims, 13 or 14 Nanuchkas, and 20-23 Tarantuls still in active service. Most of these ships were built in the late 1980s and should be able to stay in service for another 10-20 years. The Black Sea Fleet also operates two Bora-class hovercraft guided missile corvettes, designed in the late Soviet period to carry out a coastal defense mission but not built until the 1990s. Some sources indicate that more of these ships will be built at some point in the future, though there are no definite plans in this regard for the moment.

In addition to the Soviet-era ships, the Russian navy has started building two new classes of corvettes. The Steregushchii class ships are designed as a replacement for the Grishas. These are fairly straightforward multipurpose coastal patrol vessels with a displacement of 1800 tons. As with the Gorshkov frigates, they are modular in design, which will allow for simpler upgrading with new weapons and equipment in the future. They are armed with Uran anti-ship missiles and Kashtan air defense systems and are capable of carrying a helicopter. All except the first will also be armed with Club-N cruise missiles. The first was commissioned in 2007, and the second was launched in March 2010 and is currently undergoing sea trials. Three more are currently under construction and expected to be commissioned by 2013. In total, 20 are expected to built, with 10 likely to be completed by 2020.

Buyan class corvettes are smaller (500 tons) and designed to function on rivers or in shallow seas. They are primarily intended for the Caspian Flotilla and are armed with Igla surface-to-air missiles. The first ship of this class has been in the navy since 2006; two more are currently under construction, though the completion date is uncertain. According to a very recent article, a slightly larger version of this ship class is to be built for the Black Sea Fleet, with construction of the first of five ships just beginning. These ships will be 1.5 times larger than the Astrakhan and will be armed with cruise missiles.

Littoral Ships

In the late Soviet period, the majority of amphibious warfare ships for the Soviet navy were built in Poland. There are still approximately 16 of these ships in service in the Russian navy, including four Alligator-class (project 1171) ships, built in Kaliningrad in the 1960s and 70s, that can carry 300-400 troops and around 20 tanks each. Given their age, these ships will undoubtedly have to be retired fairly soon. There are also approximately 12 Polish-built Ropucha-class (project 775) LSTs in service, mostly the ones built in the late 1980s. These can carry 200-300 troops and 10-12 tanks each. Since they are somewhat more recent in construction, they can be expected to last awhile longer.

Russia is currently building a replacement littoral warfare ship, called the Ivan Gren, expected to be very similar in size and carrying capacity to the Ropucha, though it is listed as an update of the Alligator-class in terms of project number (1171.1). The first of these ships was laid down in Kaliningrad back in 2004, though construction proceeded very slowly due to lack of financing through 2008. The shipbuilder reports a revitalization of the project in recent years and expects to have the first ship commissioned in 2012. A total of five ships of this class are expected to be built in the coming decade, though progress will depend on continued financing. Most of the ships are likely to go to the Black Sea Fleet, which has the strongest need for an amphibious assault capacity, though some may go to the Pacific.

Over the last year, the Russian government has been negotiating with France over the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships. The hope was to purchase two such ships, with another two to be built in Russia under license. Recently, the MOD announced that it will conduct an open tender for an amphibious assault ship, with participants to include both Russian and foreign shipbuilders. Other than French and Russian companies, likely participants may include Korea, the Netherlands, and Spain, all of whom have ships similar to the Mistral in capabilities available for export. Most analysts believe that the tender is just a sop to one set of Russian shipbuilders who were upset about being excluded from the contract and perhaps also a means of putting pressure on the French to make a more favorable deal. Negotiations are supposedly far enough advanced that the French are not truly worried about losing the contract.

As I have written on other occasions, I believe this ship could be used as a command and control vessel for overseas operations, though the main purpose is likely to be to revitalize domestic shipbuilding capabilities through the introduction of Western technologies and methods for construction of the two ships to be built domestically under license. In any case, the ship (if procured) would be able to carry 450 troops and as many as 40 tanks, as well as being better armed than Russian landing ships. Of course, the actual armament of the Russian version will differ from that placed on the existing French ships.

Russian foreign arms purchases are good for regional stability

A great deal of ink has been spilled recently about how terrible it is that a number of European NATO members are considering selling arms and military equipment to Russia. Many commentators vehemently argue against such arms sales. The reasons for the opposition are rarely stated openly, but when they are they tend to focus on the fear that such deals would tie West European states more closely to Russia, preventing them from standing firm against Russian policies that the commentators oppose. A secondary reason is that these deals would improve Russian military capabilities.

Both of these reasons are fundamentally misguided. First of all, countless studies have shown that greater ties between states reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or Germany sell military equipment to Russia, they not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but they also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO military equipment. Cold warriors seem to think that the dependency argument only runs in one direction — Western states who sell to Russia wouldn’t want to lose sales, so they’ll do whatever Russia wants. But the road of mutual dependence is a two way street. If Russia starts buying certain categories of military equipment from abroad, its domestic defense industry will likely lose whatever capability it still has to produce that category of equipment. Russia will then depend on NATO states for the procurement (and perhaps maintenance) of its military equipment. In that situation, Russian leaders will have to think twice before undertaking any actions towards NATO that are sufficiently hostile as to result in it being cut off from access to such equipment.  This form of dependence is much more serious. After all, if Russia gets upset with France and stops buying its military equipment, French arms manufacturers will lose some money and perhaps some French people will lose their jobs. But if France cuts off military sales to Russia in a situation where Russia is dependent on France for certain types of equipment, Russian security will suffer.

Some analysts fear that Russia could use equipment purchased from NATO, such as the Mistral ships, to attack its neighbors. The 2008 Georgia war showed that even without NATO equipment the Russian military is plenty strong enough to defeat a small and weak army of the kind that just about all of its immediate neighbors possess. Western arms sales are not necessary for Russia to be able to successfully undertake hostile action against a country like Georgia. But again, if NATO arms sales to Russia become ubiquitous, Russia may well become more hesitant to undertake actions that could potentially result in the cut-off of such arms sales. In other words, Western leverage over Russian actions will actually increase.

Second, if Russia starts using NATO equipment, this will improve interoperability between Russian and NATO military forces, making their efforts at military cooperation more effective. Since the two sides are much more likely to work together on potential issues such piracy, smuggling and counter-terrorism than they are to actually fight each other, it seems to me that selling NATO equipment to Russia can only lead to improvements in security for NATO states.

Russian leaders have recently contemplated a large number of potential arms purchases from abroad, including both basic equipment, such as uniforms, weaponry,  such as sniper rifles, and major platforms, such as amphibious assault ships and armored vehicles. This shows that these leaders no longer trust the capabilities of Russia’s domestic defense industry to rebuild the Russian army, which is equipped almost entirely with aging Soviet-era technology. They have come to understand that foreign ties are only way to rebuild their military capabilities in a reasonable time frame.

Western leaders should encourage this trend, because it will only enhance regional and global security. Rather than “eroding the effectiveness of NATO policies toward Russia and in NATO’s own eastern neighborhood,” extensive arms sales by NATO states to Russia will increase Russian dependence on the West, decreasing the likelihood that Russia would take unilateral military action contrary to Western interests, while enhancing regional security by improving the ability of Russian forces to cooperate with NATO forces against threats to their mutual security.

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.

A French perspective

I recently received a communication from a French expert on the Russian Navy that provides an interesting (and I think quite accurate) perspective on the Mistral sale.

As you know, France is about to agree to sell four Mistral LHDs to Russia. Many see it as a signal to Russia that “this is ok” to invade all the little neighbors. Personally, I think that it would have been more damaging to the East-West relations to turn down the Russian approach. Built to commercial standards, the Mistral are more like ferries painted in gray and they don’t carry very sensitive technologies.

Many in Russia now consider that the US have taken over from Britain the traditional antagonism against them that led to the Crimean War and to the Great Game. They have sort of accepted this antagonism that has nothing to do with Communism. In this context, it would be interesting to resurrect the fact that during the Crimean and the Civil wars, Russia was a strategic partner of the US against Britain.

I think that we should take into consideration the weakness of Russia, their declining population and contemplate inviting them to a closer security relation. I don’t think that it was smart to press for a Nato integration of Ukraine and Georgia. The fact that the president of tiny Georgia contemplated military victory over Russia by seizing the initiative to reconquer Ossetia is another indication of this Russian weakness. And if you look at their shipbuilding programs and at their o[rder] o[f] b[attle], they will decline even further, just like the Royal Navy. Right now, the Russians are unable to make Bulava work and replace their SSBN fleet; the replacements for destroyers, frigates and submarines are awfully late. The carrier project is an admission that carriers are more effective than missile cruisers. It means that they won’t replace their missile cruisers and just get a replacement for Kuznetsov which is getting old by Russian standards.

My French colleague’s argument reinforces the point that the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.

The second point that comes out of the argument above is that European security would be strengthened by including Russia, rather than isolating it. This doesn’t mean that NATO should be replaced by some sort of vague new European security architecture along the lines proposed recently by Medvedev. But it does mean that the U.S. and European states (including the so-called New Europe of the east) should make an effort to work with Russia on security issues of concern to both sides, rather than ostracizing it because of a combination of leftover Cold War fears (for the western states) and fears of Russian neo-colonialism (for the eastern states).

As I noted in my previous post, I don’t think that Russia is interested in restoring its former empire.  Russia IS interested in preventing the emergence of hostile states on its borders — thus the rapid and somewhat excessive response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. The key question for NATO collectively and its member states individually is how to ensure European security while at the same time reassuring Russia that its security interests on its borders will be taken into account. France and Germany have decided that this question can best be addressed by working with Russia on sensitive issues related to regional economic and military security, rather than by isolating it. While this is something that needs to be done with suitable caution, it seems to me that it’s a better idea than isolating Russia or treating it as a potential enemy.