Black Sea Fleet projects power westwards

In April 2016, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the role of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet post-Crimea annexation. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT: The growing power of the Russian navy in the Black Sea region.

SIGNIFICANCE: Russia’s annexation of Crimea has reshaped the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea and its neighbourhood. New frigates and submarines are being acquired, and cruise missiles will provide a much extended range. With its strategic options no longer constrained by Ukrainian sovereignty over the Sevastopol base, Moscow can use naval and air forces to dominate the sea and create a forbidding environment for potential adversaries, including NATO.


  • The deterioration in relations with Turkey could manifest itself in maritime tensions between the two states.
  • Access to the Bosphorus may restrain both Russia and Turkey from encroaching on one another’s maritime rights despite hostile rhetoric.
  • US and European militaries will review naval capacity and may reinforce Mediterranean patrols to counter the increased Russian presence.


The Black Sea Fleet ranks third in importance for the Russian navy, behind the Northern and Pacific fleets, but ahead of the Baltic Fleet and the Caspian Flotilla. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea Fleet has had four main missions:

  • protecting shipping in the Black Sea;
  • controlling maritime access to the sea in general and to the Caucasus in particular;
  • supporting the navy’s Mediterranean squadron and counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean; and
  • maintaining links with the Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria.

The bulk of the fleet is based at Sevastopol in Crimea, as is its land-based air arm.

The Black Sea is of great economic significance to Russia, whose commercial ports — mainly Novorossiysk — carry 30% of its total maritime exports.

For Russia, the sea is an access route to the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and hence important for both economic and geopolitical reasons. The Black Sea Fleet is needed to underpin that access, as well as to deal with potential instability in the Caucasus. It provides logistical support to the Mediterranean squadron which was reconstituted in 2013.

Reviving the fleet

During its post-Soviet history, successive lease agreements of the Sevastopol naval base from the Ukrainian government stipulated that Russia could not base new ships in Crimea.  This clause was intentional, designed for the fleet to rust away.  By 2014, the Moskva cruiser was the only Black Sea Fleet surface ship able to operate out of area for extended periods of time. Even its basing arrangements in Ukraine were such that it had little need to defend the peninsula, since this was Ukrainian territory.

After annexing Crimea, Russia moved quickly to rebuild its forces on the peninsula. The fleet is undergoing a dramatic transformation and is rapidly rebuilding its forces. The Sevastopol base is central to Russian anti-access/area denial efforts in the Black Sea and its airspace. There are several components to the ongoing build-up:

  • up to six new Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates;
  • two Buyan-M-class missile corvettes;
  • six improved Kilo-class diesel-powered submarines;
  • Su-30SM interceptors and Su-34 tactical bombers; and
  • nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.

Three of the frigates will be commissioned in 2016, while the others will take some years to complete because Ukrainian-made gas turbines are unavailable. Both the corvettes and two of the six submarines have been commissioned, with the remaining submarines to enter service within two years.

Cruise missiles extend fleet’s reach

The corvettes and submarines will carry the 3M-54 Klub anti-ship system, a supersonic cruise missile allowing the navy to deny access to much of the Black Sea. They will also be armed with the 3M-14 cruise missile designed to attack targets on land at ranges of up to 2,500 kilometres.

The combination of coastal and air defences, maritime aviation and corvette-based groups will free the submarine and frigate force to operate in the Mediterranean.

Amphibious capacity

The Black Sea had been likely to receive one of the two French Mistral helicopter carrier/amphibious assault vessels that Russia ordered in 2010. Since France cancelled the sale in August 2015, there has been no announcement from Moscow about acquiring amphibious ships from elsewhere. Nor is it clear what will happen to the old Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships which were instrumental to the occupation of Crimea.

Naval support for Syria campaign

The Russian military intervention in Syria, begun in September 2015, has redefined the mission of the Black Sea Fleet:


Before Russia aircraft were deployed in Syria to bomb rebel forces, vessels from the fleet were playing a key role in the military supply operation known as the ‘Syrian express’. Initially, older landing ships were used to supply arms and equipment to the Syrian military. Once Russia decided to launch air attacks, the Black Sea Fleet provided the maritime transport.

The conventional wisdom that Russia was incapable of conducting military operations beyond its immediate vicinity was confounded by the successful use of large transport aircraft, naval freighters and even Turkish commercial cargo ships reflagged as Black Sea Fleet vessels.

Missile strikes

The Russian navy provided long-range air defence with the S-300 missile system carried on the flagship Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defence system allowed Russia to protect Syrian airspace while avoiding tensions with Israel, which had made it clear it would be unhappy if such weapons went to the Syrian army.

In October 2015, the Russian navy launched 3M-14 cruise missiles against targets in Syria from relatively small vessels in the Caspian Sea. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated its strike capacity from well inside its air defence perimeter. The cruise missiles were also meant to show NATO military planners and neighbouring states the successful development of a missile capability that would be difficult to neutralise.

Once the Black Sea Fleet acquires vessels armed with 3M-14 cruise missiles, its range will extend to most of Southern and Central Europe and the Middle East.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015, when Kalibr cruise missiles were launched against targets from a new diesel-powered submarine which was transiting the Mediterranean en route to its permanent base at Sevastopol. This use of hard-to-track platforms further highlighted the threat to Russia’s potential opponents.

New missions for the post-Crimea context

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has remade the geopolitical environment in the Black Sea. Crimea’s geographic position allows the country that controls it to dominate the maritime environment. Sevastopol is by far the best harbor on the sea. By taking Crimea, Russia has ensured that its military will not be constrained by Ukraine. This will allow its navy and air force to dominate the Black Sea, creating a forbidding A2/AD environment that will be difficult for any potential adversary, including NATO, to penetrate.

Given the adversarial nature of Russia’s relationship with the West, the Black Sea Fleet will take on additional missions beyond the Black Sea in the coming years. In addition to continuing to provide sealift for Russian operations in Syria, the BSF’s cruise-missile equipped ships and submarines will have a power projection role in the Mediterranean. Even with a fairly small number of frigates and diesel submarines, the fleet will present a potential threat to other naval forces in the region, even U.S. carrier strike groups.

This does not mean that the Russian Navy should be expected to undertake aggressive actions in the Med. Rather, its objective will be to create conventional deterrence against a Western attack by threatening to use its air and sea capabilities to inflict unacceptably high casualties on enemy naval forces attempting to engage Russian forces in the Black Sea or eastern Mediterranean.

CONCLUSION: In the context of Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West, the fleet is likely to be assigned tasks outside the Black Sea such as sustaining a capable naval force in the eastern Mediterranean and continuing to support the Russian military presence in Syria. The fleet will also deliver conventional deterrence through its implicit capacity to inflict unacceptably high casualties on potential adversaries in the Black Sea or the eastern Mediterranean.

Russian planes in Syria

Recently, Michael Kofman and I published an article arguing that Russia’s claimed withdrawal from Syria is not really a withdrawal, but rather a public relations move to normalize Russian military presence in Syria for the long term. Events over the last 10 days have confirmed our analysis and also provided more details on the air forces that Russia is continuing to maintain in Syria. A photo made by the French Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales and distributed via IHS Jane’s shows that as of March 20, there were still 12 Su-24M bombers at Hmeymim, as well as four Su-34 bombers, three Su-30SM fighters and three Su-35S fighters. Zero to three additional aircraft may have been out conducting airstrikes, for a total of 22-25 remaining Russian fixed-wing strike aircraft in Syria. There were also 14 helicopters, including two Mi-28Ns and two Ka-52s.


This means that in the first week after the withdrawal was announced, Russia pulled out three Su-24Ms, four SU-34s, all 12 Su-25s, and four Mi-35M helicopters, while adding at least two Mi-28N and two Ka-52 helicopters. The photo also shows IAI Searcher Mk2 Forpost UAVs.

In other words, the current size of the Russian air presence at Hmeymim is comparable to what Russia had at the start of the operation, minus the Su-25s, but with the addition of Su-35s.


There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria

With characteristic deadpan delivery, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the sudden withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria earlier this week, declaring their campaign a success.  Before the day was through, Russian aircraft and crews were already departing from Hmeymim air base in Latakia.  Since this announcement, the media has been alight with speculation on the meaning of Russia’s sudden departure, its political and military implications, and the reasons for this seemingly unexpected move.  Much of the discussion has thus far missed the mark.  There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria, but rather a drawdown of the air contingent present in Latakia. Putin simply moved pieces on the board, without altering the equation.

This maneuver is more about political perceptions than military reality. It constitutes a political reframing of Russia’s intervention in order to normalize Moscow’s military presence in Syria, and make it permanent, while convincing Russians at home that the campaign is over. Putin’s statement is yet another successful effort to achieve a domestic and international publicity coup.

The “withdrawal” announcement is not about how Russia leaves, but about how it stays in Syria.

Click here to read the rest of the article, which is co-authored by myself and Michael Kofman.

What Russia’s military operation in Syria can tell us about advances in its capabilities

PONARS Eurasia has just published my memo on Russia’s military  operation in Syria from our February policy conference in Istanbul. I’m reposting it here. Lots of other very interesting memos are available on the PONARS website.


As Russia begins to wind down its military operation in Syria, it is time to assess what it has taught us about how the Russian military operates. Although relatively small in scale, the operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities. Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in operational tempo and inter-service integration. The operation has also showcased Russia’s recently developed standoff strike capability and demonstrated significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations.

Russia’s initial air campaign in Syria successfully targeted weapons and equipment depots that opposition forces had captured from government forces. After eliminating these targets, Russian air forces began coordinating with Syrian and Iranian ground forces against opposition fighters in the northwestern part of the country, though this part of the operation took time to have an appreciable impact.

High Operational Intensity and Improved Inter-Service Coordination

The operational tempo of Russian air operations in Syria was quite high from the start. In October, an average of 45 sorties per day were carried out by a total of 34 airplanes and 16 helicopters. The pace of the operation also increased over time, rising from approximately 20 sorties per day at the start of the operation to around 60 per day at its initial peak on October 8-9. It then declined, most likely because the easiest and most obvious targets had all been hit and opposition forces adapted to Russian air attacks by ceasing to operate out in the open.

The Russian operation further expanded in November 2015, in the aftermath of the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner in the Sinai and again after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that infringed on Turkish airspace. In mid-November, the Russian government announced the addition of 37 Su-34 and Su-27 aircraft, which allowed it to increase the number of daily sorties to 127.

The overall average between the start of the operation on September 30 and the end of December was 60 sorties per day, with a maximum of 189 strikes on December 24. This high operational tempo is especially surprising considering the rash of crashes that Russian military aircraft suffered earlier in 2015. Experts blamed the crashes on Russia’s over-used and aging aircraft fleet. While unconfirmed rumors circulated that the operational tempo and harsh desert conditions resulted in maintenance problems for many Russian aircraft, the Russian Air Force’s ability to maintain the high frequency of sorties for over three months speaks to a more resilient force than expected.

The operation in Syria has also highlighted advances in integration among the branches of Russia’s military. This was one of the goals of military reform undertaken after notable failures were revealed during the war in Georgia. In order to improve inter-service coordination, the Russian military reorganized its regional command structure so that all non-strategic military units in each military district were placed under the direct authority of that district’s military commander. In the past, cooperation across services in a particular region had to be coordinated through the service headquarters in Moscow; the new structure allowed this coordination to take place at the regional level. This innovation has had the effect of greatly improving the speed of decisionmaking in regional conflicts.

In November 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defense also established the National Defense Control Center (NDCC), which acts as a major communications hub and advanced data analysis center for the military. The activation of the NDCC has led to more rapid information transfer between the theater of operations and military leaders in Moscow. Information from all types of military assets around the world is collected and analyzed in one location. As a result, the NDCC has reduced the number of steps in military decisionmaking, resulting in increased speed and higher reliability in adjusting military actions to changes in the operating environment.

In addition, Russia’s air force has demonstrated an ability to work with both other services and foreign forces. The Russian Navy, for example, provided sealift for the Syria campaign, as well as long-range air defense with the S-300 system, which was situated on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Slava-class cruiser Moskva in the first half of the operation. Having a ship-based, long-range air defense system allowed Russia to provide defense against potential attacks while avoiding tensions with Israel, which would be unhappy if Russia provided such systems to Syrian forces.[1] Although Russian ground forces played a relatively limited role in the conflict, they were important for providing area defense for the Russian air base at Hmeymim.

More significantly, the Russian air force showed an ability to coordinate its operations with Syrian and Iranian ground forces, which conducted offensives against Syrian opposition positions under Russian air cover. While these offensives were not as effective at regaining territory as Russian leaders might have hoped at the start of the operation, they did eventually succeed in driving anti-government forces out of several key areas and placed the Assad government in a stronger position for potential peace negotiations.

Advances in Weaponry

Russia’s operation in Syria tested and highlighted advances in Russian weaponry while revealing the limitations of its new capabilities. For the first time, Russian aircraft used precision-guided munitions (PGMs) in combat. Only about 20 percent of strikes used such modern weaponry, however, while the rest were carried out with older, unguided gravity bombs. According to Russian analysts, the air force achieved better accuracy with its unguided munitions by using modern onboard targeting equipment and by more intensive training of its pilots. As a result, Russian aircraft were able to hit multiple targets in a single sortie for the first time. The vulnerability of Russian aircraft to enemy attack was reduced by decreasing the amount of time spent in areas vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire from the ground and by the widespread incorporation of technology that allows Russian strike aircraft to fly at night. Finally, the Russian Air Force also used for the first time unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to provide targeting information to strike aircraft and to collect data on the effectiveness of bombing sorties in hitting targets.

At the same time, the Russian military sought to limit the amount of new weapons expended. These munitions are relatively expensive when compared to unguided bombs. Moreover, the air force has limited quantities of PGMs in its arsenal and did not wish to expend them on targets when the use of such weapons is unnecessary.

The land-attack cruise missile (LACM) strikes against Syrian targets, launched in October 2015 from relatively small missile ships in the Caspian Sea, were primarily intended to serve as a demonstration of Russia’s capabilities. The attacks were launched from three Buyan M-class corvettes and a Gepard-class frigate and flew over Iranian and Iraqi territory on their way to their targets. They were not necessary for the success of the operation, which could have been carried out perfectly well by Russian aircraft already in Syria. By launching missiles from the Caspian, Russia demonstrated that it could launch strikes from ships well inside Russia’s air defense perimeter. The real goal was to show NATO military planners (and neighboring states) that Russia has a new standoff land-attack missile capability that can be difficult to neutralize.

Russia’s demonstration of new naval strike capabilities continued in December 2015 when Kalibr LACMs were launched against targets from a recently constructed diesel submarine operating in the Mediterranean Sea. This launch of LACMs from hard-to-track submarines further highlighted the potential threat posed by Russian naval vessels against Russia’s potential opponents. These strikes were closely coordinated with the air force, which sent out a sizeable percentage of its long-range aviation to conduct strikes against the Islamic State. This force included five Tu-160, six Tu-95MS, and 14 Tu-22M3 long-range bombers, which launched Kh-555 and Kh-101 cruise missiles and also dropped gravity bombs on targets in Raqqa. These cruise missiles, with a range of approximately 2000 kilometers, had never been used in combat. While a number of analysts dismissed the tactics used by the long-range aviation as outdated, the goal of the operation was to highlight the combat readiness of the aircraft rather than the kinds of tactics the service would actually use in combat against an adversary that can defend against strikes by strategic aviation.

Unexpected Ability to Deploy and Sustain Operations out of Area

Until last September, most analysts (including myself) argued that Russia was not capable of conducting a military operation away from its immediate neighborhood, as its military lacked the ability to transport significant numbers of personnel or equipment to remote theaters of operations. However, the Russian military was able to transport the necessary equipment and personnel by pressing into service the vast majority of its large transport aircraft and almost all naval transport ships located in the European theater. Furthermore, it reflagged several Turkish commercial cargo vessels as Russian navy ships and pressed them into service to transport equipment to Syria. While Russia remains almost completely dependent on its rail network for military transport, the operation in Syria has shown that it has sufficient sea- and airlift capability to carry out a small operation away from its borders and that it can increase that capacity in innovative ways.

Russia’s initial planning for its Syrian operation assumed that it would continue for three to six months. The slow initial progress by Syrian government forces in retaking territory combined with the perception of an increased threat to Russian interests from both ISIS and Turkey, resulted in an expansion of operations. Russia began to use at least two additional Syrian airbases more conveniently located for providing air support for Syrian government offensives in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Each base used by Russian aircraft requires protection, which led to the deployment of additional artillery batteries. Despite an increase in forces, the Russian military has not had problems resupplying its troops and was ready to continue operations in Syria for the indefinite future.

The recent announcement that Russia would begin to withdraw its forces from Syria does not necessarily mean that the operation is ending. In the same announcement, President Vladimir Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to keep all existing bases in Syria open and operating at present levels. Russian air defense systems and some aircraft are likely to remain in Syria. This will allow for a quick return of Russian forces to Syria if the political and military situation warrants it.


Russia’s operation in Syria sought to accomplish multiple goals. Apart from its geopolitical objectives, it was designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities resulting from military reforms carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. Although the Russian operation was initially slow in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its opponents—and the impact of recent offensives and the subsequent ceasefire remains to be seen—it is clear that these reforms have resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

Russia’s Syria operation reveals significant improvement in military capability

Although relatively small in scale, Russia’s military operation in Syria has highlighted some major improvements in Russian military capabilities.

Beyond its purely geopolitical goals, Russia’s operation in Syria has been designed to test improvements in Russian military capabilities that have resulted from the military reform carried out over the last seven years and to highlight these improvements to potential adversaries. While the jury is still out on how successful the operation will be in helping the Syrian government turn the tide against its various opponents, it has already shown that the military reform has resulted in a significant increase in Russia’s warfighting capability.

Compared to the 2008 Georgia War, which was the last time the Russian Air Force operated in a combat environment, the Russian military appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration. It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability.


Originally published by the Lowy Institute Interpreter. Click here to read the rest of the article.

Back on BHTV Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley

I was back on Foreign Entanglements with Robert Farley (from Lawyers, Guns and Money) again this week, talking about US-Russian relations. We talked about the causes of the cancellation of the Putin-Obama summit, and discussed the two countries’ unproductive paradigm with respect to Syria. We also talked about how  the Russian public has responded to Snowden.  Inevitably, the topic of a potential Olympic boycott in response to Russia’s “gay propaganda” law came up. And we concluded with a short discussion of recent changes in how the Russian military conducts readiness exercises. The links will take you to the specific segments, or you can click here to watch the whole thing.