Global Maritime Power? Russia's Navy faces an uncertain future

Global Maritime Power? Russia's Navy faces an uncertain future


06 | 10 | 2022


With only one—and unreliable—carrier and already considerable budgetary problems to build more, Moscow will cope with increased NATO's presence in the Baltic and the Arctic

En la imagen

The “Admiral Kuznetsov” aircraft carrier [Creative Commons]

With the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, the Russian Navy will face challenges it had never faced in a long time. The status of its aircraft carrier and the negative outlook for the development of more will significantly hamper the attainment of Russian ambitions as depicted in its new naval doctrine. To make matters worse, Moscow is now unable to use the Baltic like it used to, not without running a high risk of attack coming over their ships. But more importantly, with Finland and Sweden officially in, the Alliance will be closer than ever to Russia´s Arctic military bases—thus, to its Northern Fleet. And this Russia doesn´t like.

Russia´s naval ambitions

The Russian Navy finds itself in the midst of a major internal (and external) conflict. With the publication of the latest Naval Doctrine in late July 2022, Moscow has made a very clear statement of its aim—becoming a major global naval power. Its interests and the major threats to be faced by the Navy now and during the upcoming years are clearly framed. And while the main obstacle in the path to achieving such status of global naval power is mentioned in the document, it appears it may be a bigger issue than previously thought. The doctrine is very straightforward when stating its main ambitions, and the different threats and challenges to be faced in the quest to achieve them. However, it should be followed by a proper strategy that allows the Russian Navy to transform such vision into a solid reality; and precisely this will turn out to be more costly than initially planned.

In the first place, because Russia hasn´t had good times in its process of building a global and powerful navy so far. Back in 2009, President Medvedev foresaw Russia would be able to become a strong navy, with maybe five or six carriers by the late 2020s. Considering the misfortune they have had with both the sinking of the “Moskva” and the endless repairs of the “Admiral Kuznetsov”, Russia will remain without an aircraft carrier (at least) until 2024; and thus, with no significant capacity to exert power in the world´s oceans for some more years. Secondly,—and Washington will most certainly be very well disposed towards this—, the likely incorporation of Finland and Sweden to NATO will completely alter the strategic environment in the Baltic and Northern Europe regions, limiting the Navy´s operational capacity and moving the presence of the Alliance further to the North. Lastly, although the doctrine may have identified, given the lack of vessels and assets of the Navy, the need to expand the fleet, doing so will most likely be too expensive. It always is, but given the budget expenditure destined to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, this time will be even more.  

“Admiral Kuznetsov”, a curse for the Navy?

Russia (and the Soviet Union before) has had endless financial problems to develop a fleet of carriers for many decades. Carriers are an expensive investment. Additionally, its one and only aircraft carrier, the mighty “Admiral Kuznetsov”, has had a long history of complications and setbacks. Being in active service since the 1990s, its career has been filled with breakdowns and failures, the latter of which prompted its temporary removal from service in 2017. It has not left Murmansk since then, and on top of that, additional complications have prevented the refit work to end. In 2018, few months after the big carrier arrived, a floating crane fell on the deck, damaging the ship and tragically ending with the life of a worker.

Shortly after, in 2019, a thick column of black smoke rose from the carrier´s deck one day while ongoing repairs at the Murmansk dock. As it turned out, the ship had caught fire when some piece of metal fell down and landed on an oily cloth and spread through electricity cables. Then, the docking facility partly sunk right in its place (Murmansk´ facilities are somewhat old), and since then problems have amounted for the Russian Navy, with the bottom-line being that Russia will not operate its sole aircraft carrier until 2024—the soonest. But even if it does, the old ship has been in a very poor state for the last years, giving rise to the notorious expression “if you misbehave, you´ll be sent to the Kuznetsov”. Without going any further, in some of its latest missions, the carrier travelled escorted by tugboats to assist in case of breakdown.

However, before such misfortunes even happened, and especially now they have occurred, the Russia has been looking to develop another aircraft carrier. Furthermore, given the power amassed by the US nuclear-powered carriers, Moscow has also pushed for nuclear carriers as well. The “Ulyanovsk” carrier was the first attempt to turn that vision into reality. Laid down during late 1980s, it was an immediate response to the massive buildup of the US Navy during the two-term Reagan Administration (the so-called “600-ship Navy”). Unfortunately, the two planned vessels of the project were cancelled. Then in 2018, research began on nuclear engines for a new supercarrier, dubbed the “23000e Project”. The envisioned vessel, nicknamed “Shtorm”, is Russia´s best chance to achieve the desired status and capabilities of blue water navy. However, according to Brent Eastwood, this would take Russia around ten years to make, and cost roughly $5.5 billion. And again, considering how the events in Ukraine are unfolding, it remains to be seen how Russia will end up economically after the conflict ends.

Thus, prospects for Russian aircraft carriers are not precisely good at this moment. And perhaps, they have never been at all. The endless problems faced with the “Admiral Kuznetsov” are now present as the main obstacle against the ambitions depicted in the new doctrine, which doesn´t seem to have realistically framed all the obstacles and challenges the Navy will face in the upcoming years. Any other project the Navy undertakes while the Ukraine conflict is still active, would be, at this moment, too expensive and virtually unreachable in the short term.

Baltic Sea: Towards a NATO Sea?

Another challenge Russia has now come upon is derived from the decided accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO. With traditionally neutral postures throughout the entire Cold War—forming the northern barrier between the two opposed blocks—and the following decades, the two Scandinavian nations are now about to become members of the Alliance as a result of the events in Ukraine. This historical shift in their foreign policy, instantly accepted by most of NATO members (Turkey seemed reluctant at first), will completely transform the strategic outlook in the Baltic region. Now, all nations with coasts in it except for Russia´s tiny Western coast and Kaliningrad—that is, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Germany—are NATO nations. What does this mean?

At first, the alliance will undoubtedly see an enhanced cooperation among the Baltic nations, with more freedom of navigation, an enhanced situational awareness, and easier access through its waters. This makes it an ideal theater of operations for any of these nations, which will now be able to sail through the region with a superior freedom over the threats and hostile actions the Russian Navy is accustomed to. But most importantly, the Russian Baltic Fleet, based in Kaliningrad, will also see itself in a position of disadvantage against the rest of allied fleets. If Kaliningrad was already in a location of strategic weakness, now the forces and battleships deployed there are left against a superior rival and a risk of disruption on their supplies. Should they launch any hostile action in the area, the allied block would dispose of a bigger force capacity and an enhanced operational cooperation, which would mitigate the negative consequences.

Estonian Lieutenant General Martin Herem recently stated this very clearly: “[Sweden and Finland´s accession] makes up for us much easier to defend our country especially from the sea and air… Basically, the Baltic Sea almost becomes the inner water of NATO.” Indeed, Russia faces now a bigger and more united rival, and can no longer count on the possibility of turning to Finland or Sweden when dealing with NATO nations. The Baltic Fleet will be under a much higher level of stress now. As Robert Farley puts it, “in no conceivable conflict could Russian warships (even submarines) use the Baltic without running the risk of imminent destruction.” And with Finland, NATO will now be able to look towards Russia´s Arctic bases and military outposts from a much closer distance than before. Increased situational awareness will allow for a better preparation of military forces and faster capacity of response against any potential hostilities coming from the North.

Yet, this Baltic dilemma which now arises, could be balanced by the growing expansion of Russian military presence throughout the Arctic. For years now, Moscow has been keen to develop the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world, which includes the Arktika-class, the biggest and most powerful in the world today—and unmatched by any other vessel in the world. Not satisfied with it, Russia has several more to be built, which will add up to a fleet of already more than forty vessels. With them, potential for commercial routes across the region through its ports is much easier, thus providing with an easier access and capacity of navigation across the region—and consequently, a better position to control the future commercial routes in the High North. In this sense, Russia finds itself several steps ahead from the rest of NATO members in the region, some of which only have one or two icebreakers. 

To put it into perspective, the Royal Canadian Navy has only two icebreakers active (adding to the 18 from the Coast Guard), and—more worryingly—the US has only three. Norway, Sweden and Finland make important contributions to NATO´s overall icebreaking capabilities, but with the alliance gradually turning its sight towards the Arctic as a zone of primordial interests, awareness of the potential for Russian to effectively control the region won´t be enough. Icebreakers are a central element in Arctic maritime strategy, and NATO will need to build more of these in order to face Moscow´s ambitions.

No easy way out

Nevertheless, even with this Arctic control, and a submarine fleet standing among the most powerful in the world, it isn´t enough for a Russian Navy aiming to become a global maritime power. And considering how the conflict in Ukraine is unfolding, a military defeat there would also place the Black Sea fleet in a delicate situation. With the loss of the “Moskva”, and the budgetary problems that will most likely derive after the conflict ends, the Navy is facing highly-demanding problems. A defeat in Ukraine would mean the Ukrainians now have anti-ship weapons they didn´t have before, which could be used to sink other ships. Thus, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Navy in general, could be, as said, in a complicated position and with obscure prospects for the near future.

In sum, the Russian Navy will face a complicated period during the following years, with significant budgetaryproblems and a lack of assets to deploy into the high seas. The strategic shift in the Baltic region has left its fleet at Murmansk virtually helpless against a much bigger rival, and with Finland as a neighbor, NATO is now closer than ever to Russian northern bases in the Arctic. Although it will largely depend on the outcome of Ukraine and how its economy is left after that, it seems clear that the Russian Navy should not be a worrisome factor for NATO in terms of global naval power. Without a fleet of aircraft carriers,—which is the same as saying no carrier strike groups—the ambitions depicted in the recent doctrine will remain largely unattainable for Moscow.

This does not mean that Russia cannot project power in some regions of the world, such as the Arctic or the Black Sea. As said, its icebreaker fleet is the strongest in the world by far, and the submarine fleet still is a valuable asset at this point. But looking at the big picture, prospects are not precisely bright; NATO should most certainly take advantage of this, keep its commitment to cooperate, and increase its naval presence if it aspires to deter Russian and Chinese expansionist trends across the waters of the globe.

Given Russia´s current situation, it seems like there won´t be an easy way out.