The sprawling Russian defense apparatus has some of the world’s biggest braggarts. You don’t need to look very hard to find examples in the Russian defense ministry or the military-industrial complex stating the impossible. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, for example, said that by 2013 “production capacity [at Russian shipyards] will allow us to build six submarines and an aircraft carrier every year.” Serious Western analysts of Russian military procurement reacted with derision. Not only does the Russian Federation currently not have any shipyards large enough to build a carrier, they noted, the shipyard that built earlier Soviet carriers is in the Ukraine, and the Russian navy doesn’t even have a finalized design that would allow construction of a carrier to begin. Rogozin’s statement was so self-evidently fraudulent that he was forced to retract it.
The Russians have an extensive and well-documented history of making incredibly bold and aggressive statements only to quietly retract those statements (with much less fanfare) a few days later.
The latest tempest in a teapot got started on 27 July when VADM Victor Chirkov, the commander in chief of the Russian navy, made the following remarks in an interview with RIA Novosti:
Interviewer: “Victor Victorovich, a few years ago the possibility of organizing basing for the Russian navy in foreign countries was being discussed. How is this question being resolved today?”
Chirkov: “We are really continuing the work of providing basing for our naval forces outside the boundaries of the Russian Federation. Within the confines of this work, on an international level we are looking into creating stations for material-technical provision in Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam.”
Now it’s worth highlighting the fact that Chirkov’s statement was in response to a specific question about foreign bases. He didn’t randomly bring it up; he was specifically asked by the interviewer. It’s also worth noting that his answer was actually pretty vague and noncommittal. He didn’t specify where exactly Russia was in process of its pursuit of foreign bases—he just said that work was “continuing.” On a linguistic note, Chirkov used a verb “prorabativatsia” which can mean “to work out in detail” or “finalize”—but also can mean something equivalent to “look into” or “discuss.”
Chirkov’s rather bland statement was almost instantly transmitted and given much greater force by Bloomberg and the Associated Press wires and newspapers such as The Washington Times. In this telling of the story, Russia was not simply continuing work that had been going on, with a distinct lack of alacrity, for many years, it was sharply altering its policy in an aggressive and threatening way. This is the sort of story that feeds very easily into a narrative about growing Russian aggressiveness and irascibility.
Unsurprisingly, given the negative media coverage that Chirkov’s comments attracted, the defense ministry almost immediately offered a hasty retraction. Chirkov himself modified his comments the very next day in an interview with the liberal and decidedly anti-Putin radio station ??? ?????? or Echo of Moscow. Chirkov noted that any negotiations about opening foreign bases are the prerogative of the country’s political leadership and the ministry of foreign affairs: “This [opening foreign bases] is a question of politics, not the navy.”
Even before the Russians retracted their initial comment, the Pentagon reacted with a yawn, accurately noting that even if Russia was in discussions with Cuba and Vietnam that wouldn’t pose any threat to the United States. Despite the great deal of attention it has received over the past several months, even after a moderate resurgence Russia’s navy is still a shadow of its former Soviet self. The Russians have only about 30 major combatants that are currently seaworthy, and many of those are badly out of date in comparison with U.S. and NATO counterparts. Only one major Russian surface ship, the Pyotr Veliky, is nuclear powered, meaning that Russian surface ships have to seriously take into account where they are going to re-fuel and resupply, and that their ability to conduct long-distance operations is correspondingly limited.
It is true that Russia is engaging in a significant naval re-armament program, but given the serious deficiencies in its defense industry this will not seriously alter the composition of its fleet for at least a decade. Assuming that everything goes according to plan—a rarity for a notoriously inefficient and unproductive defense industry—Russia’s future naval capabilities will pale in comparison with those of the U.S. and its allies. Russia’s navy is not a serious instrument of power projection and will not become one in the near future regardless of whether it can make use of bases in Cuba and Vietnam. Russia’s navy is instead an almost purely political instrument, a way for the country to demonstrate its continued global relevance and to show the flag.