The past several weeks have been surreal for Russia-watchers as the benighted country they follow has enjoyed more media exposure than at almost any other time over the past 20 years. The Russians, often caricatured in the American media as blundering, blustering, and ignorant bullies, have been running diplomatic circles around a disinterested and discombobulated Obama administration. Through skill, persistence, and a fair amount of good luck, Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Putin managed to get the United States to sign on to a deal that would (with an absolutely enormous “if” around the willingness of the Syrian government to cooperate) peacefully take control of and eventually destroy the Assad regime’s store of chemical weapons. It’s been awhile since the Russians had a moment in the sun that was comparable. Read More
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On Friday a group of Russian warships passed from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. The group included destroyers, landing ships, frigates and supply ships from the Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific fleets. It was scheduled to replace the current deployment of landing and surveillance ships already in the area, with Russian naval officials carefully noting that it was a “planned rotation” and not a “new” group. Read More
Even after shocking details emerged about Bashar al-Assad’s likely use of chemical weapons against his opponents in Syria, public opinion in the United States is decidedly unenthusiastic about a potential intervention. In opinion polls, large majorities say they want nothing to do with the worsening situation in Syria and express no desire to help the anti-Assad opposition. There is, however, a significant popular-elite split: While the populace as a whole is firmly against an intervention, foreign-policy elites are overwhelmingly in favor. Read More
China and Russia made headlines this past weekend when they participated in the rather blandly titled Joint Sea 2013. Despite the name, Joint Sea was China’s largest ever joint naval exercise, and one of the more noteworthy bits of naval activity in the past several years. Eighteen surface ships, one submarine, three airplanes, five ship-launched helicopters and two commando units took part in the exercise, participating in a variety of activities including antisubmarine warfare, close maneuvering, and the simulated takeover of an enemy ship. Chinese and Russian officials alike were quick to note that Joint Sea wasn’t directed at any third party, something that might sound insincere but that actually reflects the reality that Chinese and Russian interests in the Pacific are very different. Read More
One of the most significant decisions of Russia’s now-disgraced and soon-to-be-indicted former minister of defense Anatoly Serdyukov was the decision to procure Mistral-class helicopter carriers from the French. That was a radical departure from previous Soviet/Russian doctrine, which demanded that the country be able to produce all its own weapons systems. The total reliance on domestic suppliers was seen as a way to ensure the country’s sovereignty: the Russians thought that dependence, or even potential dependence on any external supplier would place major constraints on their decision-making. When one sees how the United States is able to comprehensively influence the foreign and defense policies of countries that rely on its military hardware, the Russian position does not seem without merit or logic. Read More
Early in the summer of 2012, a number of international observers got very worked up about Russia’s plan to dispatch half a dozen warships to the eastern Mediterranean. It sounded like some sort of escalation of an already awful situation, and even the most optimistic analyses noted that having a bunch of old, leaky Russian ships in an active war zone clearly was not ideal. Read More
The Yuri Dolgoruky, Russia’s newest ballistic-missile submarine, officially entered service in the Northern Fleet on 17 January, completing a long and arduous journey into Russia’s navy. While the submarine is often lumped in with Russia’s aggressive new armaments program, construction actually started back in 1996, when Vladimir Putin was not the Kremlin’s overlord but an obscure bureaucrat serving as deputy chief of the Presidential Property Management Department, and Russia was not an oil-fueled “energy superpower” but a bankrupt economic disaster. A great deal has happened to Russia’s navy since construction of the Dolgoruky began, very little of it good. So while the submarine’s newness has been highly touted—by, among others, a Russian government intent on promoting “modernization”—when viewed in context it’s not nearly so impressive.
The Russian navy was in parlous straits during the 1990s and the early 2000s. Suffering a series of spectacular disasters including, the sinking of the Kursk submarine with the loss of all hands. Operational hardships were occurred with a background of budgetary scarcity and decay. Since then Russia’s navy has been slowly getting back on its feet with a steady increase in naval activity and an increasingly visible presence in the world’s oceans. But while training and combat readiness have generally improved, Russia’s shipbuilding industry has decayed badly; perhaps past the point of no return.
The Russians recently unveiled a number of impressive sounding naval re-armament plans as part of the their general push to re-equip their armed forces with modern equipment. Announcing a plan is easy. Constructing modern warships is hard. While the Russians have been very good on the planning side of the ledger, they’ve been bad in the construction side. We can get a clear picture of the still-decrepit and chaotic state of the Russian shipbuilding industry by looking at refurbishment work they’re doing for the Indian navy. The carrier Baku was re-christened by the Russians as the Admiral Gorshkov and later sold to the Indian navy and renamed the Vikramaditya. Since the ship has gone through so many name changes, we’ll stick with calling it Vikramaditya for clarity’s sake.
Russia plans to expand its military presence in the Arctic, officials said Monday. According to Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the current head of the Security Council, Russia is going to create a number of “dual use” facilities in the Arctic, facilities that will be expected to host commercial craft as well as vessels of both the Northern Fleet and the FSB’s border service.1
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Patrushev’s announcement is connected with the continued development of the or the “northern sea path,” basically an updated and modernized version of what was once known as the “northeast passage.” The rapid melting of the Arctic has opened up previously unreachable parts of Russia’s northern coast and has made what was once a near-impossible voyage far more practical. Traffic on the route, while still paltry compared with the traffic going through the Suez or Panama canals, has grown rapidly in recent years, and is forecast to increase as the Arctic stays ice-free for longer periods of time. Should warming continue, the northern sea path could very easily become one of the world’s busier maritime corridors. In comparison with the route through the Suez, it allows container traffic from Europe to Asia to reach its destination traveling about 4,000 fewer miles and roughly 13 fewer days.
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: