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.
Sergei Khrushchev is the son of Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He shared his impressions of that showdown from a Soviet perspective and the lessons for current and future leaders.
What you consider to be the largest American misconception about the Cuban Missile Crisis?
The largest misconception was the idea that America thought this crisis was about defending Cuba against possible invasion [or] some broader implications with relations to Germany or infiltration into South America . . . theories that have nothing to do with reality.
What would those realties be?
The reality is that after the Bay of Pigs Fidel Castro announced he officially joined the Soviet bloc. Through that [declaration] the obligation of the Soviets was to defend all their clients, all their allies because otherwise they would lose face . . . and your allies would not trust you. Cuba, after 1961, became for the Soviet Union the same as West Berlin to the United States—a small useless piece of land deep inside hostile territory. But if you don’t defend it, you will not be treated as a superpower. The United States was ready to use nuclear weapons to defend Berlin. The Soviet Union sent missiles to Cuba . . . as a powerful signal to the United States: Don’t invade Cuba.
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.
On August 15, Thanh Nien newspaper reported that Vietnam would take delivery of its first Kilo-class submarine by the end of the year. Vietnam has another five Kilo submarines on order and is expected to take delivery at the rate of one submarine a year. According to Vietnam’s defense Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam will develop a modern submarine fleet in the next five to six years (2016-2017).
In the late 1980s Vietnam sought to acquire its first submarine from the Soviet Union. A crew was selected and it trained on a Project 641 diesel submarine attached to the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The program was suspended by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev out of concerns about riling China. Vietnam’s hopes to acquire submarines went into abeyance with the collapse of the USSR.
In a 1997 guns-for-rice barter, Vietnam acquired two Yugo-class mini-submarines from North Korea. These were berthed at Cam Ranh Bay where they underwent repair and overhaul. For the next 13 years analysts were uncertain about their operational status. In January 2010, Tuoi Tre newspaper dramatically revealed the existence of M96, Vietnam’s secret submarine service, with a photo of a Yugo submarine and its crew. The Yugos were used for diver related operations. According to a Western defense attaché stationed in Moscow, “The mini-sub experience provides a basic foundation for understanding submarine operations and maintenance.”
The Pentagon and the Navy have denied it, but this month’s report that a Russian attack submarine prowled near the U.S. without being detected has turned attention back to the art and science of anti-submarine warfare.
The story, which appeared in the conservative “Washington Free Beacon,” reported that “U.S. officials” said the Akula-class sub loitered in the Caribbean for a month without being detected, and this “exposed deficiencies” in the Navy’s ASW capabilities.
The story did not contain enough detail to know what to make of that assessment – whether, for example, the Navy searched for the sub and didn’t find it, or whether it visited and left without a trace. The “Free Beacon” story said American commanders only learned of the sub’s patrol after the fact, but it did not explain how they could learn of it given that they hadn’t been able to detect it in the first place.
The incident is similar to 2009 reports in which the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) confirmed that two Akula boats patrolled off the Eastern U.S. seaboard.
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
View Russian Bases in a larger map
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.
In late June, Russians reportedly dispatched two large landing ships full of marines to their naval base in Tartus, Syria. However one of the ships at the center of the immediate media firestorm never left port and the other executed a normal training mission in the Black Sea before quietly returning to base a few days later. Russia is not above meddling in the internal affairs of other countries if it thinks it can get away with it, but escalating the Syrian conflict clearly was not in Russia’s national interest and was flatly contrary to all of its previous diplomatic activity.
Now less than a day after Russia allegedly decided to stop delivering arms to Syria until the situation calms down, media reports Tuesday said Russia is sending a flotilla of ships drawn from the Baltic, Northern, and Black Sea fleets to Syria. The move that would represent a dramatic change in tone from the past year, when continued arms sales to the Assad regime were considered sacrosanct, and while negotiations were being held in Moscow between the Russian government and members of the anti-Assad Syrian National Council.
Russian sources indicate the following ships are part of the group that is heading towards Syria: the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko, the frigates Yaroslav Mudry and Smetlivy (“sharp” or “keen-witted”), and three large landing craft carrying a contingent of marines (the names of those ships have not been mentioned in any reporting to date). It is worth noting that the landing craft in question, while unidentified, are clearly not the landing craft from the Black Sea Fleet that were at the center of the controversy in late June, but three different ships, from the Northern Fleet.
The media reports on the Russian fleet heading toward Syria have all originated with an Interfax story that quoted an unnamed)“military-diplomatic source” with knowledge of the situation. On this particular issue Interfax doesn’t have the best track record as it was the original “source” for the non-story in late June. Smetlivy is based in the Black Sea and if it is heading to Syria it will have to pass through the Bosporus sometime in the next few days. Until then, given past history and the strangely convenient timing of the announcement it probably is wise to remain skeptical.
By American standards this task force is not particularly impressive. By the greatly diminished standards of Russian naval operations, however, this is a significant concentration of ships. Two, Admiral Chabanenko and the Yaroslav Mudry, are among the newest and most capable members of the Russian fleet, coming into service in 1999 and 2009 respectively. Smetlivy, on the other hand, is more than 40 years old.
The precise mission of this Russian flotilla is unclear — assuming the flotilla is heading for Syria and isn’t a crude invention of bureaucratic infighting. Most of the ships will take around three months to reach Syria because they’re leaving from Severomorsk in Russia’s far north and face an extremely lengthy and circuitous route. Mudry will also take several weeks to reach Syria as it is being dispatched from the Russian naval base in the Baltic. The official line from Interfax’s unidentified source is that it is all a training exercise that is not in any way connected with the ongoing violence in Syria: the ships in question need to practice all of the tasks associated ferrying marines a lengthy distance. Some defense experts on Russia have speculated that the landing craft are carrying valuable military cargo, perhaps refurbished MI-25 helicopters. Other experts have speculated that the landing ships aren’t carrying any cargo but will instead be used to evacuate Russian citizens and military personnel, or even embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his close associates.
While such speculation is interesting, considering how long it is going to take the landing ships to reach Syria it is unlikely that they’re on an urgent and time-sensitive mission. If the Russians were planning an evacuation by sea they would use ships from the Black Sea Fleet which can be in Syria in a matter of days, not ships that are many weeks of hard steaming away. Assuming that all of the ships in question are in fact heading to Syria, it is far more likely that the Russians are trying to show the flag and underline their continued interest in the country. Particularly after taking two steps, that are clearly anti-Assad in nature, meeting with the Syrian National Council and cutting off arms shipments Russia needs to avoid giving the impression that it is overly weak and conciliatory.
It is possible to say what this flotilla is not: a serious attempt to intervene on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and his swiftly destabilizing regime. None of the three warships heading toward Syria is a serious instrument of power projection: they are surface combatants with an anti-surface or anti-submarine focus. Even if these ships wanted to, they could not meaningfully impact the correlation of forces in Syria, anti-ship missiles being about the most useless weapon imaginable in urban guerilla warfare. The best guess is that the flotilla is yet another clumsy attempt to show the flag and highlight Russia’s continued importance in the region.