A Russian warship sails on the Neva river during the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev
A Russian warship sails on the Neva river during the Navy Day parade in Saint Petersburg on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev

On July 29, at an event marking his country’s Navy Day, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that 26 new warships and vessels would be delivered to Russia’s navy by the end of the year.

And there is more to come. Russian units in just the Pacific expect to take delivery of 37 new vessels by 2024 – a major acceleration compared to the 28 new units received in the region over the last decade. This indicates that despite scrapping programs deemed too expensive – notably the Leader-class destroyer and Storm aircraft carrier program – the Kremlin is moving ahead with a very ambitious naval upgrade.

The finance is in place. Russia’s defense spending has not reached an unsustainable level, given that current oil prices – taxes and duties on natural resources are the major component of Russian budget – are 30% higher than planned for in the budget forecast for 2018–2021 fiscal years, according to Andrey Movchan, head of the economic program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The Kremlin believes that matching US and Chinese military potential is of paramount importance. Even so, it has a way to go: Washington’s defense budget is over 10 times and Beijing’s is five to six times higher than Moscow’s.

Expanding horizons

The big spend and the new assets raise the question of whether Russia will change its military doctrine, particularly in the east – shifting from coastal defense in the Pacific area to greater activity on the high seas. Alexey Muraviev, an associate professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Perth’s Curtin University, thinks so.

”Over the past five years, the Russian navy has considerably increased its operational tempo, operational zones and the number of units deployed in forward areas,” he said. “It has managed to reach Cold War levels of operational activity, involving deployments of some 70 to 100 warships and auxiliary vessels at any given time.”

According to Admiral Vladimir Korolev, commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, Russia’s warships spent 17,100 days at sea in 2017 – an increase of 1,500 days from 2016.

This suggests that even though today’s Russian navy is smaller than is Soviet-era predecessor, it is recovering the deployment capabilities of the Cold War days. 

“The Russian navy has now extended its long-range activities to the traditional areas of operation of its Soviet predecessor, reaching the Indian Ocean and the Antarctic,” Muraviev said. “Although its deployable forces are smaller than those of the Soviet Union’s fleet, it continued high-tempo, out-of-area operations in the Pacific throughout 2014 to 2017.”

Muraviev noted that during that time, Russian warships operated throughout Southeast Asia, near the Horn of Africa, in the Coral Sea and Western Pacific, and in the Mediterranean.

Beefing up in the East

In its face off with NATO, Russia is prioritizing maritime operations in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic and the North Sea. However, Moscow’s modernization push is also reshaping the Pacific Fleet.

According to Muraviev, between 2008 and mid-2018, the Russian Pacific Fleet received 28 new units, mostly auxiliary and support assets. In addition, Russia’s maritime border guard in the Pacific took delivery of eight new platforms between 2009 and July 2018. The most noticeable additions were two Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, a guided-missile corvette, and four surface combatants built for the maritime border forces which could be utilized in a warfighting environment.

In the second half of 2018, Russian naval units in the Pacific are expected to receive two improved Project 22800 guided-missile corvettes, one Project 21980 Grachenok counter-sabotage high-speed armed patrol craft and some minor auxiliary vessels, he added.

And much more is to come. Pacific units expect to take possession of at least 30 new warships (11 new submarines and 19 new surface combatants) and seven new major auxiliary vessels by 2024, Muraviev said. These include guided-missile frigates, guided-missile corvettes and mine hunters.

Deployments in the Indo-Pacific strategic maritime theatre include operations in the Western Pacific, the East and South China seas, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and, more recently, the southwestern sector of the Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Sea, Muraviev noted,

And at a time when Sino-US and Russo-US tensions are high across multiple geographies and sectors, there is considerable scope for Russo-Sino naval cooperation.

“In terms of Russia-China naval cooperation I expect it to continue strengthening with more emphasis given to joint exercises and operational activities in a number of maritime theatres, increasing interoperability at tactical and operational levels,” Muraviev said.

Bilateral cooperation in naval shipbuilding may also intensify. “Chinese companies already supply the Russian navy with limited amounts of ship engines to ease the shortfall caused by suspension of defense collaboration with Ukraine and Germany,” he said.

At a time when China has built over-capacity in its shipbuilding industry, it would make sense for Chinese yards to build entire ships for Russia. “It may be possible that Chinese shipbuilders will be involved in some naval construction programs for the Russian navy,” Muraviev said.

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