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Decoding Russia's 2017 Naval Doctrine

Rajorshi Roy is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • August 24, 2017

    On July 20, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved Russia’s new naval Doctrine.1 This is the third such pronouncement on naval activity, following the ones adopted in 2001 and 2012. The current doctrine, set against the backdrop of the worst standoff between Russia and the ‘West’ post the Cold War, provides an insight into the evolving naval environment around Russia and the way the Kremlin intends to shape it in turn. While the nucleus of the 2017 doctrine remains the same as the one articulated in the previous version, its finer details are much more nuanced. Notably, it dwells on the imperative of a “strong navy as a vital instrument of strategic containment, and which will help project Russian presence in practically any area of the World Ocean in order to strengthen Moscow’s position in a multipolar world order”. This assumes significance, given the recent trend of out of area operations undertaken by the Russian navy in the Mediterranean. This has not only enabled Russia to project power beyond its immediate periphery but also helped shape outcomes in Syria. Therefore, given the shifting strategic landscape around Russia, the moot question is - What does the new naval doctrine reveal about how Russia intends to respond to these shifts?

    Military Dangers and Threats

    The doctrine elaborates on the vital threats and dangers faced by Russia. Unsurprisingly, given the ongoing Russia -‘West’ confrontation, it identifies the increasing NATO naval expansion near Russia’s coastline as a key military threat. This military build-up is viewed in Moscow as an attempt to contain it within its neighbourhood. More ominously, the document specifically foresees a long term intensification in the Russia -‘West’ rivalry due to fundamental differences over Russia’s role in global affairs. The recent American sanctions on the Kremlin highlight the institutional resistance in the U.S. to initiate a détente with Russia. Their competition in the naval field is likely to play out in the form of attempts to dominate the waters around Russia, and to mutually deny access to natural resources and lanes of communication. These fault-lines, therefore, are bound to have a destabilising impact on the regional and global strategic landscape. This includes the risk of arms control treaties being revoked and inadvertent events that can bring them to the brink of an armed conflict.

    The doctrine also prioritises the importance of the Caspian Sea and the Arctic due to the regions’ vital resources and potential for commercial navigation. Consequently, a prolonged military build-up, with Russia strengthening its Arctic Command, as well as the Black and Baltic Sea fleets, seem in the offing. Notably, the Doctrine acknowledges the sobering reality of asymmetry in Russia’s naval capabilities vis-à-vis the ‘West’, by highlighting the need to retain Moscow’s position as the “second most powerful naval force in the world”. This revelatory wording indicates Russia’s unwillingness to compete with the U.S. in sheer numbers.

    However, in a marked departure from earlier doctrines, references to the Korean peninsula remain omitted. This likely indicates Russia’s calculation that the unfolding events in the region will not cross the military threshold.

    Naval Goals, Objectives and Priorities

    The Doctrine prioritises the rebooting of the naval Military Industrial Complex (MIC) with a view to providing cutting edge technology and equipment to the Russian navy. Surface ship building, which remains its Achilles heel, has been earmarked for special attention with a view to have innovation in the MIC spill over to the civilian sector.

    A key change in the current document is the emphasis on attaining conventional non-nuclear deterrence through precision guided weapons. Given the success of Kalibr cruise missiles in the Syrian theatre, the emphasis on these force multipliers is likely to increase in the future. Meanwhile, an ambitious long term plan of developing robotics, hypersonic missiles, autonomous vehicles and an aircraft carrier have been pencilled in for induction during the period 2025-2030.

    There also appears to be a renewed focus on fast tracking naval ‘contracts’ in order to form a more professional fighting force. Curiously, the Doctrine strengthens the role of federal security services (FSB) in naval activities. This could possibly be a veiled reference to expanding the concept of ‘hybrid warfare’, so successfully employed in Ukraine, to the naval battlefield.

    Meanwhile, recent reports indicate a shift in the composition of the Russian fleet, with priority being given to building more corvettes and frigates.2 This is a marked departure from the existing Soviet legacy armada, and signals an intent to develop a more robust mobile fleet armed with precision guided weapons.

    Assessment of the Doctrine: Rhetoric vs Reality

    The Doctrine largely remains defensive in its tone. Given Russia’s adversarial relationship with the ‘West’, and the expanding NATO influence eastwards, the emphasis on a stronger navy with a balanced fleet that can operate in any area of World Ocean remains vital. However, the odds remain stacked against Russia achieving true ‘blue water’ capability due to a number of existing limitations. These include the ongoing economic crisis, an ageing fleet, inefficient production techniques and the navy’s position in the military hierarchy.3

    Rhetoric vs Reality

    Russia inherently remains a land based continental power. The navy receives the smallest allocation of the state armament plan when compared to the army and aerospace forces.4 The naval firepower, though still formidable, is a shadow of its ‘blue water’ Soviet predecessor.5 Since the end of Soviet times, the navy’s out of area operations have been constrained due to the expenses involved and the unreliability of the existing legacy fleet. Its ambitious modernisation plan will also be severely tested by the ongoing economic crisis. Historically, the navy has been the first to bear the burden of budget sequestration. Moreover, a big chunk of naval funds are allocated for maintaining the nuclear deterrence.6 At a time when Russia’s conventional military capabilities have not kept pace with the ‘West’, the salience of nuclear platforms is even more profound. Therefore, it likely that the nuclear submarine fleet will receive the highest priority and be the mainstay of the Russian navy for the foreseeable future.

    Nevertheless, the military modernisation programme, initiated in 2010, has witnessed some success, particularly in the acquisition of new platforms.7 Consequently, an incipient two- pronged strategy to expand surface deployment seems to be at play. This involves deploying a more robust mobile fleet armed with precision guided weapons and upgrading the legacy armada. The objective appears not only to protect core regional security interests but also project power (though on a limited scale) beyond Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. A key lesson that Russian defence strategists took away from deploying cruise missiles during the Syrian intervention was the realisation of Russian ability to shape outcomes without having to undertake long range forward missions.

    In light of this, the navy may emerge as the necessary shot in the arm for Russia to project itself as one of the world’s leading military powers. The visuals of Kalibr cruise missiles, fired from the Caspian and striking targets in Syria, dispelled U.S.’s claim as the sole custodian of such weapons. President Putin has sought to cultivate this revival of Russia’s great power status - both domestically and on the global stage. In fact, Russian citizens’ perception of Russia being a great power is based on their belief in its strong military prowess. This is even more relevant today, given the need to rally Russian citizens in these tumultuous economic times.

    In conclusion, while it is unlikely that the Russian navy will be the numero uno in World Oceans for the foreseeable future, yet it will strive to defend Russia’s core security interests in the neighbourhood and judiciously project power beyond its periphery - most likely in the Mediterranean.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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