Black Sea Fleet: A Return to Russia’s Great Power Pretensions

September 25, 2014
Ships from the Black Sea Fleet on parade near Sevastopol, Crimea, in September 2014 | © RIA Novosti. Vasily Batanov

As the guns begin to fall silent over Europe’s newest frozen conflict (or at least some of the guns), joining a long and terribly depressing line of conflicts such as Transdniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the exact opposite is happening to Russia’s defense policy and military plans in the region.

Russia continues to fly provocative air sorties and large scale exercises near the vulnerable Baltic States. It launched a massive military drill in the Far East called Vostok 2014 that is primarily aimed at reminding China that massive natural resource deals have not deluded Russia to the point that it sees China as a sort of authoritarian long lost sibling. And despite being put on hold by France, Russian sailors just completed sea trials and a training exercise on the new Mistral.

As Russia’s military continues to benefit from fiscal largesse despite budgetary constraints and nonexistent economic growith, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) benefits from additional support and attention from the Kremlin itself. With Crimea ensconced in Russia and with no plans of it ever rejoining Ukraine, Russia is making significant efforts to make sure that it stays that way. Defense Minister Shoigu has made creating a self-sufficient defense group under the Southern Military District a key priority:

“The military-political situation in the South West strategic direction from early this year has substantially changed. This is largely connected with the expansion of the territory of the South Military District after Crimea’s entry into Russia. Moreover, the situation in Ukraine has become sharply aggravated and there is an increase of a foreign military presence in immediate proximity to our border.”

It did not take the Russian State Duma Defense Committee long to echo Shoigu’s remarks in calling for a “full-fledged and self-sufficient” force on the peninsula. That includes a regiment of TU-22M3 long range bombers at Gvardeyskoye airfield in Crimea. The deployment of air defense systems and increases to the numbers of Naval Infantry, the ‘little green men’ who led the takeover of the peninsula, are already planned. The BSF will also see the deployment of land based, mobile Bastion-P missile systems with the very deadly P-800 Onyx missile (its export version is called the Yakhont).

Yet Ukraine is not the fear in the region (its navy, virtually nonexistent before the takeover of Crimea, is only weaker after losing a significant portion of its ships and naval facilities). The inability of Russia to field a fleet in the Mediterranean, like it did during the USSR, is a constant reminder of the loss of status that the military and Russia itself has suffered since the end of the Cold War. The ability of U.S. and NATO warships to enter the black Sea region without any plausible fear from the thoroughly unimpressive Black Sea Fleet has long been eating away at Russia’s great power pretensions and its role as an actor all along the Mediterranean. Defense Minister Shoigu even stressed its importance in a speech to the BSF in February of 2013 when he said that the “Mediterranean region was the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interests.”

And while the Black Sea Fleet was already on plan to receive several modern ships and submarines in the coming years—six Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates and six Varshavyanka-class submarines—it has benefited from geopolitical pretensions on behalf of the Kremlin and is quickly on its way to transforming from one of the weakest Russian fleets to one of its strongest. The sixth frigate destined for the fleet was to be cancelled, but Putin apparently interjected and reinstated its construction along with redirecting three missile corvettes, originally planned for the Caspian Sea Flotilla, to join the seven previously planned for the BSF (Although it should be noted the missile corvettes are rather unimpressive and do not dramatically alter the BSF power capabilities).

It now seems clear that Sevastopol will become the newest home for a French Mistral assault ship, Vladivostok, and while temporarily paused, the winning wager is probably that the sale will eventually go through. The Mistral will join some 80 new vessels by 2020 according to the head of the BSF, Admiral Alexander Vitko, and will total some 206 ships.

Before the outbreak of hostilities, Russia was already constructing a new naval base at Novorossiysk to house the Varshavyanka submarines that would form the core of its new power capabilities—the submarines are so stealthy and silent they have been dubbed “black holes” by the U.S. Navy—due to the previous agreement with Ukraine that limited the number and type of vessels that were allowed to be stationed at Sevastopol. With that agreement unnecessary, there was some suggestion that the base would be unneeded and the funds could go towards other projects. However, it seems that Putin has once again interjected in favor of keeping the base and upgrading its ability to support a world class fleet in the region.

In fact Putin will be visiting the city and port with the “relevant ministers, heads of regions, representatives of the Agency for Special Construction (Spetsstroy) and other departments” to speak about plans for developing the regions port infrastructure. Already there have been some 48 facilities that have been built around the region and it’s clear that the modernization of Russia’s military and infrastructure remains a top priority.

With new found capabilities comes a resurgent sense of importance and stance not only in the Black Sea but the wider Mediterranean. Russia will soon seek to have the capabilities of fielding and supporting a more permanent—if rather small and military unimportant—task force in the Mediterranean. Until now the ships for this task force had to be mainly pulled from the much larger and modern Northern and even Pacific fleets. The BSF will now form the core of this force with the aging Slava class missile cruiser Moskva as its likely flagship.

And despite the generous funding and political support, the Black Sea Fleet will remain, even after 2020, of little threat to NATO Naval interests in the region, like the U.S. Navy sixth fleet that patrols its waters.

Yet it is more of reminder and statement over Russia’s pretensions of dominance in the region alongside any military challenge; until recently Russian naval assets and military force in the region were an afterthought, now they will at least have to be acknowledged.

The ceasefire in Ukraine was not due to a mutually amicable settlement of the issue of “Novorossiya,” but the fact that Kiev could not militarily continue, much less defeat, the separatists who fight with the backing of Russian weapons, support and troops. Russia’s strengthening of the Black Sea Fleet is intended to make sure that the calculus that saw Kiev decide to sue for peace is permanent, along with reversing Russia’s absence from not just the Black Sea but the wider Mediterranean. Ukraine was as much about reminding the West—and Russians themselves—of its status, and the same can be said for the militarization of the Black Sea.