Russian Navy in the Black Sea and Mediterranean

Russian Navy in the Black Sea and Mediterranean

Last June, naval forces representing thirty-two countries were carrying out Exercise Sea Breeze 2021, an annual event co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine. « This year’s iteration has the largest number of participating nations in the exercise’s history, with 32 countries from six continents providing 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operations and dive teams scheduled to participate, » according to a U.S. Navy press release. Meanwhile, the Russian Navy and Air Force were flexing their muscles not just in the Black Sea basin but in the Mediterranean Sea, where the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and its air wing were conducting combat operations against targets in Syria before proceeding to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific. Armed Russian aircraft were keeping a close eye on the British task force. How to make sense of this flurry of air and sea activity?

Russian maritime dominance in the Black Sea is back. The shift was made possible by Moscow’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and subsequent buildup of combat and maritime law enforcement capabilities in the region. The Nov. 25 seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels off the coast of Crimea has underlined this return, which is one of the most important changes in the region’s maritime security relationships in the last decade. The operation was carried out by coast guard vessels under the Federal Security Service, while Su-25 fighters and Ka-52 combat helicopters from Crimea provided a showy enforcement of the blockade of the Kerch Strait leading into the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian sailors remain detained in Moscow, and Oleksandr Turchynov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, has vowed that Ukrainian ships will return to the Kerch Strait.

This shift in the Black Sea has been clear for some time. After observing a series of naval exercises conducted by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in September 2016, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, announced that « Several years ago the Russian [Black Sea] fleet’s combat capabilities were in stark contrast with that of the Turkish Navy. Some even said that Turkey was in full command of the Black Sea. Now it’s different. » Different indeed. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Black Sea Fleet suffered through over two decades of steep decline, operating only a very small handful of aging vessels that spent nearly all of their time tied up to rented piers at Sevastopol in Crimea. In 2015, after six years of thoroughgoing military reform followed by the seizure of Crimea, Moscow began placing new, advanced surface combatants and submarines in the Black Sea Fleet, alongside a massive shore-based buildup of air defense and coastal defense cruise missiles. A more capable and confident fleet then steamed into the Mediterranean to support Russia’s successful intervention to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Three years later, in 2018, Russia still possesses the Black Sea region’s dominant maritime military. Moscow is using that force in an attempt to fulfill its strategic goal of, reshaping the geopolitical and geo-economic balance of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean region in its favor. Official state documents emphasize the centrality of developing the Black Sea’s strategic potential. Russia’s maritime doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015.

« The 2015 Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation is arguably one of the most important doctrinal statements to emerge from that country in recent years. It is in any case Russia’s most important recent articulation of its maritime interests and goals, and therefore provides insight into how Moscow envisions Russia’s global role. (…) The Maritime Doctrine lays out the roles and responsibilities of the resurgent Russian Federation Navy, both globally and regionally. The doctrine also provides insight into how Moscow might engage in a maritime conflict with the West, including “mobilizing” its civilian fishing fleet, oceanographic vessels, and other ostensibly non-military vessels and installations to support a potential conflict. The mobilization of civilian resources for use in conflict has a long history in Russia, and this doctrine provides a clear articulation of its practice in the maritime domain. In any case, the doctrine envisions an active role for Moscow’s improving military and its civilian resources. »[1]

Specifically, the doctrine emphasizes the improvement of naval capabilities through infrastructure development in Crimea and along the coast of Krasnodar. Additionally, Moscow’s Naval Fundamentals[2], published in 2017, emphasizes the improvement of the Black Sea Fleet’s combat capabilities by focusing in part on improving its ability to conduct joint operations with other military branches operating in Crimea. Both efforts are proceeding apace. In November 2017, General Valery Gerasimov noted that Russia has established a « self-sufficient military formation » consisting of an air defense division, an aviation division, a naval base, and an army corps. While Russia still has a long way to go before achieving a fully integrated capacity to conduct joint warfare, its military has made great strides after its poor performance in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. In addition, Moscow has shifted some of its most advanced anti-air and anti-surface weapons to Crimea to reinforce its naval forces there. In the Black Sea region, this growing fusion of shore- and sea-based capabilities is the fulcrum upon which the maritime balance in the Black Sea has tipped in Russia’s favor.

Moscow’s objectives in the region are not merely limited to the Black Sea basin. While the Black Sea Fleet assists with the defense of southern maritime approaches to Russia, it also allows Moscow to use the Black Sea as a jumping off point into the eastern and central Mediterranean. From Moscow’s perspective, these activities enable its diplomacy and power projection into areas where Russia previously had limited influence, and they retard what Russia believes are U.S. and NATO efforts to destabilize its partners in places like Syria.

The fleet, with its so-called « Permanent Operational Formation » in the eastern Mediterranean, is the power projection lynchpin. The annexation of Crimea has allowed Russia to place increasing emphasis on fleet development as an instrument of regional power. What was once a Russian naval backwater is now the centerpiece of Russian power projection into the Mediterranean. Indeed, setting aside the nuclear deterrent mission carried out by the Northern and Pacific Fleets, the Black Sea Fleet has proven to be the most operationally and tactically successful of Russia’s four major fleets.

In the decades following the Soviet collapse, the Ukrainian government had stipulated that Russia could not base new ships at Sevastopol, and only one ship, the Moskva guided missile cruiser, was even capable of operating for extended periods of time. The annexation obviated that arrangement, and Russia has been moving quickly to rebuild the fleet, planning to add up to six new Adm. Grigorovich guided missile frigates, (the Project 11356 Admiral Grigorovich Class frigates were under construction at Yantar Shipyard, based in Kaliningrad, for the Russian Navy. The vessels utilise the same design developed for the Indian Navy’s Talwar Class frigates. The Admiral Grigorovich Class frigates can be deployed in anti-surface warfare (AsuW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-air warfare (AAW) missions, and are capable of conducting missions as a single vessel, as well as a part of task force.), a handful of classes of missile corvettes, and six improved Kilo 636.3 submarines[3], all armed with the Kalibr family of anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. In the summer of 2018, the Russian navy also transferred five ships from the Caspian Flotilla to the Sea of Azov, raising fears that Moscow may use naval force to support the uprising in Donetsk or further restrict shipping to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.

In addition to basic power projection, the Black Sea Fleet has proven its ability to provide significant operational military benefits. Enabled in part by the fleet, expeditionary operations like that in Syria, once considered unthinkable, have been deftly executed. The Moskva, for example, provided air defense for Russian units in the early days of the Syrian operation. Most importantly, the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla have demonstrated Russia’s new proficiency with long-range land-attack cruise missiles, a capability that was once monopolized by the United States and which Russian military strategists place huge value on. While Russia can muster nowhere near the salvo size of cruise missile launches that the United States can (the U.S. military launched more cruise missiles in one strike in April 2018 than Russia has launched since it entered the conflict), it has nevertheless proven that it is proficient at long-range, high-precision, standoff warfare. This has been a military-technological goal for Moscow since at least 1991, when the first Gulf War showed that precision strikes could cripple a military’s ability to fight effectively.

To scope back out to the strategic level, the back-and-forth demonstrations in the Black Sea and Mediterranean are just the latest phase in strategic competition around the Eurasian periphery, Nicholas Spykman’s « girdle of marginal seas. »[4] To exert influence in the Eurasian « rimlands, » coastal zones separating the sea from the deep continental interior, a maritime hegemon—in this case the United States and its allies—must be able to take control of marginal expanses. Otherwise, naval forces can’t get to the rimlands to project power. Russia and China would like to deny allied forces that access, and thus undo American strategy. How Western navies handle Russian challenges to nautical access could set a precedent—good or bad—for other peripheral seas, much as how navies handle Chinese challenges in the South China Sea or East China Sea could set a precedent in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the Baltic Sea, or the Arctic Ocean.

[1] Russia Maritime Studies Institute – US Naval War College « Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation2015 ».

[2] Russia Maritime Studies Institute – US Naval War College « Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Naval Operations for the Period Until 2030 » Translated by Anna Davis – Published in 2017.

[3] SSK Kilo Class (Type 636) – The Russian Kilo-class submarine first entered service in the early 1980s. It was designed by the Rubin Central Maritime Design Bureau in St Petersburg. Subsequent developments led to the improved production versions, including the Type 877EKM, Type 636, and Type 636.3. A successor, the Lada (Project 677), was launched in November 2004. Rubin is developing an air-independent propulsion (AIP) system, which could be available for retrofit to the other versions. The Kilo submarine was originally built at the Komsomolsk shipyard but is now constructed at the Admiralty Shipyard in St Petersburg. Type 636 is designed for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface-ship warfare (ASuW) and also for general reconnaissance and patrol missions. The Type 636 submarine is considered to be one of the quietest diesel submarines in the world. It is capable of detecting an enemy submarine at a range three to four times greater than it can be detected itself. Source :

[4] « Nicholas Spykman and the Struggle for the Asiatic Mediterranean » A remarkably prescient WWII geostrategist foresaw a struggle between the U.S. and China for control of the “Asian Rimland.” By Francis P. Sempa – January 09, 2015. «  During the Second World War, Nicholas Spykman, a professor of international relations at Yale University, wrote two books that explored the fundamental global geopolitical factors underlying U.S. national security, and foresaw a struggle between the U.S. and China for control of what he called the Asian Rimland. The first book, America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (1942), was a nearly 500-page tour de force that examined in great detail America’s position in the world “in terms of geography and power politics.” All international politics, Spykman wrote, involved a struggle for power, which “is identical with the struggle for survival, and the improvement of the relative power position becomes the primary objective of the internal and external policy of states.” He analyzed the power position of the United States in the Western Hemisphere, the “Transatlantic” and “Transpacific” zones, and from the perspective of the Old World vs. the New World. He integrated into his analysis economic, demographic and military factors, and concluded that America’s security depended on a favorable balance of power in Europe and the Far East. In the second, much slimmer book, The Geography of the Peace, published posthumously in 1944, Spykman sketched a geopolitical map that identified the key geographic power centers of the world, including the “Heartland” of Eurasia (H.J. Mackinder’s term for the northern-central core of the Eurasian landmass), the Eurasian Rimland (the crescent-shaped territory abutting the Heartland, which included the countries of Western Europe, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the Far East), and North America. In evaluating the power potentials of each key region, Spykman memorably wrote, “Who controls the rimland, rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.”