The Influence of Seapower... on Putin

By Robert Bateman

In my inaugural posting for the Intel Dump, I thought it wise to introduce myself. My name is Bob Bateman. I am a professional Army Infantry Officer and a historian. I also write a lot. This is, I suppose, is how I landed here in the Dump. What I am most definitively not is a Public Affairs Officer. So what you read under my byline is my opinion, ruminations, and analysis. It is not the product of a vetted Information Operations process deep within the bowels of the Pentagon, nor is it an attempt to get out the "Army Message" (whatever that may be). These things are outside both my purview and experience. If you dislike what I write, blame me. Not the Army. Not the Department of Defense. Not the office in which I now work. Just me. (And believe me, if my own writing history is any indication, I will piss off at least some significant percentage of those who read my words. So it is only fair that I take any such blame on my own shoulders.)

There. I think that should satisfy the requirements of both full disclosure and attribution. Now on to the news.

This morning I could not help but pick up on a small tidbit which notes that the Soviet Russian Navy is going to be visiting sunnier climes than is their usual wont. Specifically, the Russian Ministry of Offense Defense just announced that four Russian naval vessels will take part in a Joint training mission with Hugo Chavez's navy this coming November. This comes under the heading of, "Things That Make You Go, Hmmmmm." I mean, does anyone doubt that the recent announcement comes as a sort of tit-for-tat for the USS Mount Whitney's arrival off the coast of the Georgian port of Poti? A port which is entirely in non-disputed Georgian territory? (But also a port which was still attacked and captured by the Russians, and in which the Russians still maintain some small number of forces.)

In some circles this might generate a lot of heat. I would, before that happens, like to shed a little light. Specifically by noting the following profound statement: "So What?"

Seriously. So what?

Folks, the Russian Navy of today is not the Soviet Navy of 20 years ago. In fact, it is an object (or perhaps abject) lesson in what happens when your economy falls apart and you leave your defenses to rot by the pier. True, it was once a powerful force, and feared by NATO. But the salient point is why the Soviet Navy was feared. It was not because it could project power far from Russia's shores. That has never been a capability the Soviet fleet maintained to any serious degree. No, it was feared because it might possibly stop the Americans from coming to the aid of its allies in Europe should a Soviet-led invasion of Western Germany occur.

In naval strategy form should follow function, and in this the Soviets succeeded. Their naval forces were designed primarily as an interdiction force, something which might intercept the huge numbers of ships which the US would have to send had the "balloon gone up" in Western Europe. Accordingly, they had lots of submarines, quite a few anti-submarine ships (to help neutralize the major threat American submarines posed to their own subs), and long-range anti-ship missiles.

What they did not have was the ability to "project" power onto the land in any appreciable way, then or now. Nor did they develop the ability to sustain fleets far from home, as the US Navy has done since 1943. They did not need to, since their combat forces could reach the area in which they needed to fight any hypothetical engagement directly from their home ports.

Today the Russian Navy is a shell of its previous self. Someday that may change, but for now it seems they have only one small aircraft carrier (which would not even have that title in the US Navy, because it is too small), two "Battlecruisers," three Cruisers, 26 Destroyers, and 16 Frigates. It is unknown how many of these can do more than float while securely tied up at a pier. What is more, they lack the resources and experience to maintain a combat force far from home for more than a very short while. In other words, it's all flash here and no bang.

Of their once-vaunted (and frankly, feared) undersea capability there is also little left but a skeleton. At the end of the Cold War the Soviet Union could field some 170 submarines, many, if not most of them, nuclear powered. Today there are but fifty still in the inventory, and of that only 26 were operational as of 2006 according to open source reporting in Russia.

All in all, I would not sweat this one. Your mileage may vary, but for my part I hope nobody gets all jazzed about this. To do so would be to reap rhetorical benefit from something which is, well, pretty much just rhetoric itself.

You can write to Robert Bateman here.

By washingtonpost.com |  September 8, 2008; 2:51 PM ET
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I found you article in Academic Questions to be quite well thought out. I'll have to do a review on that sometime. As to the Russians I hope they are ready for hurricane season. It is a wee bit different in the bathtub of the Caribbean than the open ocean.

Posted by: Selil | September 8, 2008 3:25 PM

Welcome aboard Bob!

Here is some advice for the Russians that was given to me by a friend who used to work on the rigs in the Gulf;

If you ever (get too drunk and) fall off a rig (or Russian navy vessel), don't try swimming because you'll just wear yourself out.

Just drift along and, in virtually no time, you will come up to a drilling platform of some type. Most are unmanned, so just climb up the ladder and start breaking anything you can. Close any open valve and open any closed valve. Then sit back and wait. Eventually the oil company will send out a helicopter to check on the rig.

Posted by: Beentheredonethat | September 8, 2008 5:13 PM

Beentheredonethat,

Thanks for the advice - Now I'm ready to book my Gulf vacation!

Posted by: Beerheredrinkit | September 9, 2008 6:07 PM

Okay, got it: Russian Navy, no worries.

Should we hold a similar lasseiz faire attitude toward Russian statements on a US missile defense interceptors in Poland?

Posted by: Derrick Gibson | September 9, 2008 7:53 PM

Of course, your analysis of the Russian Navy is accurate. In the mid-1990s, I spent several summers working directly adjacent to the the Russian Naval Base (home of the Black Sea Fleet) in Sevastopol in Crimea. On more than one occasion, I recall leaning back against a a Greco-Roman era structural wall within the ancient ruins of Chersonesus drinking a couple of cold beers after a hard day of surveying, watching Russian guided missiles cruisers steam out of the harbor only to run "out of steam" before they reached the open Black Sea. Several times, different ships went dead in the water or steam in circles with a navigation problem and had to be towed back into the harbor by large tug boats. This happened with such regularity that several of us would place small bets if the ship steaming out of the harbor would actually reach open sea. Half the time, they never made it.


And yes, even when it was a great power, the Russian navy was never designed to project surface naval power far from its shores.

Granted, I'm sure the situation has changed somewhat with the development of Russian economic power but let's fact it, the Russian navy and army had more than 15 years to deteriorate and its roll was never comparable to the American or British navies. So as Bateman ask..so what if the Russian navy goes boating with Hugo Chavez's navy this coming November. I certainly don't think this warrants any serious American response.

Posted by: Roger H. Werner | September 9, 2008 11:32 PM

I dont think the risk is the russian navy steaming in to shell Miami (though it would be an interesting experiment) but rather to be seen as a signal that Russia is answering tit for tat. I doubt that the russians are scared to death about the fleetpresence in the Black Sea either, the term sitting ducks leap to mind, since they seem to operate without air cover.

The question is at what level the alarmbells are going to ring. Now that it seems that McCain is going to win and the new pro-armageddon foreign policy is clicking into place, we can expect US bases in Georgia. How are the US going to react to russian bases in Cuba in retaliation? And as the "missile shield" goes up in Poland, how are you going to react to missilebases in Venezuela? Etc.

But, I guess we are all Georgians now, so it doesnt matter...?

Posted by: fnord | September 10, 2008 7:20 AM

26 high-quality submarines still working do not constitute a blue water navy but they are a problem.

Russia continues building submarines, both nuclear and diesel (their Kilo class diesels are outstanding).

Posted by: anonymous | September 10, 2008 12:12 PM

"It is a wee bit different in the bathtub of the Caribbean than the open ocean."

The North Atlantic in the winter is in no way a bathtub.

Posted by: Wmass | September 10, 2008 1:25 PM

Incredu-licious in so many ways...

First, the Russian navy exercises with Venezuela were announced a year ago, not in response to the Georgia mess.

Second, NATO has humanitarian aid ships docked in their backyard with enough cruise missiles to cause some concern. It was a show of force that now has less than 21 days to wrap up.

Third, the Russian navy is not as antiquated as he suggests. Many ships and subs have been refitted lately, and they have a shiny new line of 'stealth' ships as well.

Fourth, the above is irrelevant, because they have missiles/torpedos that US ships cannot counter. It doesn't matter if they're fired from a rowboat. It's the reason our wargames vs. Iran go so poorly.

Fifth, and it's reeediculous to continue really... This comment:

"What they did not have was the ability to "project" power onto the land in any appreciable way, then or now."

I am wondering if he means air/land deployment, beach landing capability or what. This might be "form following function" as the Russian navy was not made for invasions or assaults. The US Navy...

Finale, the days of great battles at sea between warships ended with WWII. The concept of symmetrical warfare, a fair fight, never really existed.

It seems they're both equally capable of destroying each other, or else it would have happened already.

Posted by: codepoet | September 10, 2008 2:30 PM

Codepoet,

Actually, you're a bit off the mark on a few points, but then so was I probably.

Chavez announced "joint training" (or in some versions, "bases") with the Russians a year ago. But then that was downplayed almost immediately. Then nothing. Silence. Until Chavez's minister announced the Russian Navy was coming, something which was apparently planned in July, of this year. The Russian MoD, for it's part, seems to have been caught a bit flat-footed by their enthusiastic Venezualan friend's announcement, as it was a couple of news pulses later before they confirmed. (Make of all of that what you will. You can see the link to the Russian MoD confirming that this was planned in July here: http://redbannernorthernfleet.blogspot.com/2008/09/peter-great-to-venezuela.html)

Second, of the three "NATO" (you mean "US" don't you? nobody else went there) ships that went to Georgia, one was the US Coast Guard cutter Dallas. The Dallas has a couple of 20mm cannon on the port and starboard, and a main gun up front, but that's all. No missiles. A second, the USS Mount Whitney, has two 25mm "Bushmaster" cannon (like the Dallas, with a range of about 2,500 meters), and other than that, can mount 4 .50 caliber machine-guns. That's all. The third, the USS McFaul, is indeed an Aegis class (DDG 51) missile destroyer. It has one "cell" of missiles, some of which are usually Tomahawk cruise missiles. But one ship is hardly something Russia, a nation with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and an entire fleet in the area, would be threatened by, would it?

Shall we agree (sub Kursk) to disagree (cruiser Murmansk) on the state of the Russian navy (Putin watches ballistic missile launch failures) as it (mini-sub rescued by Brits) currently (one Med/Atl deployment in 15 years) stands?

The "stealth" vessels, technically known as a "corvette" (although I think they're more "frigate" sized, currently consists of a whopping commissioned strength of...one. Yep, just one. (Although a second one is now floating, it likely won't be commissioned for about another year.) I don't see anything particularly "stealthy" about it other than some moderate design features which are pretty common nowadays.

In the end, I stand by my assessment. I really don't see any need for anyone to get worked up about the Russian Navy coming to the shallow waters off the coast of Venezuala.


Posted by: Bob Bateman | September 10, 2008 3:15 PM

Thank you for the measured response, and for pointing out an incomplete reasoning over NATO ships in Georgia.

I assumed we could include the fully armed US, Spanish, German and Polish NATO warships (at least 4) that are (were?) in the Black Sea. I don't think it was threatening to the Russians for the same reason you gave.

The USSR lost the (military industrial economic) Cold War, and it left the entire country in shambles, its navy notwithstanding.

But today, Russia seems to be in a better economic position with its resources (oil), the same for their friendly nations.

Facts is, Russia is rebuilding their navy, which has strength but not numbers. The weapons they develop are shopped to countries such as China and Venezuela.

I don't think the Russian's Caribbean trip is a military exercise, but a Chavez 'test drive' of tactical bombers and stealth ships. Nothing to worry about.

Posted by: codepoet | September 10, 2008 4:17 PM

You understate the Russian navy's problems, possibly by several orders of magnitude.

At its most energetic time, the Siviet Navy rarely ventured out into blue water, at least partly because Russia has no ports that communicate directly with deep water oceans. The Baltic and Black Sea Fleets, and the Arctic Ocean fleets had to pass numerous NATO controlled choke points just to get to NATO controlled seas that communicated with deep water, and the Far East Fleet had to pass at least one choke point watched by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force, and the Seventh Fleet. Since Russia, Soviet or not has never learned decent UNREP techniques, any blue water force the SOV's might dispatch was a sitting duck when it got low on fuel, which meant that after six to nine days at sea, they were glued to very slow oilers refuelling astern. They stayed home because they had few ports to refuel and replenish in, and no good way to do it at sea.

Now the entire Russian Black Sea Fleet may not even have a home after 2011, since they are about to be unwelcome in the Crimean ports, all of which belong to the Ukraine. Russia only maintains a miniscule naval contingent in the Black Sea anyway, but it hasn't a home if it loses Sevastople and Balaklava, which it is scheduled to do in two years. One of the things that really drives Putin and Medvedyev bananas is that the U. S., or NATO, might end up home porting warships in Sevastople and Balaklava to replace the Russians. Georgia was an effort to discourage that, and George is in no position to discourage back. Home Porting Western Allies ships, or EU Navy (OK, it doesn't exist yet, but its constituent states have navies, and so it sort of does) in Bulgaria, Romania, or Ukraine would be a serious embarassment to the remnants of the Tsarist and Soviet Navies.

Stay tuned, because the next president may not be so willing to handcuff himself in the Black Sea as George was.

As for Russia exercising with Venezuela, they might have to schedule a port visit in Halifax just to be able to get there and back.

Let them go play in the Carribean. Hope that they don't get hit by a Hurricaine in the process, since they really don't know how to deal with that kind of heavy weather.

Posted by: ceflynline@msn.com | September 10, 2008 5:21 PM

As long as we're talking about Ukraine, I have an idea - why not have an international conference and let Russia have the eastern provinces and the crimea, which are historically Russian, and primarily populated by Russians, in exchange for which the western 1/2 to 2/3 of today's Ukraine would become a full member of NATO. Otherwise, I'm just waiting for the report of Russian paratroopers seizing the port of Sevastopol or some such in the not too distant future - and then you have a real crisis in the Black Sea. Georgia was just a tactical dry run, although strategically it was a blunder for Russia.

I would worry much more, from a US perspective, if Russia was substantially building up its long-range bomber force than if it is sinking (pardon the pun) money into its rust-bucket navy. i mean, is there anyone there who even knows how to navigate a ship anymore. I think it's pretty much even money that ship doesn't make it to Venezuela.

Posted by: JH | September 10, 2008 6:22 PM

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