“Russia’s new maritime doctrine: adrift from reality?” –IISS

Russian Federation claimed territory. Disputed territory in light green.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has published a short look at Russia’s new maritime doctrine.

There are couple of things that caught my attention in the critique.

  • The Arctic, now comes first, replacing the Atlantic, and
  • No mention of China as a significant ally, while there is a reference to  partnerships and cooperation with India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others.

The doctrine does not overtly acknowledge a diminished role for Russia on the world stage, but these actions may reflect that realization.

The Arctic: 

“In terms of the regional priorities of Russian naval activities, there is a reordering compared to 2015, with the Atlantic dropping from first to third on the list. The first priority is now the Arctic, with the promise of strengthened capabilities for the Northern and Pacific fleets in response to threats in the region.”

Emphasis on the Atlantic is inherently offensive, because they have to transit long distances through hostile waters to have an impact there. After all Russia has no Atlantic coast line. Access from either the Baltic or Black Sea looks increasing problematic.

Emphasis on the Arctic is primarily defensive. The Arctic is critical to Russia’s economy.  It is their front door. It is their longest border. Its Northern Sea Route is the strongest link between more populous industrialized European Russia and the sparsely populated Russian Far East, and with increasingly open water, the Arctic coast is increasingly exposed.

The Doctrine points out “…the ‘global naval ambitions’ of the United States, NATO activities close to Russia and at sea, an increase in foreign naval presence in the Arctic and efforts to weaken Russia’s control of the Northern Sea Route as the key challenges.” 

The US has made it clear it would like to conduct “Freedom of Navigation” exercises along the Northern Sea Route (which would require Coast Guard icebreakers). Russia has seen her control of the Northern Sea Route as a money maker and they are not eager to see it turned into open sea.

Notably China’s national interest is in opening the route to international traffic.

China: 

“…potential cooperation with China… is strikingly absent from the new doctrine.”

This and upgrades to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, along with improvements to the Northern Sea Route, may reflect a realization that perhaps China will not always be a friend, and ultimately China may turn on them.

A Second Analysis: 

There is a much more detailed analysis of the document here, done by Indian authors. This second analysis seems to confirm greater emphasis on the Arctic and discomfort with the isolation of the Russia’s eastern regions.

“In the 2015 doctrine, the Arctic was at second place after the Atlantic, which has been positioned at third place in the 2022 doctrine. Though the present sequencing may be in no specific order, it may also point to the priority of focus, as the Artic has found detailed mention as indicated earlier. It is evident that Russia recognises the Arctic not only as an area for global economic competition but as an area of military competition as well. The 21 focus areas enunciated for the Arctic region indicate a more positive and perhaps even aggressive approach as they:

—Posit Russia in the lead position in many areas of common regional interest.

—Espouse nuances of control, especially regarding foreign presence and shipping (particularly naval activities).

—Lay emphasis on protection of Russian sovereignty, especially resources.

—Indicate a growing focus on developing the requisite capacity and capability.”

When the Russian Empire fought the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), Russia was a great power and appeared to have many advantages, but its logistical links with its Asian holdings were weak. Apparently this is still the case.

Placement of the Pacific at second place is, perhaps, indicative of the Russian approach to the ‘Indo-Pacific’, enunciated in 2012 by the Russian president as the ‘pivot to Asia’, which was aimed at promoting modernisation of the economy. The term ‘pivot to Asia’ is, perhaps, reflective of the belief that “Russia, like China, still strongly opposes the idea of the Indo-Pacific”.
However, Russia will engage nations with which it has long standing strategic relations, like India. Hence, the 2022 doctrine retains the term ‘Asia-Pacific’, and focuses on “overcoming the economic and infrastructural isolation of the Far East from the industrialized regions of the Russian Federation, establishing sustainable sea (river), air and rail links with cities and towns in Siberia and the European part of the Russian Federation, including the development of the Northern Sea Route: This focus apparently seeks to strengthen the ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, which was termed as a failure, especially due to “Russia’s lack of a comprehensive approach to overcoming the social and economic hardships faced by its least developed regions, namely Siberia and the country’s Far East”.

No Longer a Great Power: 

Despite its ambitions, Russia is not the Soviet Union and is no longer a Great Power. It is a middle weight power with a lot of nuclear weapons, many of which are aging. Potential military power is largely based on economic power, and Russia’s GDP is similar to that of Canada, Italy, Brazil, or South Korea. Even adjusted for “Purchase Power Parity (PPP),” Russia is only number six, behind China, the US, India, Japan, and Germany. In terms of PPP Russia’s GDP is only 14.5% that of China and 17.2% that of the US. Differences are even greater in terms of nominal GDP, 9.2% that of China and 7.2% that of the US.

As systems built during the Soviet era wear out and become increasingly obsolete, Russia’s military power is rapidly fading.

This is not to say that, during a war, Russia would not send at least some submarines into the Atlantic, but they cannot realistically deny the US and NATO control of the North Atlantic. Their SSNs will likely be more more concerned with protecting their SSBNs.

Russian and Soviet Naval thinking has long had an emphasis on coastal defense, that we saw in construction of a large fleet of torpedo and missile boats, corvettes, and light frigates. We still see that in the Karakut and Buyan-M class corvettes, and the retention of large numbers of Soviet era corvettes and light frigates, while they have not laid down a single carrier, cruiser, or destroyer since the fall of the Soviet Union. Even their frigates are smaller than their European counterparts.

Russia, it seems, is desparately trying to maintain its image as a great power, hoping no one, particularly China, will notice, but it simply does not have the means.

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