Fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval activities for the period until 2030
by Richard Connolly 1
Russian Studies Series 02/2019
When Vladimir Putin approved the “Fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval activities for the period until 2030” (henceforth, the “naval policy”) in July 2017, it represented a significant stage in the evolution of the role of the sea in Russian strategic thinking.2 Not only does it contain a number of modifications to the previous statement of naval policy, which had been approved in 2012, reflecting changes both in the shifting external environment faced by policy-makers in Russia and in the domestic financial and technological capabilities that inform Russian strategic thinking, but it has also emerged two years after the approval of an updated Maritime Doctrine. This Maritime Doctrine supplies both a coherent and robust statement of Russia’s interests in the maritime sphere, and the wider context in which the naval policy should be interpreted.3 Consequently, the 2017 naval policy yields important insights into the role envisaged for naval forces in advancing both the interests and objectives described in the 2015 maritime doctrine, and wider state policy.
Not that the interested reader would know this upon appraising much of the analytical commentary on the naval strategy. Observers, both in Russia and elsewhere, have tended to focus on several passages of the text that revealed an apparent gap between Russia’s strategic aspirations and the practical capabilities of the modern Russian navy. For some, this apparent lack of realism suggested that the policy might have represented not a coherent and deliberate statement of the role of the navy in Russian strategy, but was instead merely a contrivance to support lobbying efforts by the Admiralty in the run up to the approval of the state armaments programme 2018-2027. This focus on the apparent weaknesses of Russia’s naval capabilities is understandable. After all, recent Russian efforts to modernize its naval forces have encountered serious and ongoing challenges. And these obstacles have exerted a negative impact on the ability of the Russian navy to perform functions that most Western naval planners might expect a globally significant fleet to perform.
But while there is some truth in this line of criticism, it misses some important details contained in what is actually a nuanced, rich and revealing document. While a desire to shape the objectives of the new state armaments programme may well have dictated the timing of the document’s appearance, its content is likely to represent a much more deliberate and considered expression of Russian strategic thinking. Indeed, as will be shown throughout this review, perhaps the most important feature of the naval policy is not that it envisages an unfeasibly ambitious plan to contest the world’s oceans, but instead that it defines a realistic mission for the navy. This mission is based on a largely sober analysis of means and ends. It also shows that Russian policy-makers view the navy as a uniquely flexible instrument that can be deployed in conjunction with other capabilities at the disposal of the Russian state to meet its numerous objectives. That Russia might be in position to use its navy in such a way despite the problems that have beset its shipbuilding industries is due to technological advances, most notably in long-range precision missiles. These new capabilities mean that in some important areas, the lines between green and blue water navies are increasingly blurred, and, as a result, the Russian navy is emerging as a force that can perform a wider range of missions than it could in the past, and all without building large ocean-going surface vessels.
The strategic context
The naval policy is just one component in a wider effort by Moscow to define Russia’s strategic course. Therefore, and as explicitly stated at the outset of the naval policy, it should be read as part of, and in conjunction with, other strategic planning documents, including “the National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation … as well as the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation”.4 These documents have evolved together over the past decade and present a vision of a rapidly changing and threatening global and domestic environment. Collectively, they provide the context within which to view the changing role of sea power in Russian thinking.
Several broad points stand out. First, the sense of encirclement by powerful states is clear, with the USA and its allies explicitly designated as the most threatening states. Second, competition between states across the political and economic sphere is expected to intensify. This will be a feature of the multipolar world that Russian policy-makers see as emerging as the relative power of the US-led alliance declines. Third, much of this competition is likely to exist in either geographic areas of particular importance to Russia, including the Arctic, the Middle East, and on Russia’s western borders, or in spheres of the global economy in which Russia is a key actor, especially natural resources. Indeed, the threats defined in these documents are as much geoeconomic as they are geopolitical in nature. Fourth, Russia’s existing domestic capabilities are seen as insufficient to deal with these myriad challenges. As a result, strategic planning is viewed as a crucial step in mobilising domestic resources to develop the capabilities – social, economic and political – required to survive and even flourish in an increasingly competitive and multipolar world order.
The naval policy restates these now familiar themes in a maritime context. The policy refers to “[l]eading world powers, possessing significant naval capabilities and an extensive network of military installations, [continuing] to build up their naval presence in…vital areas of the World Ocean, including waters adjacent to the territory of the Russian Federation”. 5 It states that this situation will only deteriorate, as a period of instability, “characterized by increased global competition, rivalry between the world’s centers of power, [and] instability of political and economic processes taking place against a backdrop of escalation in international relations and energized activity of the transnational terrorist groups”.6 The statement that the USA and its allies aspire to dominate the world’s oceans, including the Arctic, by achieving “overwhelming superiority” of naval forces completes a lugubrious assessment of the international order.7
Responding to these threats, both in the realm of the navy and more generally, will, according to the policy, require Russia to develop and deploy a wide range of capabilities, encompassing economic, technological, informational, political-diplomatic and legal.8 In short, a full-spectrum response is seen as necessary to ensure that Russia will remain globally competitive and, ultimately, maintain its sovereignty. Nevertheless, while other non-military components of statecraft are considered to be important, the military is central to the Russian policy elite’s response to an uncertain and threatening world.
As one senior NATO representative has pointed out, the past decade or so has seen the “deliberate, strategic recoupling of the military to Russia’s core geo-strategic interests”, with the military experience gained in Ukraine and Syria revealing a clear desire to generate “operational and strategic flexibility to create as many military options as possible for its security, while simultaneously denying its opponents the same flexibility”.9 It is this preference for operational and strategic flexibility in the military sphere that is most evident in the naval policy. For Stephen Covington, this “recoupling” represents a return to Soviet-era thinking on the role of the military in achieving national strategic goals.
This is certainly evident in the naval policy, and may be at least partially explained by the fact that, according to Ilya Kramnik, a Russian military journalist, one of the most influential personalities involved in drafting the document was Admiral Igor Kasatonov, a former commander of the Black Sea fleet (1991-92) and deputy commander of the Russian navy (1992-1999).10 Kasatonov is, according to Kramnik, a key advisor to Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov and to Vladimir Putin on naval issues. Kasatonov was considered to be one of the brightest commanders in the Soviet navy and remains an influential commentator on naval policy. His views do not always correspond with what passes as conventional wisdom in Russia: he has stated publically, for instance, the importance of building so-called “clean” aircraft carriers – i.e. carriers built for the express purpose of deploying aircraft rather than the multi-mission type of carrier embodied in the Admiral Kuznetsov, which carries an array of offensive missiles in addition to its air wing.
Russia’s Naval Policy to 2030
Many of the threats and objectives outlined in the naval policy are restatements of those found in previous documents. Thus, the naval policy reiterates the need for Russia to remain a “great sea power”, because a strong navy is required to secure Russia’s position as a leading power in a multipolar order.11 Geoeconomic interests in the sea are also emphasised, especially in the Arctic and the Middle East, and Russia’s exclusive economic zone, especially in the Caspian and Azov seas.12 This is likely to rise in future as an increasing volume of Russian oil, gas and agricultural products is transported by sea. Crucially, the navy’s importance as a tool in ensuring strategic nuclear deterrence is again given primacy.13 However, as discussed below, while previous naval policy statements focused on strategic nuclear deterrence, the new naval policy brings conventional deterrence to the fore. Finally, continued reference is made to the importance of the navy as a tool for cooperation, such as participation in joint anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Guinea.14 Regular joint exercises with Indian and Chinese naval forces might also be included under this heading.
The continued reference to these issues does not mean that they are unimportant. Indeed, the very fact that different iterations of naval policy exhibit considerable continuity demonstrates a coherent view of the role of the sea in Russian thinking. Despite the hollowing out of naval and maritime capabilities since the early 1990s, Russia evidently still considers itself a major maritime power. And policy-makers recognise the importance of revitalising these capabilities.15 The emergence of a system of political economy based on the export of natural resources has made the sea even more important to Russia than ever. Consequently, the Arctic and other natural resource-rich regions are maritime zones of strategic importance to Russia, as is the ability to ensure that these resources are safely transported to foreign markets.
Nevertheless, it is where the new policy differs from previous iterations that the important evolution of Russian thinking can be detected. The key differences are found in: (1) how the main maritime threats to Russia are defined; and (2) the role that is envisaged for the navy in responding to these threats.
The sense of immediate threat from traditional state-based military sources is much more pronounced in the 2017 naval policy than in previous versions. The list of threats contained in the 2012 naval policy was broad in scope, encompassing unresolved legal disputes, the dangers of drug trafficking and piracy, in addition to more traditional state-based military threats. By contrast, the 2017 policy is shorter and sharper, focusing on the prospect of “negative changes in the international situation” leading to “immediate threats to the national security of the Russian Federation”.16 Specific threats are identified in the form of “strategic high-precision sea-based non-nuclear weapons systems, as well as sea-based ballistic missile defense systems by foreign states in the waters adjacent to the territory of the Russian Federation”.17 Additionally, the U.S Prompt Global Strike initiative is explicitly mentioned as posing “a new challenge to international security and directly threatens military security of the Russian Federation”.18
Given the nature of the threats identified in Russia’s strategic planning documents, it is perhaps natural that the most important passages in the naval policy are devoted to describing the navy’s role in responding to these threats. Thus, the main objective for the state is the maintenance of “naval capabilities at a level that guarantees deterrence of aggression against the Russian Federation from the [sea], and the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on any potential adversary”.19 But whereas previous versions emphasised the strategic nuclear strike capabilities of Russia’s submarine-based missile forces (SSBNs), the 2017 policy offers a much broader and consequently more flexible statement of the navy’s capabilities. Thus, we are told, a priority task is to maintain “the naval capability to strike ground targets of a potential enemy with conventional as well as nuclear weapons”.20 By possessing strategic nuclear and conventional forces, the navy, it is stated, “is one of the most effective instruments of strategic (nuclear and non-nuclear) deterrence, including preventing ‘global strike.’”21
This greater flexibility afforded to the navy is primarily due to the large-scale development and deployment of long-range precision-guided missiles since 2010.22 This is because the possession of such weapons, with “the ability to use them in different ways” gives the navy a “qualitatively new objective: to destroy the “enemy's military and economic potential by striking its vital facilities from the sea” and, as a result, to ensure the “deterrence of large-scale military action against the Russian Federation”.23 This represents an important change in Russian thinking on the role of the navy. Traditional naval objectives, such as sea denial or sea control, are given less attention than the “fleet on shore” capabilities described in the naval policy. This suggests that caution should be exercised in interpreting the large-scale deployment of long-range missiles on naval platforms as an attempt to build an A2/AD “bubble”. The naval policy indicates that a less passive role is envisaged for Russia’s new missile capabilities.
It is this new “readiness and determination to use force through the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons”, as well as a desire to “develop conventional naval force task groups with capabilities to fulfill strategic non-nuclear deterrence missions” that represents the most significant departure from previous naval policies.24 Although Russia’s naval modernisation and rearmament programme has suffered a number of delays and setbacks, not least in the development and deployment of new large surface vessels, the successful deployment of long-range missile systems – principally the Kalibr family of ship- and submarine-launched cruise missiles – has significantly boosted the military capability of the Russian navy.
By “Kalibrising” modernised Soviet-era surface ships (e.g. several Udaloy-class destroyers) and submarines (e.g. Antei II-class attack submarines), as well as newly-built vessels, ranging from the smaller Vasily Bykov-class patrol ships to the larger Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates and Yasen M-class multipurpose attack submarines, the Russian navy today possesses an unprecedented ability to undertake non-strategic nuclear and conventional strikes on land targets.25 Indeed, it is instructive that even Gorshkov’s colossal Soviet-era fleet never possessed the same ability to conduct the range of “fleet on shore” operations that today’s “mosquito” navy is able to carry out today.26 These capabilities are expected to grow considerably over the next decade, with the document stating that long-range missiles will be deployed in greater quantities before 2025, and that “hypersonic missiles and various unmanned autonomous systems” should be deployed in the second half of the decade.27
While the deployment of these systems has been well documented by Western analysts, not least because of their use in Syria, the central role that they now play in Russia’s naval doctrine – which provides the structural, conceptual basis for their use – is less noted. But they are of vital importance because these new capabilities give the Russian navy a much more flexible range of tools at its disposal, allowing it to contribute to achieving wider state policy objectives in a variety of ways, both in peacetime and in war. This new-found flexibility is no happy accident. Instead, the development and deployment of long-range missiles on naval platforms appears as a conscious and integral part of Russian thinking on how to use most effectively the military to achieve its strategic objectives. Russian policy-makers understand the implications of this development; it is vital that NATO policy-makers do, too.
The second key development in the 2017 naval policy is the explicit inclusion of the Federal Security Service (FSB) as a key organisation in ensuring the security of Russia’s maritime borders, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and its marine resources.28 The FSB’s responsibilities were not mentioned in the previous naval policy. Here, however, the FSB, to which the coast guard is subordinated, is tasked with “protecting the internal waters, territorial seas, the exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf of the Russian Federation”. 29 In many respects, the FSB already performed these duties and so the naval policy can be seen as merely official confirmation of this. Recent activity conducted by FSB maritime forces, including in the Sea of Azov, suggest that the delineation of the FSB’s duties in the naval policy may have represented a subtle signal that it would be used more actively in the pursuit of Russian state objectives.
Again, an enhanced role for the FSB could well increase the flexibility of the tools available to policy-makers in the maritime domain. After all, the use of paramilitary forces to exert pressure, for instance, on maritime trade in areas close to Russia may prove an attractive alternative to the deployment of larger naval vessels, primarily because it would enable Russian forces to test the responses of adversaries without deploying regular military units. Where ambiguity over purpose is sought by policy-makers, the FSB may very well prove to the most appropriate force to secure maritime objectives. It may prove especially useful in contested seas, such as around Crimea and the Sea of Azov, or in areas where contestation may emerge in the future, such as the Caspian Sea or the Arctic. This is hinted in the passage where, describing the key indicators of the effectiveness of state naval policy, the authors refer to “the capability of the agencies of the Federal Security Service to respond promptly to changes in the situation in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf of the Russian Federation”.30
Criticism of the naval policy in Russia
For the most part, the naval policy was not well received by Russian commentators. Alexei Nikolskii, the respected military correspondent for Vedomosti, argued that the policy was “permeated with nostalgia”, set “excessively ambitious goals”, and was “largely unrealistic”.31 Mikhail Barabanov, from the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), dismissed the policy as an instrument used by the admiralty in the “struggle for resources” that was taking place as priorities for the GPV 2027 were being set. The lofty aims outlined in the policy, it was suggested, were simply included to justify the allocation of greater financial resources to the navy. These views were echoed by Ilya Kramnik who used the policy’s stated objective of building a new aircraft carrier stated as an example of the lack of realism contained in the document.32
Particular scepticism was directed at the passage in the policy which states that Russia should strive to “secure its position as the second most combat capable Navy in the world”.33 Clearly parity with the US is unrealistic. But to many observers, the suggestion that the Russian navy should be considered comparable to the Chinese navy, which has undergone rapid expansion and modernisation over the past two decades, is also unrealistic, not least because Russian shipbuilders have only managed to deliver a small number of frigates to the navy over the past two decades.
But such criticism only holds if the aspirations stated in the naval policy are to deploy an ocean-going fleet designed to carry out traditional sea control and sea denial operations. While such ambitions are stated in the policy, it is also true that much greater emphasis is placed on developing a navy that can achieve objectives like the destruction of targets on enemy territory, or what Gorshkov would have termed “fleet on shore” operations. For this, a larger number of smaller ships equipped with long-range missiles is sufficient. Indeed, even when compared with China, the Russian navy’s capacity to launch long-range precision missiles against naval and ground targets is probably greater, and is likely to rise even further over the next few years.
This point demonstrates how the traditional distinction between green- and blue-water fleets is becoming more blurred due to the development and large-scale deployment of long-range missiles. Thus, for all the difficulties encountered by the Russian navy in procuring large surface vessels, the combination of refitted Soviet-era vessels and new, smaller vessels gives the navy the unprecedented potential to conduct long-range strikes on naval and ground targets. This means that the navy’s potency as a military and political tool is much enhanced.
The Russian naval policy that was approved in 2017 is a more significant document than most analysis has allowed. It is coherent in so far as it corresponds with the stated strategic objectives laid out in other planning documents. And it is, for the most part, realistic, primarily because the means to achieve many of its stated objectives are contingent on the deployment of long-range missile systems rather the construction of large surface platforms. The naval policy is also revealing because of what it says about the role envisaged for the navy in modern warfare. The greater flexibility achieved through the deployment of long-range precision missiles, and also through the integration of FSB naval capabilities, means that Russia’s naval forces are equipped to meet a much wider range of contingencies than it was a decade ago. This means the navy – equipped with what the former deputy prime minister for the defence industry, Dmitri Rogozin, called “muscular ships” (myshechnyye korabli) – is likely to be an increasingly flexible and useful component of Russia’s military and political toolkit in the years to come.
1(back) Director of the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham.
2(back) Ukaz Prezidenta Rossiyskoy Federatsii ot 20.07.2017 № 327 Ob utverzhdenii Osnov gosudarstvennoy politiki Rossiyskoy Federatsii v oblasti voyenno-morskoy deyatel'nosti na period do 2030 goda (Decree of the President of the Russian Federation of 20 July 2017 № 327 on approval of the fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval activities for the period until 2030), Official Website of Law Ministry, 20 July 2017, http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001201707200015?index=0&r...
3(back) Morskaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii (Maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation), 2015. http://www.scrf.gov.ru/documents/18/34.html For a review of this document, see R. Connolly, “Towards a Dual Fleet? The Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation and the Modernisation of Russian Naval Capabilities”, NDC Russian Studies, 02/17, June 2017, http://www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=517
4(back) Naval Policy, 2017 (NP) §5.
5(back) NP §21.
6(back) NP §23.
7(back) NP §24a.
8(back) NP §8b.
9(back) S. Covington, The culture of strategic thought behind Russia’s modern approaches to warfare, Harvard University Belfer Centre Paper, 2016. p.40.
11(back) NP §§ 52-53.
12(back) NP §29b.
13(back) NP Section IV.
14(back) NP § 27d.
15(back) NP §§ 39-46.
16(back) NP § 25 and §25a.
17(back) NP § 25b.
18(back) NP § 31-32.
19(back) NP § 28a.
20(back) NP § 29b.
21(back) NP §32.
22(back) R. McDermott and T. Bukkvoll, “Tools of future wars—Russia is entering the precision-strike regime”, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Vol. 31, No.2, 2018, pp.191-213.
23(back) NP §33.
24(back) NP §37 & §42b.
25(back) NP §30-b, §§33-34, and §38-g.
26(back) As pointed out in §43 “[t]he primary armament of the undersea, surface and coastal forces of the Navy until 2025 will be long-range high-precision cruise missiles”. Even small patrol ships are being equipped with these missiles.
27(back) NP §44.
28(back) NP §14.
29(back) NP §15.
30(back) NP §51e.
31(back) A. Nikolskii, “Novaya voyenno-morskaya doktrina Rossii stavit chrezmernyye tseli”, (Russia’s new naval doctrine sets unrealistic targets), Vedomosti, 23 July 2017, https://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2017/07/24/725414-voenno-morskaya-doktrina
32(back) See Kramnik, 2017. Not all criticism was directed at the apparently excessive ambitions contained in the document: several commentators suggested that the policy was not ambitious enough. See, for example: VPK.ru “Svistat' vsekh na verf'” (Everybody is whistling at the shipyard) Voyenno-promyshlennyy kur'yer, 11 October 2017, https://vpk.name/news/194622_svistat_vseh_na_verf.html and D. Abramov and A. Shishkin, “Rossiyskiy VMF prevrashchayetsya vo ‘flot beregovoy oborony’” (The Russian navy is turning into a coastal defence fleet), Vzglad, 12 September 2017, https://vz.ru/society/2017/12/4/897894.html
33(back) NP §39.