Russia’s strategy for the development of marine activities to 2030
Russian Studies Series 7/19
by Richard Connolly 1
Review of Russia’s strategy for the development of marine activities to 2030
At the end of August 2019, Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, approved a new Strategy for the Development of Russia’s maritime activities up to 2030 (hereafter the Strategy). 2 This has generated very little attention in Russia or abroad. Indeed, it appears hardly to have been noticed: the only evidence of the Strategy being approved has been in a bland official press release circulated through official media websites.3 To some degree, this is understandable: the Strategy is not intended to alter the strategic aims and objectives stated in the maritime doctrine, approved by President Putin in 2015. Instead, the function of the Strategy is to chart a course for the attainment of those objectives contained within the 2015 doctrine. It is this emphasis on implementation rather than setting strategic objectives that explains why the prime minister’s, rather than the president’s, signature is on the document.
The Strategy performs two key functions. First, it contains a bold statement of where the Russian government perceives the principal weaknesses and obstacles to reaching the strategic objectives stated in the maritime doctrine of 2015 and, by extension, the state naval policy approved in 2017. Second, it includes a list of observable indicators that are to be used by the Russian government to measure progress in implementing its strategy.
The Strategy merits NATO’s attention, therefore, because of the light it sheds on both the evolution of Russian strategic planning writ large, and how Moscow understands the problems in strategic planning, and the gaps between plans and their implementation. With NATO and its member states increasingly aware of Russia’s growing presence at sea – from the Sea of Azov to the North Atlantic and beyond – and what that may mean for the alliance, it is worth reflecting on both Moscow’s maritime priorities and elements of continuity and change in Moscow’s official views.
The maritime doctrine of 2015: the importance of seas closer to home
The 2015 maritime doctrine was an ambitious and broad-ranging document.4 It highlighted the broad range of economic, political and military interests that Russia has in the sea. While the scope of these stated interests is global – extending from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean – a clear sense of the Russian leadership’s priorities is evident throughout the doctrine.5
As with other official security and foreign policy strategies published over the past decade, much of the political and military threat to Russia is presented as originating from the western direction, especially near the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Equally, the Arctic region is identified as an area where Russia has considerable economic and political interests, but also where the potential for military conflict in the future is high. Nevertheless, given the oft-stated Russian fear of the ubiquitous threat posed by U.S. expeditionary forces, it should come as no surprise that the Pacific Fleet is now beginning to display capabilities that were previously present in other fleets. The imminent delivery of the first of planned two Gremyashchiy-class corvettes, as well as the first of six Varshavyanka-class submarines, will add long-range Kalibr missile strike capabilities that were previously absent.6 Perhaps the most important message conveyed is that Russia’s core maritime interests are defined as both of central importance to the country’s overall strategic objectives, and as existing close to its shores (in strategic terms).
The state naval policy of 2017: the rising importance of non-nuclear strategic deterrence
The subsequent publication of the latest iteration of the state naval policy in 2017 reinforced the messages communicated in the 2015 maritime doctrine.7 The mission for the Russian navy is based on an essentially sober analysis of means and ends that again focuses attention on the seas close to Russia’s shores.8 The navy is presented as a distinctively flexible instrument of state policy. This flexibility, it is argued, was significantly enhanced through the development and deployment of long-range precision missiles on Russian naval vessels. 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. One of the most important such missions is that of strategic deterrence, both of a nuclear and conventional kind. Other desired and emerging capabilities mentioned include the integration of Federal Security Services (FSB) naval capabilities – which became particularly relevant in the Sea of Azov.
The strategy for the development of maritime activities
The recently-approved maritime Strategy does not contain a reformulation of the objectives stated in both the maritime doctrine and the naval strategy. From this it can be inferred that the Russian leadership’s assessment of the importance of the sea to the country’s overall strategy remains essentially unchanged, as can the priority assigned to the different geographic directions. But the importance of the navy in contributing towards strategic deterrence, especially conventional deterrence, is reemphasized.9
Most importantly, the 2019 update contains a frank assessment of the principal obstacles to achieving the objectives stated in the 2015 maritime doctrine, and, by extension, the 2017 state naval policy. These obstacles are listed under seven broad categories: sea transport and the nuclear fleet; fishing and aquaculture; the exploitation of marine mineral and energy resources; marine scientific research; naval activities; shipbuilding; and maritime safety. Measures to address these weaknesses are then presented later in the document, along with indicators to measure progress in addressing these deficiencies. It is worth briefly highlighting the main points made in respect to each of these categories.
1. Sea transport and the nuclear fleet
The poor state of Russia’s commercial fleet is identified as a serious problem. The Strategy bemoans the “small proportion of vessels flying the State flag of the Russian Federation in the tonnage of the global merchant fleet”, as well as the “outdated” fleet of nuclear-powered support vessels, such as icebreakers (which are often seen as a Russian strength), and navigation support in the Arctic.10 The latter two weaknesses are especially significant due to the importance attached by the Russian authorities to the development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
2. Fishing and aquaculture
The theme of a dilapidated fleet is again emphasised, this time relating to the development of the fishing fleet.11 An ageing fleet is identified as a serious problem, with the pace of fleet modernization deemed to be “insufficient” to ensure a healthy presence of Russian built and flagged ships in both Russia’s special economic zones and in the world ocean. This problem is not just limited to the fleet; the poor state of sea ports and supporting infrastructure are also noted. Cumulatively, these weaknesses are stated as having led to the growth of economic losses from illicit trafficking of aquatic biological resources in Russian waters, and to threats to the quality of life of the Russian population.
3. Marine mineral and energy resources
Problems in exploiting the marine resource base are also highlighted. In a clear reference to the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies in 2014, the Strategy refers to the recent reduction in offshore exploration and drilling, citing “the introduction by several states of restrictions” on access to capital and technology used by Russian firms in exploration and development of deep-sea and off-shore Arctic deposits.12 The Strategy goes on to stress that Russia’s domestic scientific and industrial base is “insufficiently developed” to ensure the exploitation of marine resources in the absence of foreign technologies.
4. Marine scientific research
In addition to the deficiencies identified in the commercial exploitation of the seas around Russia, the “reduction of comprehensive scientific expeditionary research in key areas of the oceans” is mentioned. As with the commercial fleets, the scientific fleet and its supporting infrastructure is described as in need of modernisation.
5. Naval activities
A number of serious problems affecting the development of the navy are also highlighted. The first refers to the “continuing territorial claims on the Russian Federation”, which is, given the subsequent discussion of how to respond to such claims, almost certainly a reference to the Sea of Azov. Second, the “imperfection of legislation” pertaining to the mobilisation of maritime vessels during wartime or during special operations during peacetime is cited as a problem. Third, the level of FSB naval personnel, equipment and infrastructure is stated as “insufficient” for these forces to carry out missions in Russia’s coastal waters. A reference to the Sea of Azov is contained in Appendix 4 of the Strategy, indicating that this is likely to be a direct reference to the performance of FSB units during the low-intensity conflict with Ukrainian forces in the Sea of Azov in 2019. The desire to integrate FSB units as an instrument of naval policy was stated in both the maritime doctrine of 2015 and the state naval policy of 2017. Evidently, the authorities see this process as far from complete.
Shipbuilding, which has proven to be one of poorest performing areas of the defence industry during the post-Soviet period, is unsurprisingly cited as another major weakness.13 The list of highlighted problems is acknowledged and well-documented elsewhere, and includes: the failure to deliver naval vessels due to continued problems in replacing important components, such as power units, previously supplied from Ukraine and Germany among others; the low share of Russian shipyards in the total volume of orders placed by civilian users; the high cost of production; and the low quality of human capital and poor state of plans to improve it.14
7. Marine safety
Finally, wide ranging deficiencies are cited in the sphere of marine safety, including the “insufficient level of navigational and hydrographic support for maritime activities, primarily in the Arctic and Pacific regions”; the “insufficient density” of the coastal observational network used to map, assess and forecast changes in the weather and environment; and problems with an “insufficient level” of interaction and integration of emergency rescue units.15 In all cases, the dilapidated state of equipment is cited as a serious weakness. These problems are far from trivial, especially given the ambitions attached to the development of the NSR and the Arctic more widely.
Responsibility for the implementation of the Strategy
The implementation of the Strategy will be a complex exercise requiring the participation of – and close cooperation between – different government ministries, ranging from the Ministry of Defence and Federal Security Service (FSB) to the Ministry of Education and the Ministry for Agriculture.16 It will also involve many of Russia’s largest state-owned enterprises from the natural resources sectors (e.g. Rosneft, Gazprom, Novatek), the nuclear industry (Rosatom), and the shipping industry (Sovcomflot, United Shipbuilding Corporation).
Prospects for the development of maritime activities
A number of priority tasks are introduced to address the deficiencies identified in the Strategy. These essentially amount, however, to vague commitments for reversing the negative tendencies highlighted by its authors. For example, in nearly all the areas highlighted in the Strategy as being of most concern, “large-scale modernisation and technical re-equipment” are described as the most obvious solutions. This (once again) echoes the Russian leadership’s long- and oft-stated criticisms of the bureaucracy’s practice of drafting of such documents and the vagueness of terms used. Of course, it is also easier to declare such objectives than to effect them in practice: indeed, industrial constraints within the shipbuilding industry – both civilian and military – and within the Russian economy more widely, present the most obvious obstacles to the execution of the Strategy. This means that the effort to reinvigorate the shipbuilding industry in Russia is now of central importance to the Russian government in a way that it has not been for several decades.
Whether the current policy course in shipbuilding and maritime affairs more broadly is enough to overcome the serious weaknesses highlighted in the Strategy is another question. The trio of documents published over the past four years – the maritime doctrine, the naval policy, and the maritime strategy – collectively demonstrate in very clear terms how Russia’s interest in the sea, especially those closer to its borders, is growing. It is likely to grow even more in the future. But the three documents also reveal that the leadership would like to control, exploit and, where necessary, defend, those seas in a way that maximises Russian sovereignty and advances Russia’s broader strategic interests. To this end, clear objectives have been stated and substantial financial resources have been committed, both in the form of direct federal budget spending on the navy, the Arctic and other maritime infrastructure, and in the form of increased spending by large Russian state-owned enterprises like Rosneft and Novatek on locally-produced vessels and domestic infrastructure. It is far from clear, however, whether the funds assigned to the revitalisation of Russia’s maritime capabilities are sufficient, or, moreover, whether money alone will be enough in the absence of any serious institutional reforms to Russia’s maritime-industrial structure.
1(back) Dr Richard Connolly is Director of the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of the book Russia's Response to Sanctions: How Western Economic Statecraft is Reshaping Political Economy in Russia (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
2(back) Rasporyazheniyem Pravitel'stva Rossiyskoy Federatsiiot 30 avgusta 2019 g. № 1930-r, Strategiya razvitiya morskoy deyatel'nosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii do 2030 goda [Order of the Government of the Russian Federation of 30 August 2019 No 1930 on the Strategy for the development of maritime activities of the Russian Federation up to 2030] Official Website of the Russian Government, 30 August 2019, http://government.ru/docs/all/123507/
4(back) Security Council of the Russian Federation (2015) Morskaya doktrina Rossiyskoy Federatsii [Maritime doctrine of the Russian Federation], http://www.scrf.gov.ru/documents/18/34.html
5(back) The doctrine is examined in Richard Connolly, “Towards a Dual Fleet? The Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation and the Modernisation of Russian Naval Capabilities”, Russian Studies 02, NATO Defense College, 2017, http://www.ndc.nato.int/news/news.php?icode=1061
6(back) The slow development of the Pacific Fleet relative to Russia’s other fleets is discussed in Ilya Kramnik (2019) “Voyenno-morskiye vozmozhnosti Rossii na Tikhom okeane kriticheski otstayut ot potrebnostey” [Russia’s naval capabilities in the Pacific ocean are critically lower than what is needed] Russian International Affairs Council, 8 October 2019, at: https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/voenno-morskie-vozmozhnosti-rossii-na-tikhom-okeane-kriticheski-otstayut-ot-potrebnostey/#detail
7(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...
8(back) The naval policy is discussed in Richard Connolly, “Review of the ‘Fundamentals of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the field of naval activities for the period until 2030’”, Russian Studies 02, NATO Defense College, 2019, at: http://www.ndc.nato.int/research/research.php?icode=574
9(back) Strategy, p.10.
10(back) Strategy, p.3.
11(back) Strategy, pp.3-4.
12(back) Strategy, pp.4-5. The sanctions on Russia and the Russian policy response are discussed in greater detail in Richard Connolly, Russia’s Response to Sanctions, Cambridge University Press, 2018.
13(back) Strategy, pp. 5-6.
14(back) Maxim Shepavalenko, “Predvaritel'nyye itogi GPV-2020 v chasti voyennogo korablestroyeniya”,Eksport vooruzheniy, No.1, January-February 2018, pp.9-15.
15(back) Strategy, pp.6-7.
16(back) Strategy, Appendix 4.