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The war with Ukraine has been taking a heavy toll on all branches of Russia's armed forces. After the initial progress, the land forces got hopelessly bogged down in the Ukrainian defense and survived an inglorious retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv and Kharkiv. Despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, Russia’s aerospace forces failed to establish uncontested dominance in the sky. And yet the most painful and unexpected blow was delivered by the utter failure of the Russian Navy. While the end of the war is nowhere in sight, more and more experts begin to wonder: why does Russia need a navy in the first place? The Insider did its best to try and answer this question.

  • Main ally or main pitfall?

  • Putin's navy

  • The Ukrainian disaster

  • Zircons and Poseidons as the new Wunderwaffe

  • The navy's prospects

  • “Building a fleet that could defeat the US Navy is an insurmountable task”

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Some of the illustrations were created by the Midjourney neural network

Main ally or main pitfall?

“Russia has only two allies: its army and its navy.” The quote, widely attributed to Emperor Alexander III, has been repeated by President Vladimir Putin more than once. However, Alexander III never waged wars, while Putin’s approach to warfare makes one wonder whether Russia’s army and navy can compete with its roads and fools for the title of its two main troubles. For some reason, it was the navy that Putin referred to, trying to justify the attack on Ukraine. During the infamous rally-cum-concert at the Luzhniki Arena on March 18, 2022, he suddenly quoted Admiral Ushakov:

“As it so happens, the beginning of the operation coincided – by pure chance – with the anniversary of a remarkable Russian commander and canonized saint: Fyodor Ushakov, who did not lose a single battle in his entire stellar military career. As he once said, these calamities will end in Russia’s glory. It was true back then; it is true today, and it will remain true forever!”

In the first few months of the war, Putin lost more ships than Fyodor Ushakov lost in his lifetime. His failure was not unprecedented, as the entire history of Russia’s navy after Ushakov has been that of humiliating defeat. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), the Russian sailing fleet in the Black Sea had trouble countering the steam-driven armada of the English-French alliance. In the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the Russian navy, which took half a year to get to the theater of war from the Baltic Sea, suffered a devastating defeat from the Japanese in the Tsushima Strait. The word tsusima even received the metaphorical meaning of a horrendous catastrophe in Russian. During the First World War, Russian navy sailors were known for their active contribution to the Russian revolutions in February and October 1917, rather than battlefield valor.

During the Second World War, the Soviet Navy concentrated primarily on the enemy's land and air forces, abandoning attempts of securing domination in the maritime theaters of war. According to available data, “85% of naval artillery ammunition was used on shore-based targets, and up to 40% of naval aviation sorties were flown to launch strikes on enemy land forces”. Nevertheless, the navy lost close to 1,000 vessels and craft, by a range of estimates.

The post-WWII Soviet Union considered Europe as a potential theater of war, preparing for a large-scale conventional land war and a global nuclear conflict to boot. This explains opting for the accelerated development of nuclear-missile weapons and setting specific naval priorities with a focus on nuclear submarines.

The Soviet navy was supposed to control the missile-carrier deployment areas (so-called “bulwarks”) and counter the US carrier forces. Although the Soviet Union did not launch its large surface craft building programs until the 1970s, by the late 1980s, it availed itself of the world's largest fleet by numbers, secondary in power capacity only to the Americans.

Putin's navy

In the new economical, political, and military conditions after the collapse of the USSR, Russia inherited a navy that was going through hard times. The first few months of Vladimir Putin's presidency in 2000 are inseparably linked in the public eye with the sinking of the Kursk submarine. Putin's weird response, in particular, the sarcastic smirk with which he uttered “it sank” when asked in a US television broadcast about the causes of what happened, as well as his ineptitude in saving the surviving members of the crew who remained underwater after the explosion, appeared to be the rock bottom of the Russian Navy’s fighting capacity.

The situation did not take a turn for the better until the mid-2000s. The Navy received sizable funding under the State Armament Program in two installments: for periods from 2007 to 2015 and from 2011 to 2020. The increased defense spending ensured easy procurement of modern main propulsion machinery and re-opened access to certain areas of the world ocean.

In 2008, the Neustrashimy frigate came all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Gulf of Aden to fight Somalian pirates. Later on, an entire sea force was formed near the Horn of Africa to patrol the area and secure maritime navigation.

The modern history of the Russian Navy reached a turning point when the country interfered in the Syrian war

However, as early as in 2014, the conflict in Ukraine challenged the prospects of the Russian Navy’s development due to Western sanctions and severed ties with Ukrainian defense enterprises. Furthermore, much of the navy funding went into a single enterprise: the new strategic submarine (Project 955 Borei) and a ballistic missile to go with it (the Bulava).

The modern history of the Russian Navy reached a turning point when the country interfered in the Syrian war. In October 2015, the Caspian Flotilla fast attack craft launched 26 Kalibr cruise missiles at targets across Syria. More Kalibr strikes from surface craft and submarines followed in November and December of the same year, cementing the Navy's new purpose as a strike force against enemy land infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the Syrian campaign exposed the critical vulnerabilities of the naval forces, which failed to organize adequate supplies for the Russian land grouping in Syria (eventually, Russia had to buy Turkish bulk freighters and change their flag state) and were not too helpful in combat.

Putin wanted the Navy “to cement its position as the world’s second by fighting capacity” but its fleet composition does not match the title

The deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser (Project 1143.5), near the Syrian coast drew the attention of Western observers by its trail of thick black smoke, but its combat value was questionable at best. Over the three months from November 2016 to January 2017, the Kuznetsov lost two aircraft: a MiG-29K fighter and a Su-33 superiority fighter. The enemy had nothing to do with either crash, as both planes drowned after a failed landing when their arresting cables gave.

Instead of glorious victories, the Admiral Kuznetsov is best known for its trail of smoke, which is visible from space and makes the cruiser look like it has already been hit
Instead of glorious victories, the Admiral Kuznetsov is best known for its trail of smoke, which is visible from space and makes the cruiser look like it has already been hit

In 2017, Putin signed the decree “On establishing the foundations of the Russian Federation’s state policy in the area of its naval activities before 2030”. The document set an ambitious objective for the Navy: “to cement its position as the world’s second by fighting capacity”.

As of 2021, the Russian Navy was a motley of Soviet-era capital ships, hopelessly outdated in terms of fighting capacity, and newer corvettes, frigates, and fast attack craft matching the definition of a mosquito fleet.

Such a fleet composition falls short of the title of the world’s second “high seas fleet” no matter how you twist it – even if we dismiss the chronic repairs of the large surface craft. By Western estimates, Russia’s naval strength lies primarily in its submarines, but they are more of a strategic deterrence tool with very limited uses.

Notably, since the sinking of the Kursk in 2000, the Navy has not acquired any submarine rescue ships. Out of the six Project 21300 vessels up for construction, only one rescue ship has been floated out: the Igor Belousov, which joined the Pacific Navy.

The Ukrainian disaster

Few could have anticipated before the war in Ukraine that the Russian Navy would sustain the heaviest losses – moral, if not material.

By the beginning of the conflict, Russia’s Black Sea naval forces could boast six diesel-electric submarines, six large surface craft, including a missile cruiser, and 36 other ships and auxiliary vessels.

Under the pretext of drills, Russia pulled additional forces from its Northern, Baltic, and Pacific fleets to the Black and Mediterranean seas in January 2022. Six landing ships joined the Black Sea grouping, while the rest remained in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As of February 2022, the Ukrainian naval presence was limited to one frigate (under repair), 12 patrol and guard ships (including one corvette), and just over a dozen more ships, vessels, and motor boats.

Few could have anticipated before the war in Ukraine that the Russian Navy would sustain the heaviest losses

And yet, in a confrontation with a country that can barely list its navy as an armed forces branch, Russian sailors were unfortunate enough to lose the flagship of the Black Sea Navy: the Project 1164 Moskva guards missile cruiser.

In the case of the Moskva, the tragic outcome had been predetermined not only by the Ukrainian Naval Forces’ operation, brilliantly planned and executed with support from the West, but also by Russia’s chronic shortage of funding. Out of the three Project 1164 ships – the Moskva, the Varyag, and the Marshal Ustinov – only the last had its fire alarm system updated, while the Moskva’s modernization was postponed to cut costs.

There is a grim irony in the fact that, a few days before the war in Ukraine, the Black Sea Navy commander personally inspected the Moskva’s anti-missile defense. Still more ironic is the choice of vessel to salvage the sunken Moskva. Russia deployed the Kommuna, which had been launched in 1915 as the Volkhov and may well be the world’s oldest warship.

To rescue the Moskva, Russia had to deploy the Kommuna, a ship launched in 1915
To rescue the Moskva, Russia had to deploy the Kommuna, a ship launched in 1915

Apart from the Moskva, ten more Russian ships have sunk or sustained damage: the Project 1171 Saratov large landing ship, the Tsezar Kunikov, a similar vessel of Project 775 (back in active service), a Project 02510BK-16E high-speed assault boat, a Project 11770 Serna-class landing craft, the Spasatel Vasily Bekh rescue tug, and five Project 03160 Raptor-class patrol boats.

The Ukrainians reliably hit several landing and patrol boats using Turkish Bayraktar drones. In an attempt to strengthen the Navy's air defense, the Russian command began to place ground anti-aircraft missile systems right on the stern. In particular, the Spasatel Vasily Bekh tug was outfitted with a Tor-M2KM, which did little to protect it from American anti-ship Harpoon missiles (an attack that presumably owes its success to target handover from the P-8 Poseidon, a US patrol anti-ship aircraft).

The Navy’s officer corps has sustained losses too. Captain 1st Rank Andrey Paliy, Deputy Commander of the Black Sea Navy, died in the battle of Mariupol, along with Colonel Alexei Sharov, the commander of the 810th Marine Brigade of the Black Sea Navy.

Another two commanders reported dead were Captain 3rd Rank Alexander Chirva, the commander of the Tsezar Kunikov large landing craft (presumably killed in a strike or another incident in the port of Berdiansk), and Captain 2nd Rank Alexander Bobrov, the commander of a minesweeping division at Novorossiysk Naval Base.

In all, open sources have reported the deaths of 111 Russian navy sailors, including 12 officers, and 396 marines (of which 56 were officers).

The Snake Island saga demonstrated that, having lost the Moskva, navy commanders did not only abandon the idea of an amphibious assault near Odesa but also prioritized saving large warships while trying to cover logistics needs with small craft. However, they ultimately failed to cover the Russian grouping on Snake Island and had to evacuate the garrison.

At the end of the day, it turned out that Russia's Black Sea Navy electronic warfare and air defense capabilities fall behind those of the enemy, if we consider the anti-ship missiles supplied to Ukraine by its Western allies and, most importantly, the handover of intelligence on the movements of surface targets.

The primary combat value of the Russian Navy in the Ukrainian campaign is limited to Kalibr cruise missile strikes from surface carriers and submarines. Interestingly, there have been reports of surface craft firing submarine-launched missiles because they are out or almost out of the ship-launched variety.

Western officials presume that today's Black Sea Navy has been reduced to a coastal defense flotilla. Russian ships are reluctant to venture outside the naval base in Crimea, and the submarines have been transferred to Novorossiysk, lest anything should happen to them.

Zircons and Poseidons as the new Wunderwaffe

Vladimir Putin timed the signing of Russia’s new Naval Doctrine with Navy Day on July 31, 2022. For the first time since the Soviet Union, the doctrine mentions the possibility of building aircraft carriers and the expansion of naval activities in the Asia-Pacific and the Red Sea.

In his address at the Navy Day parade, Putin placed special emphasis on the Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missiles, which, according to him, are “unstoppable”. One would be hard-pressed to agree, however.

Firstly, a standard cruise missile, even a very fast one, does not match the definition of a “wonder weapon”. Not to mention that it has not been put into service yet.

Secondly, Russia has few carrier ships for the offshore maritime zone: the modernized Admiral Nakhimov heavy nuclear missile cruiser, three Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, the Project 1155M Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warfare cruiser, recently transformed into a frigate, a few other large anti-submarine ships, and another modernized heavy nuclear missile cruiser – the Pyotr Veliky.

Thirdly, and most importantly, hypersonic Zircons have nowhere to get their target indication from. The Russian Navy has no early warning and control aircraft. The Soviet Union tackled the issue by setting up the Legenda reconnaissance and targeting satellite system in orbit, equipping it with passive electronic and active radar reconnaissance units, but the system had broken down by the mid-2000s.

Zircons and Poseidons are meant to become the Russian Navy's “wonder weapon”
Zircons and Poseidons are meant to become the Russian Navy's “wonder weapon”

If we take Zircon's operational range to be 1,000 kilometers, the issue of reconnaissance for efficient target handover becomes pertinent. As far as one can tell, the Navy has no such tools available.

Russia's military and political leaders are assembling the Liana orbital grouping to replace Legenda. However, so far Liana has only one satellite for active radar reconnaissance.

Another Wunderwaffe for the Navy Putin loves to mention is the Poseidon nuclear missile (also known as 2M39). The Russian president made a point of presenting an animated demo on the capabilities of this nuclear drone in his 2018 address to the Federal Assembly.

It was during the war in Ukraine that Russia put into service its first possible carrier, the K-329 Belgorod, an Oscar II class nuclear submarine.

Experts are doubtful about Poseidon’s combat value because using the torpedo would most certainly trigger a global environmental disaster. The program itself has enjoyed ample funding since the 1980s and strongly resembles a long-term “milking” project because, despite the enormous investments in the submarine and extensive research and testing capabilities, we are yet to see an assembled torpedo.

While the Navy is still waiting for a wonder weapon, Russia is toying with the idea of re-arming its ships with non-strategic nuclear weapons. At the moment, neither the US nor the Russian navy has such weapons as a result of gentleman's agreements reached in the early 1990s. It remains unclear, however, how exactly this type of weapon could address the navy’s main weakness: the lack of modern reconnaissance and targeting means.

The navy's prospects

The Russian Navy's misfortunes in the Ukrainian war have triggered a debate about its future in Russia's military development. Even loyalist experts do not mince words: “The navy our country had before the war had questionable fighting capacity and combat value while taking up immense human and material resources.”

The attempts of patching up the most flagrant miscalculations are evident. For one, the crews of Black Sea warships and motor boats are outfitting their vessels with makeshift armor made from sandbags, ammunition cases, and even bulletproof vests hanging from the boards.

However, naval commanders are unlikely to redesign the Project 22800 Karakurt-class fast attack craft (pending commissioning) or forgo the evidently lacking Project 22160 patrol vessels. The same goes for addressing the lack of strike aviation in two of Russia’s four fleets (the Northern and the Pacific).

The war in Ukraine has proved Russia's navy incapable of meeting such purely naval objectives as establishing and maintaining superiority at sea, coastal blockade, or communications control, primarily due to a shortage of multi-purpose ships with integrated anti-missile and air defense capabilities.

So how does Russia's new Naval Doctrine address these challenges? In a most peculiar way.

The cock-and-bull stories about building aircraft carriers and expanding Russia's naval presence to the Indian and the Pacific oceans that are enshrined in the doctrine should be treated as lip service with a vast “milking” potential.

For one, Project 23650 Shtorm and Project 11430 Lamantin aircraft carriers are valued at $5-6.5 billion per vessel. Considering that the full-fledged operation of aircraft carriers requires a large support group, including supply and cover ships, port infrastructure, and air wing training and equipment, the costs would reach an exorbitant amount – tens of billions of dollars.

The cock-and-bull stories about building aircraft carriers and expanding Russia's naval presence to the Indian and the Pacific should be treated as lip service with a vast “milking” potential

The Kremlin is unlikely to succeed at creating a network of logistics elements necessary for a sustainable presence in the Indian or Pacific ocean. Thus, Sudan rejected Russia's request for hosting such a station during the war in Ukraine. Similarly, Russia has so far failed to negotiate the restoration of a naval base in Cam Rahn (Vietnam).

Even more urgent issues appear to be baffling, such as replacing or procuring foreign parts, components, and units for the German diesel engines of Project 21631 Buyan-M fast attack craft or electronic systems and devices for ships under construction.

In any case, it is hard to imagine a powerful navy without a commercial and fishing fleet of comparable size or a broad presence in the world ocean with economic activities and scientific research. The strategy of isolation and confrontation with developed countries is not very promising in that regard, which means that Russia stands no chance of creating an oceanic Navy for the objective reason of not needing one.

“Building a fleet that could defeat the US Navy is an insurmountable task”

Ivan Karpov, an independent navy expert

Assessing the Russian Navy’s contribution to the war in Ukraine is a tripartite task that involves the analysis of its naval aviation, marines, and fleet composition. The marine units have done better than the rest. Their fighting capacity is higher than that of land units, and they are good at coordinating their activities. They know how to cooperate with artillery and aviation with minimal losses. Naval aviation also did a good enough job, completing several challenging missions with high-precision weapons.

The pitfall the naval aviation shares with the rest of the armed forces is the shortage of modern and timely reconnaissance, caused, in turn, by the shortage of modern electronics in Russia's defense industry. Modern means of reconnaissance require a great many electronic components, which can't be compensated even by vast attack capabilities. The shortage of electronics hampers the development of surveillance and communication tools. This weakness is cross-cutting throughout Russia's armed forces.

On paper, the resources that the State Armament Program allotted to the Navy should have been sufficient for the purchase of numerous modern vessels; Russia should have a much larger fleet, and yet it doesn’t. One would think almost $65 billion could buy you a wide range of warships. However, I don't see the number of vessels that would match such costs.

Russia invested $65 billion in the construction of new ships, but this fleet is nowhere to be seen

The fleet composition of the Black Sea Navy is inadequate for the tasks at hand and has barely any resources to support land troops or launch an amphibious operation. One could try to make a landing, but it would result in the loss of two or three ships and their crews.

It is a hard decision, and no one has made it so far. Besides, there is something else: when you threaten with a landing but don’t proceed with it, it is the enemy’s problem; once you are ashore, however, you’ve got troops that need supplies and support. The enemy on the shore has the upper hand and better communications, so

a major assault would be a serious strain on the Navy. The only time Russia carried out a landing was at Snake Island, but neither party is attempting it anymore because no one can hold the island. Although Ukraine clearly lags behind Russia at sea, the Black Sea Navy lacks ships for efficient support of land forces or amphibious assaults.

There are no vessels of the required class in all of Russia, and even beyond it. Thus, as the US is grasping for ways to counter China in disputed archipelagos, the absence of a ship capable of supporting land troops also comes to the forefront. However, their problems are different, while Russia suffers from the low efficiency of its navy spending.

Russia suffers from the low efficiency of its navy spending

No one had anticipated such a big conflict, so Russia is now faced with political restraints: despite having a large army with a big fighting potential, Russia risks great losses if it goes all in, and big losses are no longer acceptable for political reasons. There is an unwritten social contract that Russia cannot sustain heavy losses without a dire need.

As for the Moskva, the cruiser was never modernized and remained unchanged since Leonid Brezhnev's days. The characteristics of its weapons suggest it could have fended off the attack, but much of its equipment was prone to malfunctioning and one of the defense systems was down for maintenance reasons, so what happened, happened.

The Moskva cruiser before and after the attack
The Moskva cruiser before and after the attack

From what we know, there may have been mistakes in the formation layout. Since the commanders were aware of the Moskva’s technical issues, they should have placed a younger and better-functioning ship between the cruiser and the shore for more chances of detecting a flying missile.

The Navy’s main predicament is that its only efficient means of land force support is the Kalibr missile, which is too costly and long-range for the task. Supporting troops ashore requires a high-precision, moderately-priced weapon with satellite navigation that can be manufactured domestically without foreign components.

A range of 150-200 kilometers sounds reasonable, but Russia does not have such a missile. The Navy uses either the Kalibr or expensive anti-ship missiles, launching weapons like the Oniks at land targets. Anti-ship missiles feature a complex targeting system, designed with moving targets in mind, so firing them at land targets is impractical but sometimes necessary because they are still the most widely available and the cheapest in the Navy.

Russian needs a new ship-building program, long-term and secured against revisions and adjustments at the slightest occasion, like funding gaps or a sudden urge to pursue a new project on a tight timeline. The program must be oriented toward long-term mass production.

Russia’s Navy is more of a vanity project

Russia needs to drive its naval expertise, and when the newly-appointed experts look into the matter, they will say: “NATO? What NATO? We must limit our presence in the Black and Baltic seas to a bare minimum and focus on the Pacific.” There, Russia faces the tangible threat of Japanese aggression fueled by Japan’s obsession with the Kuril Islands. Meanwhile, NATO has no quarrel with Russia except Ukraine.

I tend to agree that Russia's Navy is more of a vanity project. Notably, ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarines (SSBNs) or, in the Soviet classification, RPKSNs («Strategic Purpose Underwater Missile Cruisers») are nothing but an extra load on the navy, because their objective of nuclear deterrence has nothing to do with naval superiority or presence in seas and oceans.

These submarines were designed for the specific purpose of launching a nuclear strike on enemy forces. Meanwhile, a fleet needs supplies, equipment, protection, defense of deployment areas, and so on.

Having been conceived before the “special military operation” by people who would have nothing to do with its planning, the new Naval Doctrine fails to take stock of the nation's actual capabilities. Nevertheless, the document is pragmatic, realistic, and grounded in real-world circumstances. Its implementation is a whole other story because a doctrine is brought to life through executive orders that are yet to be issued.

The doctrine provides an apt summary of the situation and needs, yet it remains to be seen whether the needs will be addressed. One could say the diagnosis was right, but the success of the treatment is yet unclear.

Russia can afford to build even a large ocean fleet if it sets the right objectives. Building a fleet that could defeat the US Navy is an insurmountable task. Building a fleet that could counter US allies, such as Japan, one-on-one is doable within the available budget and technological potential. In peacetime, such a navy could meet the objective of presence.

When they say that the US is building aircraft carriers and we aren't, we should ask ourselves: why do we need an aircraft carrier? Are we going to take on the American carrier one-on-one, as the Japanese did in the Coral Sea? No, we aren't – not as far as we can tell. We need an aircraft carrier to support our oceanic naval activities against Japan or to support an operation in Africa, and so on. Those needs could be addressed by a much cheaper ship than the American one, and we could start its mass production as early as today. We need a navy that meets our needs regardless of our relations with the US.

The author thanks Sofia Presnyakova for assistance in preparing this piece.

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