COLUMN | Russia’s navy: supporting Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions [Nazal Gazing]

The Russian Navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov being escorted by the Royal Navy Type 42 destroyer HMS York in international waters off the UK on December 12, 2011 (Photo: UK Ministry of Defence)

The Russian Federation Navy (RFN) has three main roles:

  • Deterrence: This involves manning and operating a flotilla of nuclear powered submarines equipped with nuclear warhead-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
  • Defence: Maintaining surface and subsea fleets to defend Russia’s land mass, and its merchant shipping.
  • Support of Moscow’s policies: Carrying out operations in areas of political, economic and security interest to Russia.

The policy support role has increased significantly in importance over the past decade, as Moscow seeks to establish a sustainable international naval presence, and to use the RFN to back up military engagement over Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and Libya.

Moscow has enhanced its naval base facilities in Tartus, Syria, and is reportedly eying possible base facilities in Libya, where the Russians are pursuing a complex strategy of calibrated support for both sides in the nation’s de facto civil war, and also in Sudan.

Also of considerable geopolitical significance is the RFN’s programme of exercises with India, and more recently, China. These exercises underscore Russia’s determination to become a leading agent of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Also, tripartite naval exercises involving China, Russia and Iran, planned for early 2022, seem set to further enlarge the RFN’s oceanic footprint.

Enabling Russia’s offshore ambitions is an increasingly active RFN inventory of warships. Some of this fleet is aging, but there is steady drumbeat of upgrades and new construction.

Powerful submarine force

Recent reports indicate that 13 SSBNs are in service, with five more of, the reputedly very quiet, 25,000-tonne improved Borei class boats under construction. The standard fit for Russian SSBNs is the R30B intercontinentaL ballistic missile, which have a range of 9,300 kilometres , and are fitted with nuclear-tipped multiple re-entry vehicles.

The Russian Navy Project 955A submarine Knyaz Vladimir (Photo: United Shipbuilding Corporation)

There are about 15 active nuclear-powered attack submersibles of the Oscar, Yasen, Sierra II, Victor III and Akula classes. All are armed with a wide range of anti-surface ship and anti-submarine weaponry, while the Oscars are also equipped with SS-N-19 anti-shipping cruise missiles.

The nuclear-powered boats carry out independent operations worldwide, and constitute the most powerful and sustained long-term threat to rival navies.

More than twenty diesel-electric attack submarines are on strength, and reportedly six advanced Project 636.3 boats, improved versions of the long-established Kilo-class, are under construction. Tasking of the Russian flotilla of diesel-electric boats is believed by analysts to include extensive covert surveillance along the European coast.

Surface fleet

The RFN’s sole aircraft carrier is the vintage, 58,600-tonne, steam turbine-powered Admiral Kuznetsov. Utilising the STOBAR (Short Take -Off But Arrested Recovery) technique, the carrier can operate both Su-35 and MiG 29K fighter bombers, as well as Ka-31 and Ka-27 anti-submarine helicopters. The aging warship suffers frequent technical problems, but maintains an active profile operating with Russian task groups, particularly in the Mediterranean region.

A delayed refit and upgrade programme is due to commence in Murmansk in the first half of 2022, with the ship to return to service before the end of 2023. Plans to build a replacement carrier reportedly remain on hold for financial reasons.

The Russian Navy cruiser Marshal Ustinov (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence)

The 28,000-tonne nuclear-powered, very heavily armed battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy is a potent symbol of Russian naval power. Its currently laid-up sister ship, Admiral Nakhimov, is undergoing a major refit at the Sevmash Shipyard, and is due to return to service in 2023.These behemoths can be at the core of Russian battle groups in the absence of the RFN’s aircraft carrier.

The RFN order of battle includes numerous missile-armed cruisers, destroyers, frigates and corvettes. Newest units include the Stereguschiy corvettes, of which 10 examples are now in service, and the type 2216 corvettes, the fourth of which, Sergey Kotov, is currently on sea trials.

The frigate Admiral Gorshkov recently undertook a test firing of the Tsirkon hypersonic missile, a potential game changer in naval warfare.

The Ivan Gren-class landing ship Pyotr Morgunov during sea trials in 2020 (Photo: United Shipbuilding Corporation)

The RFN is beefing up its amphibious forces in order better to facilitate Russian intervention in overseas theatres, and some analysts believe, to help stoke fears of a possible invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, the new Ivan Gren-class of landing ships reportedly has a secondary minelaying role.

Construction of the first Project 23130 underway replenishment vessels has begun. This new class is intended to boost the RFN’s current inadequate inventory of such vessels.

The RFN puts a great deal of effort into the monitoring of operations by rival navies, It already operates the world’s largest fleet of dedicated, naval-manned, electronic intercept vessels, and its capabilities are to be significantly strengthened by the new Yuri Ivanov class ships.

Although still viewed, in some quarters, as an obsolescent Cold War legacy force, the RFN is on course to be a major facilitator of Moscow’s burgeoning geopolitical ambitions.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.