AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS – If in the past the Russian Navy figured in world news at all, it was because one of its nuclear submarines had caught fire or its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, was making a rare appearance in international waters. Now the Russian fleet is in the headlines, suddenly a challenger to the maritime powers of the Northern Hemisphere.
A grandiose program to rearm the navy — 70 new ships by 2020, no less — remains largely in blueprints. All that the fleet has gotten so far is three nuclear submarines and several corvettes. The two familiar retarding forces — corruption and incompetency — make the work of shipyards torturously slow, so when a new warship does leave the wharf it is already slightly obsolete.
Russia simply cannot maintain a blue-water navy without a strong aircraft career group. Grandly, President Vladimir Putin had announced that Russia will soon add four state-of-the-art flattops. Easier said than done, especially in the current economic slump. For at least several years, the Admiral Kuznetsov is going to be a very lonely ship keeping company with the merry American family of 10 carriers.
The Russian naval force remains worn out. What seems to have changed is not so much the hardware as the owners manual, so to speak. Geopolitical competition is not akin to car racing, where participants don’t have a chance of taking the prize unless they operate a top-notch vehicle. Inferior weapons can win battles for generals who throw out the rule book.
Consider the new Russian doctrine of “hybrid warfare.” Tested during the annexation of Crimea and then applied in eastern Ukraine, hybrid warfare blends the conventional (troops), the irregular (covert operations, insurgency, cyberattacks), and the imaginary (lies and concealment). The idea is to create a perfect fog of war, in other words, the disabling ambiguity about the extent, nature and endgame of the operation.
Is this provocation or creeping expansion? Are there Russian boots on the ground? How far is Russia prepared to go? What kind of settlement does it seek? Does it seek any resolution at all? What if its goal is to keep the conflict simmering because that’s what fits its needs best?
The annexation of Crimea began with Russian elite units infiltrating the peninsula. Dressed in camouflage uniforms without insignia, the commandos came to be known as the “little green men.” Putin, in the meantime, claimed they were authentic Crimean militias. “Anyone can buy a uniform from an army surplus store,” he said. He wouldn’t admit to the true identity of the ghost soldiers till one year later. With the Crimean campaign won through in-your-face lies, the Kremlin lost credibility. But Russia’s military operations acquired a cloud of mystery, ingenuity and ruthlessness, something that every strategist wishes his military had.
Confronted with the sudden surge in Russian naval activity in the Northern Hemisphere, one is tempted to interpret the overall strategy behind that as an application of hybrid warfare to oceanic lanes.
In the opening week of the intervention in Syria, Russian warships launched Kalibr cruise missiles aimed at targets 1,600 km away. International media reported this as something sensational, even though the U.S. Navy has been using cruise missiles for a quarter of a century. Technically, the Russian strikes merely indicated that Moscow was working hard to catch up with America.
What made the salvo startling, it seems, was the fact that the missiles were launched from a lake. A lake — that’s what the landlocked Caspian Sea is — and we don’t generally think of lakes as comfortable venues for naval strikes.
The Russian launch came as an ambush, something that guerillas, not states, do. The effect was disproportionate, opening the floodgates for Western insecurity.
Almost immediately after, there reports that unbeknownst to almost everyone Russian ships and submarines were hovering over the underwater fiber-optic cables that are indispensable for the functioning of oceanic nations. It was fair to assume that Russians visited the places where they were not supposed to be not out of sheer curiosity, but rather to research ways to disable critical communications lines if they should ever feel the need.
If such a blackout were to happen, it would wreak havoc on Western economies and governments, and of course the chain of military command. Unable to compete with NATO navies in conventional ways, Russia has hinted at the availability of an asymmetrical response.
The Russian Air Force’s buzzing of U.S. warships now happens on a regular basis. Ditto the breaches, or near breaches, of the airspace of Russia’s potential adversaries, including Japan. Unnerving individually as they happen, such incidents also leave Western analysts wondering whether there might be a pattern and a plan behind the intimidation. Sorties of this kind do not make oceans safer and they raise security concerns, but one can still take all that in stride.
Like every other kind of irregular combat, hybrid warfare originates in weakness, not strength. Yes, it worked for the Russians in Crimea, but, frankly, the Ukrainian military on the peninsula did not even try to put up a fight. When a few months later in eastern Ukraine they did, the Kremlin’s “little green men” stalled.
The brain drain of the past 25 years has not spared Russian shipyards. When the Kremlin decided the navy needed modern amphibious assault vessels, Russia ordered them from France, thus starting the epic story of the two Mistral-class ships that it eventually did not get because of the 2014 sanctions. (What the French were thinking when taking an order from a proven aggressor is a different topic.)
The public doesn’t really know how many Kalibr missiles launched from the Caspian hit their targets and how effective they were when they did. U.S. intelligence sources insist that at least four Kalibrs fell in Iran. The Russians deny that vehemently, but who would now believe them?
The Russian “base” at the Syrian port of Tartus is nothing but a glorified landing, more of a designated point of entry for Russian supplies into Syria than a solid naval facility.
The list of weaknesses, failures and make-believes at the core of Russian strategic capabilities is long, yet earlier this month Forbes magazine named Putin the most powerful person in the world. Overstating the Kremlin’s resources and impact, undeserved praise of that kind turns Putin into an omnipotent Dark Lord — which he isn’t.
The misrepresentation is fortuitous for the Kremlin. Now if Moscow sends a perfectly honest oceanographic ship to, say, Easter Island, rest assured that the U.S. would shadow it zealously and at huge expense. If at any time a storm damages a critical intercontinental cable, the Russians will be the primary suspects, as we won’t be sure that the damage did not result from their sabotage.
Last week, reporting from a conference room where the Russian commander in chief was lecturing the country’s top brass, Russian state TV “accidentally” leaked sketches of a giant nuclear torpedo, or “robotic mini-submarine.” The monster’s report card presented it as remarkably intelligent and practically unstoppable, and as for its load, that’s supposed to be the most destructive thermonuclear device ever — 100 megatons. That would be one doomsday weapon, but do the plans to create it even exist outside the colorful diagram that just so conveniently happened to attract a rogue camera? A monster — yes, definitely, but questions remain about Frankenstein: Is he a scientist or a spin doctor?
Incapacitating ambiguity is precisely what the Kremlin wants the powers of the West to face in the oceanic lanes, and as this is already happening, naval hybrid warfare has already won the first battle.
Russian-American writer Constantine Pleshakov’s books include “The Tsar’s Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima.”
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