Rebirth of a Russian Fleet,Black Sea Rising.
to annex Crimea in 2014 was an exceptionally clean affair, and gave
ample opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of Moscow’s military
modernization efforts. But for Russia’s famed Black Sea Fleet, the most
tactically relevant action it could take was to deny Ukrainian ships
from setting to sea by scuttling one of its oldest and rustiest cruisers
in the mouth of a channel.
Despite efforts since 2008 to upgrade Russia’s aging Soviet-built
military, the Black Sea Fleet in 2014 was a decrepit shell of the once
great outfit. Under agreement, independent Ukraine allowed Russia
to keep ships in Crimea after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it
largely prevented additional Russian vessels from being added. Much
of that fleet spent 25 years rusting away at their moorings, and many
doubted the fleet was capable of combat.
This led to military stagnation in Crimea, but the arrangement was
tolerated in Moscow for years. This changed with the rise of the Maidan
protest movement in Kiev. As a pro-Western government formed there,
the Kremlin could no longer be sure its basing agreements in Crimea
would be honored.
In the two years since annexation, the fleet’s fortune
and capabilities have profoundly changed. Moscow has wasted little time
in diverting resources to rejuvenating the fleet, adding around a dozen
combat vessels since 2014, and Sevastopol is now a major hub of Russian
military and geopolitical power projection.
The ultimate decision to annex Crimea from Ukraine may have been
a largely emotional and political one, but the strategic significance
of the Black Sea Fleet’s Sevastopol headquarters provided Russian
decision makers with a concrete rationale to seize the peninsula.
Whoever controls Crimea can easily assert a dominant position across
the entire Black Sea region, which is home to several NATO member states
and former Soviet republics that Moscow hopes to keep in its orbit.
“If you look at a map, you can see that Crimea sits right there
in the middle of the Black Sea,” says Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, an expert
on the Russian navy at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. “From
Sevastopol, the Russian navy can pretty much control all approaches
and dominate the region vis-a-vis Turkey.”
This line of thinking was enshrined in the latest draft of Russia’s
national naval doctrine, released on July 2015. The document envisions
a reinvigorated presence in the Black Sea, allowing Russian ships
to reestablish lost footholds in the southern Atlantic,
the Mediterranean Sea, and through the Suez Canal. In the document,
Russia says its aim is to wield influence abroad and resist NATO
These ambitions were enabled largely by the annexation of Crimea.
Although Russia was developing an alternate naval facility at its Black
Sea coastal city of Novorossiisk, this position lacks the centrality
that makes Crimea strategically valuable. With the penisula firmly
in Russian hands, Sevastopol now acts as a forward operating base,
supported from behind by Novorossiisk.
In this capacity, transport ships from the Black Sea Fleet have been
used to deliver goods from Novorossiisk to the Russian naval facility
at Tartus on the Syrian Coast, says Maxim Shepovalenko, a former Russian
naval officer, now an expert at the Center for the Analysis
of Strategies and Technologies.
This route, known as the Syrian express, is a vital line of supply
for Russia’s military operation in Syria. But the arrangement between
Sevastopol and Novorossiisk is even more significant in that it allowed
the Russian navy to develop a layered defense arrangement incorporating
naval aircraft and ground-based defense units, Shepovalenko says.
The creation of a “defense in depth” arrangement in the Black Sea
kicked into high-gear two months after Crimea’s annexation. In May 2014,
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that 68 billion rubles ($957
million) would be diverted from a 20 trillion ruble ($292 billion)
military modernization budget to overhaul the fleet. Officials at the
time claimed it would buy the Black Sea Fleet some 80 new ships. That
number is undoubtedly misleading, as it also counts tugboats among
the new assets.
Rearmament takes time, especially when talking about ships. The first
deliveries of new vessels to the Black Sea were completed by the end
of 2014, with two Improved Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines
inducted into the fleet. Two more Improved Kilo-class subs were
delivered in 2015, and a final two submarines are scheduled for delivery
In total, the Black Sea Fleet received around 15 vessels of various
sizes and classes, according to data collected by CAST. In addition
to the submarines, these included seven patrol boats and two missile
The heavier surface combatants are expected to go into service with
the fleet later this year, and include three brand-new Admiral
Grigorovich-class frigates. Three more are on the way, but an unintended
consequence of Russia’s war with Ukraine has been the loss of Ukrainian
engine deliveries for the large ships, leading to delays. And an
additional 15 new missile corvettes are expected by 2020, according
When judged by size, the beefing up of the Black Sea Fleet may appear
to be anti-climactic to citizens of Western nations that field large
navies comprised of increasingly large and complex ships — such as
the United States. But what makes the modernized capabilities of the
Black Sea Fleet noteworthy is the key capability shared by the
Kilo-class submarines, the Grigorovich-class frigates, and small missile
corvettes: they all serve as launch platforms for Russia’s brand-new
Kalibr land attack cruise missiles.
The Kalibr turned heads in October 2015, when Russia’s Caspian
Flotilla launched a major salvo of the new cruise missiles from the
Caspian Sea to hit alleged terrorist groups in Syria. The strike
demonstrated that Russia now has long-range guided attack capabilities,
which it previously lacked.
In addition to the new ships, Russia’s has stepped up land-based
defenses. Missile and coastal defense systems now cover the peninsula,
and new fighter and bomber wings are stationed at Crimean airfields.
The net result of this activity is simple: in two years Russia has
created an elaborate defensive zone covering Crimea and most of the
Black Sea region. With this net, it can both throw its weight around
the neighborhood and seriously deter any potential foe from entering
the Black Sea.
With even heavier additions on their way, Russia is on track
to reassert itself as the dominant naval power in the Black Sea region.