Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is Russia On the Way to Losing One of Its Two Most Reliable ‘Allies’ – Its Fleet?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 11 - Alexander III famously said that Russia has only “two allies – its army and its fleet.”  Vladimir Putin, having alienated much of the world by his invading Ukraine and threatening others, is well on his way to realizing the tsar’s vision. And one military expert suggests he now faces problems with one of his remaining “allies” – the Russian fleet.

            Corruption and Russia’s economic problems, on the one hand, and Moscow’s war with Ukraine, on the other, have left Russia without “sufficient opportunities” to expand its fleet or even modernize existing vessels, according to Yury Kirpichev, a Russian who was involved with ship building before emigrating to the US (

            He told journalist Kseniya Kirillova that Russia had not been able to come up with an “import substitution” for the turbine engines it needs now that Ukraine isn’t selling them to Russia, despite pledges by Yury Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, and by Deputy Prime Minister Nikolay Rogozin that Moscow would be able to do so.

            That places severe limits on Russia’s ability to expand the Black Sea Fleet and other parts of its aging naval force in the near future. 

            Moscow began thinking about “import substitution” in this sector already in 2009 “after the first gas war with Ukraine” and announced that it was investing enormous funds into this effort, Kirpichev says. But “the result turned out to be the classical one in Russia: the money was ‘spent’ but production didn’t begin.”

            The collapse of the Russian fleet from Soviet times is shocking, the analyst continues.  In 1991, the then-Soviet fleet was fully comparable in size to the American, but over the next decade, that changed dramatically.   Some of the Soviet-era ships were sold to other countries, but an even larger number were sold as scrap metal.

            Between 1991 and 1997 alone, 629 Russian naval ships were sold as scrap, often at far below the market value of the metal, then bought up and resold by businesses for amounts closer to the market value, with the businesses pocketing the difference. And new ships weren’t built: many in the fleet now are well past their scheduled decommissioning.

            Building and maintaining a blue water navy is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, Kirpichev points out, and at present, “Russia simply is not capable of building or even modernizing large ships.” Regaining its former status would require spending enormous sums far beyond Moscow’s capacity.

            But despite that, the analyst points out, it would be a mistake to “underestimate” what the Russian navy can still do with its aging ships. The Russian navy may no longer be world class, but it may be far stronger than the navies it goes up against.

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