What a difference a year makes.
Last July, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, boasted that his nation would add six carrier battle groups to its fleet, with construction of the new vessels beginning in 2012.
Most analysts were dubious about that claim, but Moscow had one factor working in its favor. With oil then trading at $150 a barrel, Russia was suddenly flush with cash, and military leaders could once again dream on a grandiose scale.
Twelve months later, Admiral Vysotsky is no longer talking about six new carrier battle groups. In fact, he sounds a lot like his predecessors of the late 80s and early 90s, who simply tried to maintain some semblance of a Russian fleet against overwhelming financial pressures. During that decade, the once-proud Soviet Navy became a shadow of its former self; ships spent almost no time at sea and out-of-area operations were virtually unheard of.
The decline was most evident in Russia's SSBN fleet. Over the past 10 years, there have been periodic "gaps" in deployments by Russian ballistic missile subs--something that never occurred in the Cold War. In some cases, a Russian "boomer" doesn't go to sea until months after its predecessor returned to port--an operations schedule that was inconceivable before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As Reuben Johnson of The Weekly Standard explains:
The reality now is that not only is the idea of Russia building and operating carrier battle groups an impossible dream, but just building enough new ships to replace those that are worn-out after decades of use is also not feasible. A recent analysis by the authoritative Moscow-based weekly, the Independent Military Review (NVO), entitled "BMF RF (Naval Military Fleet of the Russian Federation) on Foreign Warships" states that the Russian Navy is currently in a situation of irreversible collapse.
The analysis piece states the chief cause is the state of the Russian shipbuilding industry, which is incapable "of producing warships in either the quantity or at the level of quality that the navy customer requires" for the future. According to those interviewed, the Russian Navy's leadership "understands that this is a hopeless situation and are looking for a way out by considering the purchase of naval vessels from abroad."
Russian naval leaders are acutely aware of this situation--and the economic realities they now face. In a recent conversation with reporters, Admiral Vysotsky said Russia is considering joint ventures with the French (to build aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships), and the possible purchase of submarines from Germany. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that Moscow can pay for these vessels, giving credence to prediction of the fleet's eventual demise.
Still, the disappearance of the Russian Navy would create security problems for the west. Moscow has not abandoned its desire to be a great power, and must find ways to compensate for evaporating naval strength (and in particular, the sea-based leg of its nuclear triad).
The solution? Play to your strengths, which in today's Russia are (a) Its ICBM force, and (b) U.S. willingness to cut its own strategic arsenal. As we noted in previous posts, current discussions between Moscow and Washington are focusing more on delivery platforms, rather than a reduction of nuclear warheads.
An agreement based on that foundation would force deeper cuts among U.S. forces, forcing the retirement of more land-based bombers and (possibly) ballistic missile submarines, to get us under the new limit. The potential reductions would also limit our ability to project power around the world, since many of the delivery platforms--most notably the bombers--can be used for conventional or nuclear missions. A decline in our global strike capabilities would suit Moscow just fine; with the collapse of their fleet, the Russians want to "downsize" our capabilities as well.
And President Obama appears anxious to give the Moscow what it wants.
ADDENDUM: We should also note that the "end" of their navy will make Russia more dependent than ever on nuclear weapons as a tool of statecraft. For more than a decade, Russian military writers have discussed the employment of nuclear weapons at much lower thresholds than during the Soviet era. Their rationale is simple; without the massive conventional forces of the former USSR, Moscow would be forced to utilize nuclear forces in regional conflicts and even as a response to a devastating terrorist attack.