Russia seeks sea power with decrepit fleet

Base expansion likely an empty threat

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Russia’s boast that it plans to extend its naval forces to bases in Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam poses little strategic threat to U.S. interests in Latin America, the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, analysts say.

It is more a political move than a military one, as President Vladimir Putin continues to contest American supremacy, particularly during the Syrian crisis.

The Russian fleet may number 300 ships, about the same as the U.S. Navy, but its aging warships are less advanced than America’s high-powered guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. The Kremlin owns only one operational aircraft carrier, as opposed to Washington’s 11 nuclear-powered carriers and strike groups that comprise what is called a “blue-water” navy able to operate far from home.

Moscow deploys few ships outside its waters, while the Pentagon stations a quarter of the fleet at sea at any one time.

Russia is trying to punch above its weight in world affairs, trying to pretend it is a major world power when it is in fact a state in [a] declining strategic circumstance,” said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

“The declaration of wanting more navy bases, a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, is just another example. The Soviets never had a real blue-water power-projection capability, and neither does Russia.”

‘Grand pronouncements’

Russia’s top naval officer, Vice Adm. Viktor Chirkov, told the country’s RIA news agency Friday that Moscow is holding talks to put naval bases in Cuba, Vietnam and the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles. Russia operates only one overseas base — a strategically important one in the port city of Tartus, Syria.

“It is true. We are working on the deployment of Russian naval bases outside Russian territory,” he said.

Naval sources note that Russian navy leaders have boasted before about goals such as fielding more aircraft carriers, but the declarations were unfulfilled.

Russia has made a series of grand pronouncements about engagement in this region, and the words end up outpacing the deeds,” said P.J. Crowley, a former top spokesman for the State Department. “But clearly Putin is fighting the perception that Russia is no longer a global power, only a regional power, and is trying to restore some trappings of Russia’s past.”

The only way Mr. Putin can project power is with his navy and perhaps some permanent ports of call.

Putin would like to do it because right now the navy is the only force that he has to demonstrate Russia is still a world power,” said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author of several books about the Russian navy.

“He can’t send the army anywhere. He can’t send his airplanes anywhere without over-flight rights, and people don’t like to let military planes fly over their countries.”

Russia already has been using its navy to send signals against the U.S. Last year, it dispatched a nuclear-powered cruiser task force to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has made alliances with Iran and China and sees himself as an irritant to U.S. interests in Latin America. Russian ships also have been showing up in Cuba, another U.S. foe.

“I look at this as Putin attempting to demonstrate that Russia is still a major world political-military player,” Mr. Polmar said.

“I think it is important to point out, it is both political and military. A Russian base in Cuba and a couple of destroyers that visit there regularly are no military threat to us of any kind. So it is primarily political.”

He said the Russian navy “is in very poor shape because of finances.”

“It has very few ships that are operational. Very few submarines that are operational. Everything is behind schedule, all of their new construction. The country was for several years essentially bankrupt after the fall of the Soviet Union. The shipyards fell into disrepair. All of the services fell into disrepair,” Mr. Polmar added.

Mr. Russell said the problem is worsened by corruption. Money meant for the government is siphoned off by organized crime.

“The country’s balance sheet looks good right now because it has lots of oil and natural gas, but the profit from this bonanza is being looted by the organized crime-apparatchik kleptocracy that is ruling the country,” he said.

“Much of the money is just being stolen and not being invested in the people and the state. If it didn’t have nuclear weapons, why would anyone take Russia seriously today, except in a negative sense?”

‘Ordinary workhorses’

Earlier this year, RIA Novosti ran a frank assessment of Russia’s beleaguered navy, saying the fleet is made up of “ordinary workhorses.”

“The Russian Navy is not obsessed with grand-scale projects or the ‘de facto global standard’ strike groups of heavy ocean-going ships deployed around nuclear aircraft carriers,” a Russian naval analyst wrote.

“Even at its height, the Soviet Union failed to live up to that standard with reasons ranging from weaknesses in industry and ship-repair facilities to the varying rants of top military and defense-industry leadership. The Russian Navy orders simple and ordinary workhorses for the sea. When a large number of ships was decommissioned in the 1990s [the nonstrategic portion], it left a big gap in the country’s naval forces.”

Today, Mr. Putin sees a U.S. Navy that dominates the world’s key regions — the Mediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean — while his sea power increasingly is built around territorial defense, plus the nuclear capability of submarines to strike the United States.

“Very few Russian ships are out of coastal waters at any given time,” Mr. Polmar said.

Mr. Putin, in his third term as president, has made confronting Washington a priority. He opposed NATO intervention in Libya and now is blunting Western efforts to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down.

Russia and China have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for tougher measures against Mr. Assad. Mr. Putin also continued to send attack helicopters to Damascus. It drew a rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had made a “reset” in relations with Moscow a chief priority.

An exasperated Victoria Nuland, State Department spokeswoman, could not explain Mr. Putin’s motives.

“I’m so not going to speak for what Russia and China want,” she said. “I’m going to let them speak for themselves because, frankly, it’s not so clear at the moment.”

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