Russian Blue-Water Navy is a Pipe Dream

The Flagship of the Northern Fleet, the Admiral Kuznetsov

Great powers need great navies—this concept was promoted by legendary Cold War Soviet Navy Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, and his strategic thinking has reemerged as the intellectual foundation for Russian sea power. 1 Russian leaders seek to gain prosperity, security, and influence from maritime commercial enterprise and a navy with global reach. The latest Russian national security documents take the nation’s great power status for granted and expect the Russian Federation Navy (RFN) to rival the U.S. Navy around the world. The Soviet Union collapsed, however, while pursuing unsustainable strategies. The realities of Russia’s underdeveloped maritime sector make it clear that the big talk is unrealistic. The aspiration to be a first-rate maritime power is beyond Russia’s maritime potential and industrial capacity, and Russia’s ambitions in the world’s oceans are out of reach. 2

The Russians face a serious dilemma when deciding the future direction of the RFN, which is undergoing a much-needed modernization. One option envisions fulfilling political aspirations with a “blue water expeditionary navy,” another emphasizes a “green water defense force” with mass and depth. 3 The more prudent choice for Russia would be to develop a capable antiaccess and area denial (A2/AD) force to supplement its proficient submarine force. Russia is capable of being a regional naval power in local theaters of choice. 4 But large-scale efforts to develop an expensive expeditionary navy with aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships only would diminish Russia’s geographically overstretched homeland defense forces. Thus, the biggest threat to creating a strategically balanced, capable, and sustainable RFN is an illusory policy driven by national pride and aiming too high.

Security Strategy & Maritime Economy

Russia acts with renewed confidence and an uncompromising attitude toward the West, which lately has been raising concerns of a return to the Cold War. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle—in accordance with classic political realism—believe that Russia and other powers must challenge the United States to restore the power balance of the international system and prevent intervention in their internal affairs or vital security interests. 5 Putin’s pursuit of strategic partnerships with China, India, and even Iran are intended to enhance their shared influence and security, as well as develop commercial relationships. 6 As a result, maritime military diplomacy, bilateral fleet exercises, and military technological cooperation with these partners are important elements of the Russian strategy. The leadership concludes Russia requires a blue-water navy for a show of force and partnership building. Russia’s current armed forces modernization comes at great cost to a troubled economy in recession since 2013. Russia will find it hard to uphold its current defense spending to fulfill its plans—even as the government prioritizes security over economic growth.

The ‘White Swan@ – The Tupolev 160, an example of Russian power that can balance up Russia’s reduced numbers, albeit balance the power out with better quality equipment

The symbiosis between maritime trade and naval strength, dubbed “the virtuous maritime circle” by Geoffrey Till, never has been a feature of Russia. This huge nation has enjoyed access to resources from its own territory—without depending on global trade and colonization, which historically characterized maritime states. Russian strategic interests are first and foremost continental, and Russian military power traditionally has focused on the rivalry with other land powers. Any claim to historical maritime greatness should be dismissed, as Russia was only periodically a significant naval power. First in the 18th century, Russia established supremacy in the Baltic Sea and eventually in the Black Sea, allowing access to the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Even then, Russia remained a de facto coastal sea power and did not compete with England, France, and Holland on the world’s oceans. The other period of Russian or Soviet naval strength was at the pinnacle of the Cold War’s global struggle under the leadership of Gorshkov.

The maritime domain holds economic promise for Russia, but that promise is not fulfilled easily. Russia possesses vast resources in the ocean and seabed, and might aspire to become a maritime industry partner to a number of Asian nations. But first, Russia must succeed in establishing a competitive industrial complex and maritime skill base to reduce its dependency on foreign know-how and technology. Increased activity in the Arctic must be enabled by the development of port infrastructure, navigation aids, icebreaking capability, and maritime industrial clusters in Russian coastal regions. Russia is the biggest producer of energy in the world, but it must start extracting its vast offshore reserves to supplement the dwindling shore-based oil and gas industry. So far, Arctic offshore activities have been experimental and cost-ineffective. Sanctions and low prices have hit the energy sector hard. Slowly, the Arctic coastline is becoming accessible, with the prospect of attracting international shipping to Russian ports. But traffic in the Northern Sea route is still modest, because the harsh climate requires polar-class ships and expensive icebreaker escorts.

Arctic region. The Northern Sea Route. Vaigach nuclear ice-breaker (foreground) and Vilyuysk liquid cargo carrier in the Kara Sea. Photo TASS / Semyon Maisterman

New Maritime Doctrine

The latest edition of the Russian Federation Maritime Doctrine provides highly ambitious governmental guidelines for developing and using sea power over the next decades. 7 A core narrative throughout this document from July 2015 is the claim to a great tradition of Russian maritime power and the return to such natural greatness. The comprehensive doctrine covers all aspects of state-controlled maritime activities, even if the security and naval aspects are dominant. Russia envisions fulfilling its “Maritime Potential,” and commercial activities in the world’s oceans and global sea power are fundamental tenets to boost the Russian economy, military strength, and influence.

Russian military doctrine emphasizes the importance of nuclear deterrence, and the strategic submarines of the Northern and Pacific fleets constitute a vital capability of the Russian nuclear triad. 8 Renewing the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) fleet is the first priority of the Russian armament program and their protection is a primary mission for the Arctic Military Command and Northern Fleet. 9 In addition to building submarines, ongoing efforts also include adding corvettes and frigates to the regional Russian fleets. But the most ambitious discussion is the prospect of new carriers, amphibious warfare vessels, and major combatants—a significant step beyond current capabilities. This vision, with a 30-40 year outlook, has been laid out in extensive detail by RFN leaders. 10

Project 1143 Kiev class aircraft carrier

The Maritime Doctrine also dictates regional priorities. In sum, the doctrine is detailed and realistic when dealing with defensive measures in the “Atlantic Region,” but of much less substance when dealing with the “Pacific Region” and the world’s oceans. The Atlantic Region includes the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and the Black seas, as well as the open ocean. This is where Russia sees NATO as a threat and is developing A2/AD capabilities in the littoral areas. 11 The Pacific Region is described as an increasingly significant international center of gravity, but the underdeveloped Russian infrastructure and dispersed population stand in contrast to more densely populated nations in the region. Russia will strive to establish friendly relations with regional partners, and its Pacific Fleet is tasked to promote multilateral cooperation on maritime security.

Armaments and Renewal

The ambitious Russian “State Armament Program 2010-2020” addresses the need to regenerate obsolete Soviet-era legacy forces by developing a modern and professional military to meet future requirements. Russia’s increase in military investment represents a significant and growing trend in comparison to NATO spending. Between 2009 and 2014 the Russian military budget increased 67 percent and was significantly larger than that of any Western European nation. 12 Russian defense spending has been upheld (4.5 percent of GDP in 2014) despite a recent shrinking of the Russian economy. The task of renewing the Russian Navy is daunting, however, and the fleet is expected to get more than 100 new ships before 2020, including 24 submarines and 54 surface warships. 13 RFN investments are given a high priority because the navy currently consists mostly of Cold War relics near or past the ends of their life cycles. Renewing the nuclear strategic deterrent force and establishing a modern, capable coastal defense force are the navy programs with immediate priority. 14

The larger and more complicated new projects are discussed in the longer term (2021-2050) and would demand the utmost political will as well as industrial capacity. These are, for example, new aircraft carriers, fifth-generation submarines, new destroyers, and fifth-generation fighter-jets.

Sukhoi Su-57

There is, nonetheless, controversy surrounding the purchase of capital ships related to shipyard capacity, financing, and manning, and also the future role of the RFN. “Nevertheless, it is clear that while the Russian Navy has resigned itself to focus on strategic deterrence and coastal defense missions in the short and medium terms, it still has ambitions of restoring its blue water navy in the long term.” 15 But building even a few carriers, amphibious warfare ships, and destroyers might well prove to be an exhausting task for Russian shipbuilders and budgets. Previous Russian aircraft carriers were built in Ukraine, and Russian shipyards would need upgrades to accommodate future capital ships and their required support. 16 Furthermore, a carrier strike group requires significant additional resources for protection and support in order to be a combat-effective asset, rather than a symbolic political instrument. The RFN’s need for escorts and logistical ships would require massive investment in addition to the big decks. While awaiting strategic decisions on future capital ships, the RFN is struggling to keep its only current aircraft carrier, the RFNS Kuznetsov, operational and prolong the life of the two Kirov-class battlecruisers. 17

Sea power must be designed and built to achieve strategic purpose, and is relative to other actors. The RFN is a capable regional sea power, with an effective A2/AD-capability against any adversary in the Arctic, the Baltic, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Black seas. The same levels of ambition are not present in the Pacific, where Russia’s relative sea power is in decline—particularly in relation to China and the United States. Russia is well equipped to sustain a confrontational relationship with NATO in its own littorals, but will not challenge U.S. global domination of the seas anytime soon. It is likely that Russia will give priority to a few capital ship projects, which more likely will be prestigious status symbols rather than a robust power projection and expeditionary force. If political ambitions are taken too far, massive investments aiming to create a credible blue-water navy would deplete the budgets and could result in a decaying fleet again.



1. Jessica Huckabey, “The Paradox of Admiral Gorshkhov,” CIMSEC, 1 October 2014.

2. Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russian Naval Shipbuilding: Is It Possible to Fulfill the Kremlin’s Grand Expectations?” 29 October 2015, https://russiamil.wordpress.com/ .

Michael Kofman, ”The Russian Navy: Strategies and Missions of a Force in Transition”, Center for International Maritime Security, 23 November 2015, www.cimsec.org .

3. Nikolai Novichkov, “Russian Naval Doctrine Looks to the Future,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 19 August 2015, Vol. 52 (32), 24-25.

Robert C. Rubel, “Talking About Sea Control,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2010, vol. 63, no. 4, 44-46.

4. Stephen Blank, “Russia’s New Maritime Doctrine,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 2015, vol. 12, 151.

5. Fiona Hill, “Understanding and Deterring Russia: U.S. Policies and Strategies,” Brookings, Testimony to The House Armed Services Committee, 10 February 2016.

6. Lyle J. Goldstein, “Russia and China: Beware the Budding Eurasian Colossus?” Foreign Policy, 25 October 2015.

7. President of the Russian Federation, “Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” 27 July 2015.

8. Lee Willett, “Strategic Power: SSBNs Maintain Course in Evolving Security Environment,” IHS Jane’s Navy International, December 2015, vol 120, 10, 12-19.

9. Taimoor Khan, “Russia Looking To Boost Submarines To Turn The Tide,” ValueWalk, 5 October 2015.

Dave Majumdar, “Revealed: Russia’s Next Generation Nuclear Submarines,” The National Interest, 9 November 2015.

10. Nikolai Novichkov, “Russian Naval Doctrine Looks to the Future,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 19 August 2015, vol 52, 24-25.

11. Jonathan Altman, “Russian A2/AD in the Eastern Mediterranean: A Growing Risk,” Naval War College Review, vol 69 (Winter 2016), no 1.

12. SIPRI, “Media Backgrounder: Military Spending in Europe in the Wake of the Ukraine Crisis,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 13 April 2015.

13. RIA Novosti, “Russian Navy to receive 24 submarines and 54 surface warships by 2020,” 13 March 2013, www.atlanticcouncil.org .

14. Maria Martens, “Russian Military Modernization,” NATO Science and Technology Committee, 11 October 2015, 9-10

15. Dmitry Gorenburg, “Here Are Russia’s Grandiose Plans For Upgrading Its Navy,” Business Insider, 23 January 2015.

16. Dmitry Gorenburg, “Shipbuilding constraints drive downsized but potent Russian Navy,” CIMSEC, 25 November 2015.

17. “Russia to Refurbish its Sole Aircraft Carrier in 2017: Report,” Brahmand.com, 27 May 2016, www.brahmand.com/news/Russia-to-refurbish-its-sole-aircraft-carrier-in-2… .


Commander Thomassen is a surface warfare officer in the Royal Norwegian Navy. He is a graduate of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy (2002) and the U.S. Naval War College (2015). He served as an International Fellow at the U.S. Naval War College from 2015 to 2016 and is now the commanding officer of HNOMS Fridtjof Nansen, the lead ship of the Fridtjof Nansen class Aegis frigates.

Russia’s Current Shipbuilding Program

Surface combatants currently being introduced by the Russian Navy are multimission littoral ships fitted with modern technology and weapons. These capable ships are scheduled to be put in service in all fleets in coming years. Standardized cruise missile modules allow these small corvettes to have a strike capability, surpassing that of many NATO ships. The development of prototypes has taken time and the denied access to Western technology slowly is being substituted with domestic or Asian alternatives. The life extension of selected legacy platforms is compensating for delays in new ships as necessary.

The new ships are more advanced and have a wider mission portfolio than before and require more competent crews. As a result, these ships increasingly are manned by professional volunteer sailors rather than conscripts. Training programs in St. Petersburg are producing a cadre of professional noncommissioned officers. Personnel reform is a vital ingredient in the transformation to a modern and capable Russian Navy. 

Eight Borey class SSBNs armed with the new Bulava intercontinental nuclear missile and the Severodvinsk class attack-submarines are in the process of entering service from the Sevmash Shipyard in Severodvinsk. The Bulava missile was declared operational in 2014 after a troubled development period. 1 The Severodvinsk class replaces both the Akula and Oscar classes with enhanced capabilities in subsurface and surface warfare and precision strike. Some selected Oscar, Delta, and Akula class submarines are scheduled for midlife updates, probably due to delays with the new programs. Modified diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines are produced in St. Petersburg for the Black Sea and Baltic fleets as well as for export to China, Vietnam, and Algeria. These new Kilos are fitted with Kalibr cruise missiles and add a renewed submarine capability quickly because of their familiar design. The future of the Lada-class conventional submarine is uncertain because of an expected transition to air independent propulsion. 2 Russia also is the leading nation in sea mines and possesses a vast arsenal of different types, including bottom, self-propelled, and anchored mines.

The Admiral Gorshkov class guided missile frigates are 4,500 ton helicopter-carrying frigates, which are believed to be the only class capable of carrying the Indian/Russian PJ-10 Brahmos supersonic cruise missile. The Admiral Grigorovich class is a 4,000-ton frigate, which is similar to the Talwar class frigates delivered to India. Production was halted after Ukrainian gas turbines became unavailable, and the remaining three ships are being sold to India unfinished. (See Combat Fleets p.93 for more details.) The Steregushchy class is a 2,000-ton frigate which entered service in 2007, carries a helicopter, and is expected to be built in significant numbers. This design replaces the Grisha-class corvette and is well equipped for surface and subsurface warfare. The Buyan (500-ton), Buyan-M (950-ton), and Bykov (1,500-ton) class corvettes are for the Black Sea Fleet, Baltic Fleet, and Caspian Flotilla. The two biggest designs carry the Kalibr, which attacked targets in Syria from the Caspian Sea in October 2015 and again this year. Russia’s contract for two French Mistral landing helicopter docks eventually was canceled and the vessels were sold to Egypt instead. Since then, the director of Russian Navy shipbuilding programs has revealed plans for a Russian alternative (Avalanche), which could enter service after 2020. Depending on this decision, there is speculation that the production of the Ivan Gren class 6,000-ton landing ships will stop after completion of the two current units.

In addition to ships, several aviation and land-based projects are making progress. The first of 60 multirole Su-30SM fighters was introduced in 2012 and these aircraft recently deployed to Syria. The new carrier-based MiG-29K is another cooperative effort with India, replacing the Su-33. A modern training facility for the carrier air wing recently opened in Yeysk, by the Azov Sea. 3 The modified Il-38N maritime patrol aircraft has improved its capabilities after being equipped with the Novella sensor system. Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters were intended for the Mistral-class amphibious assault ships and initially are being sold to Egypt. Finally, the familiar Ka-27 Helix helicopter is being upgraded with new avionics and tactical systems. Mobile coastal defense missile units are adding the Bastion-P system (land-based SS-N-26 Yakhont) for ship targets, and the S-400 (impending S-500) area air defense system can provide a potent joint coastal defense. 4  


1. “3M14 Bulava (Mace) SS-N-30 / SS-NX-32,” Global Security.org, www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/russia/3m14.htm .

2. Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russian Shipbuilding Still in Trouble,” 19 January 2016, https://russiamil.wordpress.com/ .

3. Eric Wertheim, “World Navies In Review,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 141, no.3 (March 2015), 69.

4. Douglas Barrie, “Russia and Anti-Access/Area-Denial Capabilities,” IISS Military Balance Blog, 8 February 2016, https://www.iiss.org/en/militarybalanceblog/blogsections/2016-629e/febru… .

2 thoughts on “Russian Blue-Water Navy is a Pipe Dream”

  1. The Russians never have had much success with blue-water naval forces – I suspect as much due to geography as anything else, given the massive separation of their key coastlines and the need to pay for what are, in effect, multiple separate navies – all the while, simultaneously, addressing their other military needs.

    1. It’s the problem of being the biggest country in the world I guess. They did a terrific PR stunt by sending the Kuznetsov into the Mediterranean to combat Syrian dissidents recently. Okay, she was belching smoke and lost a MiG-29K and an Su-33, but even the US and Chinese were impressed.

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