Although naysayers have predicted the demise of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet for several years, it continues to make waves in the Mediterranean.
Photo source: Reuters
The Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet, which many thought was headed for the scrap heap after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is now regaining increased importance not only for Moscow’s relations with littoral states like Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey, but also as a means for the projection of Russian power in the eastern Mediterranean.
With a few notable exceptions – including the division of the Soviet fleet with Ukraine, spats with Kiev about basing rights in Sevastopol, the deployment of the fleet off Georgia in 2008, and a snap mass fleet exercise this year – most of the development of the fleet has occurred under the radar screens not only of Western analysts, but of Russian ones as well. Even now, many observers seem disinclined to view the revival of the fleet as very significant.
However, a recent directive from President Vladimir Putin has made the Black Sea Fleet the core of a new Russian flotilla in the Mediterranean, one that fills a gap left when the Soviet Fifth Operational Squadron was disbanded in 1992. After this announcement, no one can ignore that the Black Sea Fleet is on the rebound and will, assuming that plans for its re-equipment are fulfilled, take on a dramatically larger mission than thought possible only a few years ago.
It’s easy to understand the negative view of the fleet. It consists almost exclusively of ships built during the Soviet era, many of which are out of date and should be decommissioned and replaced. But while the Russian government has promised that it will launch a new generation of ships sometime in the future, it has seriously reduced spending on the navy in recent years.
However, evaluating the Black Sea Fleet only on the basis of its outdated equipment and unfulfilled government promises is naive. The Black Sea Fleet today may be significantly weaker and less capable than its Soviet predecessor was 25 years ago, but it is still vastly stronger than any of the fleets in the immediate neighborhood, such as those of Ukraine or Turkey. Additionally, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which operates in the Mediterranean, has been stretched thin by various missions, which increases the Black Sea Fleet’s influence.
Despite their age, the vessels of the Black Sea Fleet are quite capable of impressing upon Ukrainian, Georgian and Turkish officials that it is the Russian navy and no other force that they have to contend with and even defer to in the absence of outside assistance. Kiev and Tbilisi appear to be accepting this: Ukraine is now slated to have a major exercise with the Black Sea Fleet later in June, and Georgia’s new government is increasingly deferential to the Russian position, at least in part because of the strength of the Black Sea Fleet.
Perhaps most important, however, has been the impact of the revived Black Sea Fleet on Turkey, whose government has allowed Russian warships to transit the straits of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, but has not permitted the navies of other countries to go in the opposite direction. Not only does that allow Moscow to present itself as the master of the Black Sea and its littoral, but it also creates the conditions necessary for the launch of a new Russian Mediterranean flotilla.
The Turkish government’s decision allows the Russian navy to move between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean at its discretion, while other navies cannot do the same. That ability has become critical as Moscow clashes with the United States and Europe over the future of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The Black Sea Fleet gives Russia the opportunity to resupply Assad via Syria’s Mediterranean port city of Tartus, where Moscow maintains a naval resupply facility.
There may be more advanced navies operating in the region, but this base and the current rules governing the use of the Turkish straits are helping Russia overcome any disadvantages it has regarding naval equipment in the absence of combat operations, at least for the time being. And the fleet has the added bonus of being a powerful mechanism for the projection of Russian influence in the region at large.
Despite these successes, the Black Sea Fleet has some serious challenges ahead. One Moscow newspaper reported that within two years, most of the warships in the fleet would have to be decommissioned, and various Russian media outlets have made conflicting statements about when new ships will be ready.
Given the lead time for most naval construction, the Russian government will have to spend more – and soon – on the Black Sea Fleet if it is to fulfill its influence and power-projection missions. If other governments conclude that Russia is not willing or able to do so, the advantages that the revived Black Sea Fleet has brought Russia over the last five years could very well be lost.