Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new Marine Doctrine on July 31. It took into account not only the Marine Doctrine of 2015, which described the general approaches of the Russian Federation to the development of the world’s oceans but also the 2017 Fundamentals of state policy in the field of naval activities for the period until 2030.
There’s quite a lot that is new and will concern Russia’s opponents.
The 2022 Marine Doctrine is more militarized and is squarely based on opposition to the United States. The new document notes that Russia’s independent foreign and domestic policy provokes opposition from the US and its allies, who attempt to maintain their dominance in the world, including on the oceans. The US seeks to limit Russian access to resources, and to establish the overwhelming superiority of its naval forces. Its policy of containing Russia takes the form of exerting pressure in various spheres.
In response, Russia plans to strengthen its presence and activities on the high seas. However, so far, Russia acknowledges it lacks a sufficient number of ports outside the national territory. It has some bases (logistics points) in Syria, Sudan, and Vietnam. It plans to develop these and create new bases in the Asia-Pacific Region, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. This requirement may have been borne home to Russian naval commanders when, during preparations for war in Ukraine in December, ships of the Pacific Fleet transited to the Mediterranean.
In addition to the above, the doctrine identifies India, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as priority states, although it is impossible to exclude the possibility that other states might be ready to provide Russia with military infrastructure. According to Russia, military and military-technical cooperation, i.e., military supplies to interested states, should serve as a means to negotiate the long-term presence of its navy.
Unlike past Russian marine documents, the new doctrine no longer refers to the threat to Russia from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technologies. This is probably a signal to regimes in North Korea and Iran that Russia now views military cooperation with them as more important than violations of international agreements.
At the same time, strengthening its maritime presence in the Baltic in response to the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, which might have been expected, is not mentioned; a seeming confirmation of earlier analysis that its capabilities in this region are extremely limited.
For the first time, Russia has identified vital areas of the oceans for itself. These include internal and territorial waters, the exclusive economic zone of the country and its continental shelf, as well as the Arctic basin, including the waters of the Northern Sea Route (which runs along the country’s northern coast), the Sea of Okhotsk and the Russian sector of the Caspian Sea. According to the doctrine, the loss of control over any one of these may endanger the national security of the Russian Federation and the very existence of the state. Accordingly, according to Russia’s Military Doctrine, the security of these regions is, by definition, protected by nuclear weapons.
For the first time too, attempts by some states to change the existing legal regimes of marine spaces and straits used for international navigation in the interests of achieving their own geopolitical goals are referred to as threats. Here we can recall the dissatisfaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry with the still-unratified 1990 agreement between the US and the Russian Federation for the management of the Bering Strait, which Russia says meant the loss of 77,700 square kilometers of water area and shelf. Probably, it also indicates dissatisfaction with the Montreux Convention which regulates marine traffic through from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Turkey cited the convention in closing the strait to Russian (and NATO) warships after the full-scale invasion began in February.
Russia also plans to take full control of the Northern Sea Route, and its Arctic straits, and to designate it a national transport communication route. To do this, the Russian Defense Ministry proposed in July to oblige foreign military and state vessels to enter the waters of the Northern Sea Route only with a diplomatic permit. Previously, this applied only to commercial shipping. Moreover, according to the new doctrine, the sea route will now be under the command not only of the Northern Fleet as before but also the Pacific Fleet.
While in the previous doctrine Russia still considered the international legal regulation of use in the Kerch Strait (between Russia and Ukraine), in the new document this point has been removed. Now Russia officially considers it to be part of its territorial waters. In the new marine doctrine, for the first time, national interests indicate state and territorial integrity. This is probably a hint that Russia will declare the Black Sea area around Crimea as national waters, regardless of what the US and other NATO allies think about this. To do this, Russia intends to improve and develop its Black Sea Fleet.
Moreover, for the first time, the doctrine asserts a need for regional deterrence, meaning that the Russian Federation declares that each fleet can carry out an independent policy to deter the enemy with both nuclear, and strategic non-nuclear weapons, according to need.
Russia also hopes to build aircraft carriers, although it has very little experience in the construction of these large warships. The Zvezda plant in Primorye, which is earmarked to build the vessels, is still in the midst of a modernization plan. And since all the machines and equipment required are foreign, the prospects are uncertain, given the sanctions regime. In addition, Russia has no vertical take-off aircraft and no experience in building catapults. This part of the document should therefore be seen as stating an ambition rather than a plan.
However, the direction of travel is clear. Russia will strengthen its military presence on the world’s oceans. In some sea areas, Russia will seek to dictate conditions, including by military force and nuclear threats, so increasing the risks of confrontation.
It will also strive to ensure a permanent and enhanced presence on the high seas and to co-opt friendly states in the fight against US dominance and in particular, maritime dominance.
Maxim Starchak is an independent expert on Russian nuclear policy, defense, and the nuclear industry. Based in Moscow, he is a Fellow at the Centre for International and Defence Policy of Queen’s University in Canada, and a contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. He has also written for the Atlantic Council, FPRI, Marshall Center, and others.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.