Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Russian navy has suffered major naval losses in the Black Sea — including several of its large surface vessels. This failure to retain control against Ukraine´s Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) and cruise missile attacks highlights the difficulties that Russian naval forces face in the quest to meet the Kremlin’s ambitions.
But it would be wrong to assume that the Russian navy will no longer be a serious threat to NATO; particularly in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and High North.
Since the outbreak of full-scale war early in 2022, the Russian Navy’s Back Sea Fleet has had a difficult time supporting its forces deployed on land. Through the effective employment of USVs to conduct surprise attacks and kamikaze strikes, Ukraine has managed to inflict a significant degree of material damage on its opponent. The loss of the cruiser Moskva to Neptune missiles in April 2022 was a watershed moment for the Russian navy and another milestone in its gradual decline into a green water force (that’s to say a force largely operating in its littoral areas) over the coming years.
Indeed, as indicated by the recent withdrawal of vessels from the Sevastopol naval base and their subsequent relocation to Novorossiysk, 350km (200-plus miles) to the east, the consequences of the conflict for the Black Sea Fleet have prompted a decline of Russian naval power both in the region and in the number of large surface combatants more generally.
This suggests the Kremlin will be unable to field a truly blue water (or globally capable) navy in spite of the ambition to do so defined in its 2022 Maritime Doctrine. “Russia is unlikely to replace this fleet, and its navy´s surface fleet will increasingly become a littoral force built around smaller surface combatants which operate close to Russian-held shores,” according to Dr. Sidarth Khausal, a sea power expert at RUSI.
Yet, it will still remain a significant threat.
The “Fiscal 2023” naval exercise conducted by the Russian Pacific Fleet in the Chukchi and Bering Seas is a solid demonstration of Russia´s enduring naval capabilities. This scheduled, pre-announced operation has featured successful live fires into the Siberian peninsula, with the participation of surface warships (including the Slava-class RFS Varyag, the modified Udaloy-class destroyer RFS Marshal Shaposhnikov, or a Gremyashchiy-class corvette), submarines (the Oscar-class submarine RFS Tomsk), and coastal missile systems like the K-300P Bastion-P mobile system.
Furthermore, the joint Sino-Russian patrol conducted around the Pacific in August, which included joint naval exercises in the East China Sea region, was just the latest example of the growing naval cooperation between Moscow and Beijing´s PLA Navy.
This partnership should be particularly concerning in two regions: the Bering and Chukchi seas, and the Mediterranean. The former, one of the two entrances to the Arctic region, will become increasingly relevant as prospects for viable commercial routes draw closer. To face this, the US and its allies must strengthen their posture across the Aleutian Islands, which represent an excellent position to monitor regional activity, in cooperation with forces deployed in Alaska.
In the Mediterranean, Russian naval activity is still a major concern for NATO. From its current naval base in Tartus in Syria, Russian submarine deployments can pose a significant threat in the region, with the potential to be used for the establishment of an A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow´s recently announced intention to obtain docking rights in the Libyan ports of Benghazi or Tobruk are equally concerning, as they would provide the Kremlin with additional naval presence in NATO´s backyard if Libya allows it. Furthermore, the potential for Chinese use of bases in Tartus or Libya within the context of “a full-blown entente” between China and Russia should be carefully assessed.
Lastly, the revival of Russia´s “Bastion” defense strategy in the High North since 2012, stretching across the Norwegian and Barents seas as far as the critical Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap, includes long-range air defense systems, anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles (including the P-800 Oniks), and short-range base defense systems to protect its western flank. Its current submarine fleet includes seven ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), five cruise missile submarines (SSGNs), and nine nuclear-powered SSNs, allowing Russia to target ships around the Norwegian Sea from the safety of its own waters.
Aside from potential attacks against land targets, Russian efforts in the region are focused on critical undersea infrastructure, such as oil and gas platforms in the North Sea and the extensive network of submarine cables. Facing this will require NATO allies to strengthen their submarine deployments around the Norwegian/Barents seas, as well as their maritime surveillance capabilities.
Although weak in the Black Sea and with an aging fleet of surface combatants, the Russian naval threat is not dead. Nor will it be any time soon.
Gonzalo Vázquez holds a BA in international relations and is currently working as an Intern at the NATO Crisis Management & Disaster Response Center of Excellence in Bulgaria. He is a junior analyst with the Center for Naval Thought at the Spanish Naval War College, and a regular contributor with the Center for Maritime Strategy in Arlington, VA.
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.