Naval Power amid Political Turmoil
No. 2 2014 April/June
Prokhor Yu. Tebin

PhD in Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies
International Military-Political and Military-Economic Problems
Section Head


SPIN-RSCI: 3561-6090
ORCID: 0000-0001-6516-4581
ResearcherID: HMV-1575-2023
Scopus AuthorID: 57798416300

How the Strategic Situation Changes in the World Ocean

Naval power in the 21st century will probably play a greater role in foreign policies of maritime nations than in the 20th century. The 70/80/90 rule from the present U.S. naval strategy has already entered into wide use. This rule means that 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with seas and oceans, 80 percent of people live along coasts, and 90 percent of all world goods travel on the ocean. The world ocean is a source of an increasing number of conflicts and threats to international, regional and national security. Symbolically, the Ukrainian crisis, the most serious challenge for Russia’s foreign policy in recent years, is directly related to the naval power issue. This article discusses in this context the strategic situation in the world ocean, relations among maritime nations, and some aspects of Russia’s naval activities in the medium and long term.


What is the hierarchy among maritime nations and what are relations among them? For further discussion, let me use the following classification of these nations: 1) global powers; 2) large and small independent regional maritime powers; and 3) large and small regional powers seeking partnership with a global naval leader.

Naturally, I am not speaking of some constant or absolute terms. Countries from the second group can enter into a partnership with a global leader, while countries from the third group may have interests of their own, which may not coincide with those of the “boss.” A small regional power can become a large one, while a large one can become a global one.

The term “sea power” implies a somewhat modified classical formula proposed by Alfred Mahan: sea power equals naval forces (including the coast guard), plus economic and scientific activities in the World Ocean, plus naval bases (including foreign-based), plus civil shipbuilding and the military-industrial complex (in what concerns the production of armaments and military equipment for the Navy and the coast guard). While recognizing the necessity of all these elements, let me focus on the military-political one.

Obviously, the United States is now the only global sea power. This status implies the ability and readiness to defend national interests anywhere in the World Ocean, while reserving the right to act unilaterally, if necessary, without regard for the opinion of the international community. Political will and readiness to use force is as important a quality as the scale of the potential. At the same time, the U.S. power at sea in relative terms is obviously decreasing, as is recognized by the U.S. military themselves. For example, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said at the January 2014 National Symposium of the Surface Navy Association that “our historic dominance is diminishing.”

This trend was caused by external and internal factors. The former include the growth in absolute terms of the sea power of other countries, above all China, and the spread of advanced technologies and naval equipment which is becoming increasingly cheaper and more accessible to many countries. Internal factors include the effects of the economic crisis and a large-scale sequestration of defense spending.

The United States is facing the threat of reducing the number of its ships. Naval development is characterized by building fewer expensive ships. Many key programs, such as the construction of the USS Gerald R. Ford new-generation supercarrier, littoral combat ships, and F-35B and F-35C fifth-generation carrier-based fighters, meet with the problem of growing costs, failures to meet schedule, and great technical risks. It remains an open question whether these or other technologies, in which so many resources have been invested, can help the U.S. to retain its superiority in the long term (30 to 50 years).

The U.S. Navy hopes to preserve its status of the global leader in strength and quality. To this end, it has launched a 30-year shipbuilding plan intended to increase the naval fleet from the present 283 ships to 300 in fiscal year 2019. But, according to recent estimates of the Congressional Budget Office, this program will require about $21.2 billion annually during 30 years. In the meantime, annual allocations over the past three decades have stood at only 15.8 billion dollars (in comparable prices). Therefore, the implementation of the 30-year shipbuilding plan will require increasing spending by 34 percent, compared with the average figures. Some technological problems and the sequestration of defense spending only exacerbate the problem.

In a way, the situation is similar to the period after the Vietnam War, which is often called a time of exhaustion. The word “exhaustion” can be applied to all branches of the Armed Forces, but it may have the most pernicious effect on the Navy. Now, as in the 1970s, high operational load on the fleet and the lack of funding have seriously affected the technical condition of ships and naval aviation. The nature of sequestration mechanisms makes spending cuts inflexible and adversely affects military training and maintenance in what concerns the protection of personnel spending. Although personnel spending is protected against sequestration, the problem of staffing ships and shore facilities with a sufficient number of qualified specialists is also a threat to sea power.

Apart from the United States, there are several independent regional sea powers which pay much attention to strengthening their naval potential. In this case, the term “regional” means a capability and readiness to use sea power in some regions of the world, including those far from their borders, for large maritime nations, and in one or two regions, mainly near their borders, for small ones.

Large independent sea powers include, apart from Russia (which will be discussed separately), India and China. These countries have different goals and tasks concerning the build-up of their sea power, different ways and resources available for that, and different attitudes towards the United States as a global maritime nation. Whereas India views the United States as a partner and, possibly, a potential ally (which would allow it to move to the third group of countries, which will be discussed below), China’s key goal in developing its sea power is to limit Washington’s ability to influence Chinese policies in the Western Pacific, including the Taiwan issue.

Small independent maritime nations include Brazil, Turkey (despite its NATO member status) and, with some reservations, Iran and North Korea. Brazil and Turkey, which pursue their own interests, seek to strengthen their sea power to increase their regional influence. For Iran and North Korea, the main task is to prevent a U.S. attack.

Finally, the third, largest category of maritime nations includes U.S. allies in Europe and Asia-Pacific. The largest of them are the UK, France, Japan and, with some reservations, South Korea, and the smaller ones, Spain, Germany, Italy and Australia.

In this group of countries, we are also witnessing some growth in the sea power of individual states with regard to America, primarily due to Asian countries responding to China’s growing potential and ambitions, as well as those having some other interests and facing threats. No less important is the desire of the United States to share with its allies the burden of protecting the existing world order and ensuring international and regional security. Back in 2005, the then-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Mullen, said: “The changed strategic landscape offers new opportunities for maritime forces to work together — sometimes with the U.S. Navy, but oftentimes without. In fact, a greater number of today’s emerging missions won’t involve the U.S. Navy. And that’s fine with me.”

The Obama administration has the same position. For example, addressing the 45th Munich Security Conference in early 2009, Vice President Joseph Biden said that “America will ask its partners to do more as well” (in combating economic and security challenges).

The key goal of the U.S. and its allies is to preserve the existing balance of power and status quo and protect the established world maritime trade system. This goal is not only viewed as a national interest of a particular state but also as “common good.” After all, it is about national security of every state, yet more resources are needed. Often, the notion of common good is coupled with the idea of ??human rights, inherited from the concept of “humanitarian intervention”; however, this idea cannot serve as a basis for a pragmatic naval strategy if it does not serve general military-political and economic interests.

In the conditions of globalization and the growing interconnection and interdependence of individual countries, maritime nations cannot afford to focus solely on the protection of their own security and have to work for the “common good” because destabilization in one region has a negative impact on many outside countries and the world at large. The Western alliance views other countries as playing one of the following four roles: 1) partners and potential allies; 2) fringe countries that do not contribute to, and yet do not oppose “common good”; 3) “net consumers” of security, which do not have enough resources; and 4) sources of threats.

The United States seeks to influence other countries, encouraging them to change their behavior. For example, China, viewed as one of the most serious potential threats to the existing balance of power, has been repeatedly asked by Washington and some other capitals to be a “responsible player” and to contribute to the “common good.” With respect to countries that are less inclined to cooperate, such as Iran and North Korea, the United States takes a tougher position, yet it is always ready to soften it somewhat if there is hope for at least a temporary compromise.

Many of Washington’s allies, especially in Europe, are facing the same challenges as the United States. The absence of a direct military threat and the economic situation prompt them to reduce defense spending, and undermine the desire to preserve a large naval potential. Here again we should emphasize not only countries’ capabilities but also their readiness to cooperate in the protection of the “common good” and, if necessary, to get involved in new conflicts.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a symptomatic statement in January. He said that reductions in defense spending in the UK meant that it would not have “full spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner” to the United States. Although Gates’ remarks with regard to Britain are not quite fair – the UK has the world’s fourth largest defense budget and is implementing, despite some difficulties, major naval development programs – the former Pentagon chief’s statement clearly illustrates the problem. There are, of course, examples to the contrary, in particular, more active policies of France and the operations in Libya and Mali.

The situation in the Asia-Pacific region is more favorable to the United States – fear of China and/or North Korea makes countries in the region actively build up their sea power and strengthen security partnerships with Washington, with each other and with third countries (for example, India). Such countries as India and Vietnam can become new valuable allies of the U.S. in restraining China and maintaining the status quo. Yet, the U.S. cannot be certain whether it can expect due support from its allies (first of all, South Korea, and, under certain circumstances, Japan and Australia) in case of a serious military conflict with China.


Despite the sharp rhetoric and contradictions with regard to international security matters, the U.S. and its allies rather view Russia as a fringe state having interests that differ from theirs but not posing an obvious threat at present. Changes in Russia’s foreign policy are conducive to cooperation or confrontation.

Russia seeks to restore its sea power lost after the Soviet Union’s break-up, and to outline and defend the area of its direct vital interests. Initially this area included only the country’s territory. In the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, Russia was primarily busy combating domestic threats and defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity. In those years, it did not have capabilities or a vital need to uphold its interests in the World Ocean beyond its borders. Its reaction to the NATO operation in Yugoslavia in 1999 was an illustrative example of that.

Newly arisen opportunities and the gradual overcoming of the consequences of the Soviet Union’s disintegration prompted Moscow to try to expand the area of its influence and challenge the existing world order. Vladimir Putin’s Munich speech on February 10, 2007, was a declaration of Russia’s new policy. A year later, during the military conflict with Georgia, Russia demonstrated its readiness to take unilateral action beyond its borders. Political pressure from the West and a U.S. attempt at muscle-flexing in the Black Sea had little effect, although they might have had a role in restraining Moscow in the conflict that stopped short of becoming an operation to change the regime in Tbilisi.

In 2014, we witnessed a rapid development of the conflict in Ukraine, in which Crimea refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new authorities in Kiev and which provoked one of the most serious international crises in the 21st century. It directly concerns Russia’s sea power. Firstly, it was the presence of a major naval base in the region that enabled Russia to prevent the new Ukrainian authorities from establishing control over Crimea. Secondly, the need to protect the base and guarantee its use by the Russian Navy amid tough anti-Russian rhetoric in Kiev was one of the reasons why Russia did not put up with the coup and chose to aggravate Russian-Ukrainian relations. As in 2008, it has become clear that the United States is not ready to use its sea power to escalate relations with Russia and to seriously challenge its position in the Black Sea.

The change of priorities in the field of national security in the 2000s-2010s essentially influences Russia’s defense policy in the World Ocean and requires a new naval strategy. Moscow should be ready to balance between China and the U.S., viewing both countries as potential partners and rivals. Russia will not benefit from dramatic changes in the balance of power in favor of the United States or China. While the U.S. Navy dominates the oceans, Moscow will benefit from cooperating with Beijing, which gives it important, albeit tacit, support on key issues of world politics.

But if the growth of China’s might and the sequestration of defense spending weakens the Americans too much, Moscow may consider closer rapprochement with Washington. Russia should harbor no illusions about China becoming its long-term strategic ally. Also, one should not exaggerate the threat of a direct armed conflict with the United States and/or NATO. The parties’ strategic nuclear forces and the danger that the conflict may escalate into a nuclear war make such a scenario highly unlikely.

Russia should seek to strengthen its authority in the international arena and its ability to influence international developments. It should also play a role in protecting the “common good.” A pragmatic and balanced policy will allow Russia to build its own zone of influence, as Russia’s readiness to cooperate with the United States on certain international security issues will make it easier for Moscow to convince Washington of the need for concessions on other issues.

Russia’s sea power is to be applied in: 1) the coastal maritime zone, and 2) off-shore maritime zone. Currently, the emphasis is made on the first zone where the following tasks are to be accomplished:

  • ensuring strategic deterrence by means of the naval component of the strategic nuclear forces;
  • defending the country – protecting the sea borders; ensuring conventional deterrence; and putting up defense in theaters of operations adjacent to Russia’s borders in case of a hypothetical military aggression;
  • protecting economic interests in territorial waters, the exclusive economic zone and on the shelf;
  • ensuring awareness of the situation in the World Ocean (supporting the system of covering the air, surface and subsurface situation) within the exclusive economic zone and the shelf area.

In the future, Russia may seek to expand the zone of its influence in the World Ocean, which now includes the Russian sector of the Arctic, the Sea of Okhotsk, parts of the Sea of Japan and the Bering Sea, and the Black Sea. In the foreseeable future, the U.S. will retain its superiority in sea power, and Russia may, like China, rely on access denial systems. However, whereas there are some disagreements between Beijing and Washington that may evolve into a military or a serious political conflict, there are no serious conflicts that may bring about a clash between the U.S. and Russia, including in the World Ocean.


The second group of tasks to be fulfilled by the Russian Navy relate to the off-shore maritime zone. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union built an ocean-going navy, which was the world’s second largest after the U.S. Navy. However, the Soviet Navy was highly specialized and pursued only one goal – that of successfully countering NATO forces in peace- and wartime. Hence its oceanic tasks: tracking and combating nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles (SSBNs) and carrier strike groups of a potential enemy. In addition, the Soviet Navy was built in conditions of a disproportionate strain of the economy. These two factors largely predetermined the Navy’s demise in the 1990s.

Now the Navy has a real hope for revival. An effective national security policy of Russia is impossible without a navy capable of accomplishing tasks in the off-shore maritime zone. For the navy to withstand economic crises and changes in foreign policy and in the country’s political leadership, its construction must correspond to the country’s economic potential and the need for multi-purpose ships. This implies a wide range of tasks that the Navy is to effectively accomplish in the off-shore maritime zone:

  • projecting power in local conflicts against a relatively weak enemy;
  • conducting operations to gain/contest naval supremacy against a comparable or superior enemy;
  • in peacetime – conventional deterrence, naval diplomacy and demonstration of the flag, effective protection of Russian citizens and economic interests;
  • operations in the surface, subsurface, air, outer space and information environments, and sea-to-shore operations;
  • ensuring awareness of the situation in the World Ocean beyond the exclusive economic zone and the shelf;
  • ensuring sea security, including combating piracy, terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking;
  • combating WMD proliferation;
  • providing humanitarian aid.

Russia’s naval actions during the recent crisis in Syria demonstrated Moscow’s ability to effectively use its Navy to accomplish foreign-policy tasks in the off-shore maritime zone, and, at the same time, an acute shortage of instruments. The replacement of the Soviet heritage requires building new ships for operation in the off-shore maritime zone, that would be capable of accomplishing a wide range of tasks. In addition, it provides for a permanent presence of Russian ships in ocean areas that are key to national security.


The scope of this article does not permit detailed analysis of building a navy capable of accomplishing the above-mentioned tasks. So I will name only the main aspects.

Naval development should be consistent and systemic, with due account for limitations on resources. This requires setting priorities and looking for compromises. This process must be in the focus of attention of the country’s top leadership. To avoid mistakes made in the Soviet period, training personnel and creating infrastructure and a logistic system should be done in parallel – ideally, this should be done prior to the construction of ships. In addition, an ocean-going navy requires a developed auxiliary fleet.

Naval development should be based on economic and military-political rationale: the analysis and ranking of national security threats in the oceans, naval tasks, potential enemy forces, and models for using the Navy at tactical, operational and strategic levels. This requires maximum openness of the process to make Russian citizens and foreign governments more informed. Naturally, many documents will not be available to the public, but the traditional policy of “classifying anything and everything” should be given up.

The navy should be built as a “system of systems”: the Navy’s structure should be balanced, and each specific system – an SSBN or an amphibious assault ship – should be the entirety of all necessary components, that is, an integrated weapon system. Russia should avoid problems like those it faced in building the Bulava-Borei system or weapons for other surface ships and submarines. By way of example, suffice it to mention the need to build air groups and landing craft, balanced in composition and tasks, for Russian-bought Mistral-class ships. If this task is not accomplished, the helicopter carriers will not become a full-fledged complex, at least at the first stage.

The naval development program should provide for building a navy whose structure and strength will meet tasks stemming from the naval strategy, and budget allocations. The Navy should have a military-industrial complex of its own; yet arms imports should not be viewed as unacceptable, at least at the initial stage. Even the United States and its allies, as well as China, which give priority to the development of their own defense industries, maintain military-technical cooperation with other countries. Deep modernization and the repair of Soviet-built ships is an inevitable measure at the first stage, until the Navy starts receiving the required amount of new ships.

Speaking of the Navy’s structure, one should define a balance between tasks to be accomplished in the coastal and off-shore maritime zones, as well as priorities in building ships and facilities for use in these zones. The country needs a powerful coastal fleet (including non-nuclear submarines, ships for the protection of sea areas, over-the-horizon tracking stations, systems for covering the air, surface and subsurface situation, land-based naval aviation, and a well-armed coast guard) an “oceanic fist” for accomplishing peace and wartime tasks (a nuclear submarine fleet, amphibious assault ships for use in the off-shore maritime zone, and frigates), and an auxiliary fleet.

It is now time to think of a more challenging task, namely, the development and construction of a destroyer (a multipurpose ship for operation in the off-shore maritime zone) and an aircraft carrier of a new generation. Successful implementation of these programs is very difficult and expensive, but without them it is impossible to create a balanced navy.

The development and modernization of the maritime strategic nuclear forces is a must, yet this should not be done at the expense of general-purpose naval forces. It should be viewed predominantly in the context of the development of all strategic nuclear forces, not just the Navy.

Russia should pay more attention to the development of its Black Sea and Pacific fleets. In the current strategic situation, the Pacific Fleet should be given priority over the Northern Fleet, and the Black Sea Fleet, priority over the Baltic Fleet.

The role of the Pacific Fleet is determined by the shift of the geopolitical center of influence to the Asia-Pacific region amid the weakening of Russia’s military-political potential there. This is where the leading large and small maritime nations (the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Australia) are located and where there are many seats of interstate conflict. The importance of the Black Sea Fleet is hard to overestimate against the background of the Georgian, Syrian and Ukrainian crises. In addition, it is the Black Sea that offers the shortest way for Russia to the Mediterranean Sea and, via it, to the Indian Ocean. The Black Sea is where Russia’s largest commercial seaport, Novorossiysk, is situated.

Finally, Russia’s Black Sea seaside is characterized by the most favorable climatic conditions in the country for naval bases. The Northern Fleet, tasked to protect Russian interests in the Arctic, will remain a major regional fleet comparable in power to the Pacific Fleet. However, a redistribution of resources in favor of the Pacific and Black Sea fleets will deprive it of the status of Russia’s most powerful fleet, which it has had since the Soviet times. The Baltic Fleet also needs to be renovated, but its role should be reduced to a small coastal fleet without oceanic functions. In the foreseeable future, it will be armed with new surface warships and non-nuclear submarines to be built in western Russia. After all stages of testing and initial crew training, most of the new ships will go to the Pacific, Northern and Black Sea fleets. In the Caspian Sea, Russia should maintain absolute superiority over other countries of the region, which is easy to do though.

According to available information regarding plans to replace and modernize warships in service with the Russian Navy, the aforementioned regional priorities for developing Russia’s sea power have already been accepted.

A navy is a necessity, rather than an “expensive toy” or a “burden” for the armed forces and the country as a whole. The World Ocean is a key space for international relations and military policies of the great powers. It depends only on Russia whether it becomes an active player in this space or a passive observer.