Russia's Black Sea fleet, neglected by the West [video]
Updated: Feb 7
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s naval fleets have been severely neglected. Corruption, defense budget shortfalls, and higher military priorities are among the factors that have prevented the modernization and buildup of the Russian navy.
Of the four separate naval fleets—the Baltic, Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific Fleets—Russia’s Black Sea Fleet remains one of the most neglected and obsolete. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war revealed to Russia the need to modernize and increase the size of its Black Sea Fleet, which was reinforced during the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea when NATO naval presence increased in the region.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an authoritative strategic coup by Russia that had two immediate effects: it removed Kiev’s ability to constrain Russia’s Black Sea Fleet buildup and modernization, and it increased the size and strength of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Prior to Crimea’s annexation, Kiev and Moscow had an agreement known as the Kharkov Agreement, which was signed into effect on April 21, 2010 by Dmitry Medvedev, then the Russian president, and Viktor Yanukovych, then the Ukrainian president.
Under the Kharkov Agreement, Russia leased the Black Sea Fleet from Ukraine, which was primarily located in Ukraine’s Sevastopol naval port on Crimea. Through the conditions of the lease, Kiev was able to prevent any buildup or modernization of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from occurring. By annexing Crimea, however, Russia forcefully freed the Black Sea Fleet from Kiev’s restrictive conditions.
Current composition and limitations
The Black Sea Fleet currently consists of 45 warships and 7 submarines stationed principally out of Sevastopol, located on the west side of the Crimea, and Novorossiysk, located on the west bank of Russia proper. The fleet’s warships constitute 21 percent of total Russian naval warships in service and 10 percent of the total submarine force.
With the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia regained the acclaimed strategic port of Sevastopol on the Crimea, which is home to approximately 80 percent of the total tonnage of the Black Sea Fleet, and which is the only year-round ice-free and deep water port the Russians own in the region that is able to moor large warships.
Crimea also offers the port of Feodossia that hosts approximately nine percent of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. With approximately 90 percent of the Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea, the significance of Crimea’s annexation by Russia becomes abundantly clear: it provides Russia with greater security structures and freedom of maneuver for the vast majority of its Black Sea Fleet.
Furthermore, Russia’s navy is comprised largely of Soviet legacy ships that are considerably outdated and in need of much maintenance and repair due to neglect throughout the 1990s and into the mid-2000s. For instance, the Office of Naval Intelligence assesses that the majority of Russia’s ships and submarines are aged well over 20 years, and were built with a 25-year service life.
Currently, the Soviet legacy ships of the Black Sea Fleet are mostly only capable of green water missions that support local defense within the Black Sea and have limited blue water capability for deployment beyond the region.
It is clear that Russia’s Soviet legacy ships have come near the end of their lifespans. As a result, many will be decommissioned in the coming years. With proper maintenance and modern upgrades, however, the operational lives of these ships can be extended 15 to 20 years.
Russia recognizes its predicament and knows that in order to claim the status of a great power within the Black Sea region it must repair and modernize its current warships, as well as commission new ships into service with the most current technology available.
Naval buildup and modernization
Due to the state of their naval fleets, Russia is ambitiously pursuing its State Armaments Procurement Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020) initiative, which plans to modernize and increase the size of its naval fleets.
As a result, the Black Sea Fleet has been allocated much of the funding and materiel because Moscow considers it to be one of the top priorities of the initiative, whereas it provides the Navy with the equivalent of 112.4 billion euros of the Russian defense budget to reach its goal by the year 2020.
As many as 18 new warships are anticipated to be commissioned into the Black Sea Fleet by 2020, with more to come in the years after. Funding is also being allocated to the Sevastopol and Novorossiysk naval bases to upgrade their facilities for greater operational readiness.
In addition to upgrading many of the older Soviet legacy ships to remain operational into the near future, the initiative further plans to add many new warships and submarines to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Some of these units have already been commissioned and are now operational, and more are expected to follow by 2020.
The following naval vessels are believed to be on the agenda for commissioning into the Black Sea Fleet by 2020: six multi-purpose Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates, one or two high-sea multi-purpose Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, one or two Yastreb–class frigates, six Kilo-class submarines, one or two Ivan Gren-class amphibious landing ships, and up to four missile corvettes for near-shore operations.
Some limitations to the SAP-2020 initiative do exist, however. For instance, similar initiatives in the recent past have failed to come to fruition due to the high level of corruption and a lack of financing. Multiple reports have been released outlining how an estimated 50 percent of the Russian military’s procurement money is spent on general corruption, especially bribes. In 2009 alone, corruption resulted in the loss of one billion rubles of its military procurement money, according to the Russian Audit Chamber.
Furthermore, since the Russian defense budget is tied to the prosperity of the country’s oil and gas exports that make up such a large portion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a continuation of the SAP-2020 budget will depend on steady and rising prices for these export commodities in the future.
Should the economy stagnate and exports decrease, the full budget allocated for the initiative may be reduced, with funds reallocated to more pressing needs within the civilian sector of the state.
With the acquisition of Crimean oil and gas fields, as well as a crackdown on the corruption of military spending in recent years, the initiative may still prove successful. Many of the planned ships have already been commissioned, proving Russia’s dedication to see it through. Once these ships are commissioned, the Black Sea Fleet will prove a formidable naval power in the Black Sea region and beyond.
The future Black Sea fleet
Once the SAP-2020 initiative is fulfilled, it is expected that Russia will continue its naval buildup for at least the next 10 to 20 years, placing more modern and advanced ships at the disposal of the Black Sea Fleet commander—currently Admiral Aleksandr Vitko. This is evident since Russia has already been working on plans for its next procurement cycle that spans from 2018 to 2025.
Russia intends to release SAP-2025 in 2018, which will allocate further funding to continue the buildup and modernization of the Black Sea Fleet through 2025. In the following years, the Black Sea Fleet will become even more capable of acting as an instrument of state supporting Russian national interests in the region.
The primary missions of the Black Sea Fleet are not expected to change drastically in the near future, whereas the SAP-2020 initiative will serve to better support the current missions; the SAP-2025 initiative is expected to follow suit.
These missions include, but are not limited to, protecting the enlarged Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), securing navigation and sea lines of communication, exercising military and political control in the region, promoting and protecting Russian economic and security interests in and around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, supporting other Russian fleets operating in the Mediterranean Sea, and maintaining military dominance against perceived U.S. and NATO threats in the Black Sea.
The enhanced Black Sea Fleet will also be more capable of providing Russia with a strategic layered defense that only its navy has the ability to provide.
The new Kilo-class submarines and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates will be able to provide forward defense by deploying in order to threaten missile-launching platforms. The Black Sea Fleet will probably be most effective in intermediate and close-in defense, however. In this respect, the new platforms will provide a bolstered missile defense shield around Russia’s southern flank, as well as anti-ship cruise missiles for coastal defense.
The Black Sea Fleet modernization and buildup initiative is going to provide Russia with the capability to access the greater oceans and to exert its influence throughout areas located along the world’s major shipping lanes.
Russia’s increased presence around the world’s oceans will present new challenges for the United States and its NATO Allies, while presenting further opportunity for Russia in pursuit of its protracted interests.
An enlarged and more advanced Black Sea Fleet has the potential to provoke substantial tension with the United States and NATO, especially in the Mediterranean Sea.
Nevertheless, it also has the potential to act as a security partner for the Alliance for operations against regional—and cross-regional—terrorism, trafficking, and piracy.
The pursuit of regional cooperation would be beneficial to all parties; however, continued modernization and buildup of its Black Sea Fleet signals that Russian interests are not running a parallel course to the interests of the United States and its NATO Allies.