The new Russian maritime strategy

(To Renato Scarfi)

Unlike the US approach, where the US Navy has always defined its own role and strategy, the Soviet and Russian Navy were considered for many years as subordinate to the country's general military strategy, dominated by land forces. From this perspective, only the underwater component had a strategic role, even if framed in an exquisitely continental perspective (read article "The Russian naval strategy").

For a few years, however, the Russian naval component seems to have taken on a different guise, less conditioned by the land components. A conceptual transformation that is clearly evident in the latest version of the Russian maritime strategy, which in 55 pages replaces the 2015 document. In this new vision, presented in July 2022 (with the war underway), it is highlighted how “…the modern Russian Federation cannot exist without a strong navy…” and objectives are outlined for make Russia a global maritime power, taking into account the significant geopolitical changes that have occurred in recent years, both regionally and internationally. In this regard, due to the Russian perception of the dangers it would have to face (read article "Russian perception of threats to its existence”) but also due to the progressive serious deterioration of Moscow's relations with Western countries, a world with a significant growth in the level of conflict is foreshadowed and indicates in the sea ​​the chessboard where the game for the definition of the next world balance will be played.

The ideological basis of the new document is represented by the belief that Russia is surrounded by enemies who seek to violate its sovereignty, with military pressure or with the spread of extremist ideas. In fact, a wide range of perceptions are mentioned threats to national security, including activities online, the "Westernization of culture", the imposition of foreign moral values, underlining their supposedly destructive impact on Russian society.

Presenting the document in St. Petersburg, in front of the leaders of the Voenno-Morskoi Flot (VMF), Putin recalled Tsar Peter the Great, founder of the city, and explained that he wants restore Russia to being an influential power on the seas.

It should, however, be underlined that the deterioration of international relations with Moscow is due on the one hand to the Russian desire to recover global geopolitical weight, while on the other there is the distrust generated by the unscrupulousness and cynicism with which Putin acts with the intent to regain the influence lost after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event experienced by leadership snores like a serious defeat. Unscrupulousness and cynicism which today many countries perceive as one serious threat to their integrity and freedom.

It is for this reason that it seems appropriate to delve deeper into what the Russian maritime approach should be, a country that has a huge nuclear arsenal and still has a fearsome strategic underwater fleet.

Main maritime areas and activities of interest in Moscow

The document significantly increases the list of Russian national interests in the maritime domain, passing from eight to fourteen points and dividing the oceans into vital, important and other areas.

In this context, the main innovation is represented by the classification of the Arctic area as vital, which has become one region of global competition not only economic but also military. In this regard, the importance of the "North-East passage" is emphasised, a route that can be expected to be used all year round in the future. About ten thousand kilometers long, it will lead from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait, developing almost entirely along the northern coast of the Russian Federation and representing the main transport route for goods from the Pacific to Russia. This would be a considerably shorter route than the one passing through the Strait of Malacca, the Indian Ocean, Suez and the Mediterranean but which, at the moment, represents only a geographical concept that Russia declines in terms of Northern Sea Route (NSR), a communication route considered "internal" by the Russians, whose value for the world economy is still being evaluated.

The Russian vision is essentially that of the Great North as its own living space, within which each transit would be subject to prior notification. This obligation should also concern warships and ships in government service and this has already raised numerous well-founded concerns, as this obligation does not respect the prerogatives of sovereign immunity enjoyed by such ships.

Russia therefore expresses one territorialistic vision of their seas adjacent, wanting overall to exercise full jurisdiction over a much larger area than the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). (read article “Exclusive economic zone and maritime power")

Regarding thePacific area, the new Russian document recognizes as priorities an economic and infrastructural rapprochement with the Far East, the development of more complex economic ties with foreign countries and the extension of national transport and logistics potential. Also mentioned is the importance of ensuring the naval presence of the VMF in the Asia-Pacific region, including the formation of logistics centers on the territory of foreign states, as well as the development of infrastructure for national shipbuilding in the Far East, including for creation of modern aircraft carriers and naval drones. For Moscow, the Pacific therefore represents an area of ​​extreme interest, which is continually growing.

In 'Indian Ocean the list of countries whose development of relations with Russia is recognized as a priority of national maritime policy in the region has been significantly expanded. In addition to India, whose status was updated from "friendly ties" to "strategic partnership", the list includes Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the need to maintain Russia's naval presence in the Persian Gulf is underlined.

In Antarctic Moscow emphasizes the need to maintain equal conditions for international cooperation and prevent the militarization of the region. The important role of Russia's permanent and active presence as a member of the Antarctic Treaty system and the need to develop field stations and bases by the Russian Antarctic expedition is also recalled.

Relating toAtlantic area, the document emphasizes the contrast with NATO, perceived as an unacceptable threat increasingly closer to the borders of the Federation. As regards waters of direct interest to our country, Moscow lists the Mediterranean Sea as important for safeguarding national maritime interests, both strategic and economic (the relevant section has been expanded compared to the 2015 version), together with the Black Sea, the Sea of ​​Azov and the Baltic Sea.

As regards the Black Sea, Russia plans to expand the fleet whose flagship, the guided-missile cruiser Moscow, the first unit of the “Slava” class (in Russian “Gloria”), was sunk on 14 April 2022 by two missiles launched from Ukraine. (read article “Military and geopolitical implications of the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moscow")

As regards the main activities that allow us to be more effectively present in the areas of strategic interest, particular emphasis is given to growth in shipbuilding, which will be given special attention and developed “…regardless of the external situation…”, with the aim of improving national naval capabilities, with particular reference to aircraft carriers and naval drones. Furthermore, the commitment to create a better system for professional preparation and support for maritime sector personnel is also mentioned. Finally, a new section provides for the carrying out of international maritime cooperation activities, with particular emphasis on the activities ofInternational Maritime Organization (IMO) and for carrying out naval diplomacy activities, through joint exercises and regular stops in foreign ports.

The weaknesses of Russia's new global maritime strategy

Despite important expectations, the new Russian maritime strategy presents legal, conceptual and structural weaknesses.

First of all, Russia's unrealistic claims to the Arctic do not find support due to the imperfect delimitation of those international maritime areas, which leaves much room for interpretation. This does not allow Russia to support its claims with the necessary legal instruments and allows the other Arctic countries (the Arctic Council consists of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, the United States and Sweden)i to put up solid resistance.

Moscow then considers the attempts to update the Montreaux Convention on the regime of the Straits to be aggressive moves and fears that this could be revised in a restrictive sense, which would cause further problems for its ability to transfer military ships from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Already today Ankara, although quite "tender" towards Moscow, following the Ukrainian events has blocked the passage of any Russian military ship through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus.

Then there is the question of the numerical consistency and efficiency of the naval units. The sinkings of Moscow and subsequently of other significant Russian unitsii, which caused a lot of media hype, highlighted a number of issues regarding the efficiency and operational capacity of the VMF.

Due to the drastic quantitative reduction resulting from budget cuts, in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the VMF was probably the Armed Force that suffered the greatest penalties in terms of operational capacity. With the loss of personnel, the loss of production and maintenance infrastructure and the loss of bases, the Russian high seas fleet remained unused for a long time, so much so that it now seemed only a shadow of its former Navy. Soviet. Only strategic submarines have benefited, over time, from significant investments for the renewal of the component.

As a result, surface units today present contrasting realities, with corvettes being the newest and most modern units. The major offshore units, in fact, find themselves in a rather delicate situation because, despite having remained their overall war potential unchanged, are mainly composed of obsolete units, essentially left over from the Soviet era. In this context, theAdmiral Kuznetsov, the only aircraft carrier unit formally still in service, is affected by serious technical problems and is limited to a few brief trips to sea for propaganda purposes. At the moment, for example, it has been under construction in Mourmansk since May 2022. Only some larger units have benefited from modernization, while the remainder have largely outdated electronic equipment or have been decimated due to recurring failures. In essence, the "Udaloy" class ASW frigates represent the hard core of the offshore fleet.

This calls into question the national arsenals and shipyards. Russian shipbuilding is going through today more than ever major problems in the creation of surface units in a reasonable time of a certain tonnage, partly for exogenous reasons (gas turbines were built in Ukraine by Zorya Mashproekt of Mykolaiv, in the south of the country, which was impregnable by the Russian troops) but also for endogenous reasons, given the high endemic corruption and the failed management of some important shipyards.

In this regard, the Russian document recognizes that the availability of modern infrastructure, independent of external interests, is one of the main conditions for guaranteeing national security and sustainable development of the population of the Russian Federation. Given that in Soviet times, the largest shipyard was located in Ukraine, in Mikolaiv, today the problem arises of where to build a suitable structure that can ensure the creation of ships adequate to the Russian level of ambition. Just to clarify the terms of the problem, Mikolaiv is the place where the Moscow, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet until the time of its sinking. In addition to identifying the location where the infrastructure will be built, adequate dry docks, etc. will have to be built before starting to build the ships. All operations that require time and a lot of investment. Added to this are the obvious difficulties deriving from international sanctions, which make the problems in the construction/maintenance of ships even more acute.

There is also a further structural gap that hinders the achievement of the objectives listed in the document and which Russia is trying to fill. This is the lack of availability of naval bases capable of supporting VMF operations in waters distant from its borders (for example the Pacific area). In this context, the objective pursued in recent years by Moscow of creating a powerful global triumvirate with Beijing and New Delhi appears quite unrealistic, given the strong and permanent hostility existing between the two Asian countries. All this undermines Putin's intention to build new common maritime balances with the two most populous countries in the world, in an area which is constantly seeing its commercial importance grow. With the exception of the Mediterranean, therefore, the Russian Navy currently does not have a significant out-of-area network of logistical support for its units.

Furthermore, despite the long maritime border, at the moment Russia does not have the possibility of direct and continuous access to the open oceans, an essential option to keep its economy alive. In fact, Moscow has very few ports that can be used on a permanent basis, given that the Nordic and north-eastern ports are still usable for only part of the year. This is the reason why it is so active in the "warm waters" of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, as demonstrated by the albeit brief deployment of the naval group in the Mediterranean following the Varyag, last year. This makes ours one of the main comparison areas.

Considerations on the Mediterranean

Today's Russia is a European country that has historical interests in the Euro-Mediterranean area, even more so after the occupation of Crimea, considered by Moscow as a springboard for expansion towards the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Persian Gulf basins. As mentioned, the The Mediterranean is the theater where the Russian Navy has the greatest logistical support for its activities. In addition to the availability of the naval base in Tartus (Syria), Russia can, in fact, also count on the limited availability of a certain number of other hospitable ports along the southern coasts of the basin, such as Alexandria in Egypt and Algiers. Added to these are the Mediterranean ports on which Chinese investments are being concentrated which, if the declared bonds of friendship are maintained, could possibly be made available to Russian military ships.

Not to mention the ports of Cyrenaica, the spearhead of Russian penetration in the central Mediterranean, a few miles from our coasts and from the air and naval bases of Sigonella, Augusta and Catania. The current Russian diplomatic effort to reach an agreement with General Haftar for the definition of the methods of use of the Libyan port of Tobruk by Russian military ships must be read in this context.

At the moment, the overall Russian consistency in Mediterranean waters does not require other large ports of the Tartus type, but the growing influence that the Russians are assuming in the Libyan area and theimportance that Moscow assigns to maintaining that position (also with a view to penetration into the African continent) makes us understand how the finalization of an agreement for the Tobruk naval base represents a strategic objective, especially if read in the light of possible future expansions of the military port and airport infrastructures of Tobruk itself, but also of Derna, Sirte and al-Ğufra, which could assume the same importance as Tartus in the future. This would allow Moscow to use a second major port in the Mediterranean, which would represent a outpost of the Russian fleet at the southern gates of Europe and, in particular, Italy.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that in the new Russian document particular emphasis is placed on collaboration with Syria, which allows the continuous expansion of the VMF's presence in the basin, where it wants more than ever to reaffirm its presence and willingness to play a part in it. as an all-round protagonist, since Moscow's appetites are spread along the entire southern coast of the "Mare Nostrum". An approach that is not completely new but which, with the new Russian maritime strategy, has received an important acceleration.

In recent years, in fact, the presence of the VMF in the Mediterranean had already been increasing, as a direct implication of the progressive decrease in the US naval presence. Having begun under the Obama Administration, in fact, the American withdrawal has become more intense with President Trump, justifying this reorganization of the fleets with the need to ensure a greater American presence in the Indo-Pacific theater, to face the growing threat represented by an onslaught China and an insidious North Korea. This strategic repositioning has, however, caused a progressive increase in instability in the Mediterranean, as ample room for maneuver has opened up for the more enterprising and cynical navies, which have begun to assume an extremely assertive posture.

Russia, therefore, did nothing but seize the opportunity to return to this fundamental chessboard, anticipating the formalization of Moscow's new maritime posture, where the Syrian and Libyan crises have provided further reasons for expansion and the opportunity to return to play an important part in the Mediterranean, once again proposing itself as an influential geopolitical subject and crucial in the Mediterranean area, and beyond. The renewed Russian naval presence in Syria should be interpreted in this sense. With its very determined intervention, in fact, Russia wanted to send a clear signal to the world that it wants to once again take to the international stage as an essential player for the solution of the main planetary issues. In essence, the progressive growth of the Russian naval presence in Syria represents the means by which it is implementing its maritime strategy in the "Mare Nostrum" era.

At the same time, Moscow is consolidating its presence in the Red Sea, on the coast of Sudan, with a new naval base with a capacity of four surface units and a total of approximately three hundred personnel. This is clearly a further strategic point from which Moscow could play an operational role in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as representing a bridge with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.


As we have seen, the new document provides a predominantly assertive posture and only partially defensive towards the West. The era of collaboration has certainly passed, in favor of an overbearing (the term is not by chance) return to the most extremist nationalism. According to Moscow, the balance of power will continue to significantly influence international relations and on this basis it intends to adequately size its naval instrument, both military and merchant. A certainly innovative vision given that, as mentioned, the Soviet and then Russian navies have always been subordinated to a continental vision of national strategy. This does not mean that Russia is abandoning the defensive strategy of the bastions, on the contrary. It takes up that concept also assigning the bastions a power projection role to global maritime areas.

The document therefore launches a challenge to the West for control of the seas and oceans. Putin's intention is, in fact, to make the Russian "system" capable of competing with the port complexes of other states, for both economic and military purposes.

The question that many analysts are asking is, therefore, whether the current VMF is really capable of achieving its objectives (and, therefore, whether it represents a threat to the West) or whether the new Russian maritime strategy is excessively ambitious and its objectives are only unrealistic intentions.

In this regard, it should be underlined that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Navy concentrated on the underwater component, to the detriment of offshore units. For this reason, it is believed that it will not be easy to achieve the new ambitious objectives set out in the document in the short term, precisely because today the VMF is not, as we have seen, quantitatively significant, being less than half of what it was in the Soviet era. However, even if the large offshore units are quite obsolete, the VMF appears still overall fearsome. In this context, the The presence of strategic submarines significantly increases the level of the overall threat. Added to this is the fact that, to compensate for the deficit of platforms, Moscow is focusing heavily on the development of hypersonic missile technology. However, given the current economic and strategic situation, the new maritime vision appears extremely unrealistic when it hypothesizes the growth of the aircraft carrier component, indispensable for real power projection.

The current document is quite clear that the Arctic will continue to be an absolute priority, in view of its future strategic and economic role, while as regards national maritime interests, Moscow maintains significant attention on the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The VMF, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, promptly adopted the new posture, immediately perceived also in our basin and such that, as some media present at the Sea Global Forum of Genoa (26 May 2023), led Admiral Credendino, Chief of Staff of the Navy, to underline how the Russian ships have “…a provocative attitude that had never been seen in the past. ... Today they are very aggressive, with hostile attitudes...".

In any case, the recent Israeli-Palestinian crisis, if on the one hand has slightly reduced international attention to the Ukrainian events, on the other hand has brought the USA back to the Mediterranean basin, with the presence of two modern US aircraft carriers, Eisenhower e Ford, which they cross in the waters off Cyprus with their respective escort units. This is a strong signal directed to all the actors in the Middle Eastern crisis (but also to Moscow) that Washington is present in the Mediterranean, with the full weight of its naval power and that of its allies.

Allies, naval and air assets of the Navy on the front line (aircraft carriers Cavour e Garibaldi with related escorts), which are crossing in force in the waters of the central Mediterranean, where the exercise is taking place Open Sea 2023-2.

Outside the wider Mediterranean, the Pacific area will see a more marked Russian presence around the Sakhalin peninsula and in the bases of the Kuril Islands (disputed with Japan), while a more accentuated collaboration with India, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia it should allow Russian ships to be present in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, as opposed to the USA and its allies.

To be present in such a widespread manner, Russia would, however, have to build many military and commercial ships and it is for this reason that Putin underlines the importance of deeply restructure the naval industry and arsenal infrastructure systems, so that they can effectively serve the needs of fleets. An objective that is not easy to achieve in the short-medium term, given the serious economic problems deriving from the onerous war commitments and the consequent international sanctions, which force modernization programs to be implemented slowly, extremely expensive, and to take very long timescales. for the construction of new surface units.

Added to all this is the age and inadequacy of existing port maintenance installations and the aforementioned endemic corruption in the naval maintenance sector, which leads to obsolete offshore fleets, with limited efficiency and which cannot be replaced in a reasonably short time. All this, from an operational point of view, implies that the number of efficient offshore units is extremely variable over time and, below a certain threshold, an efficient stay at sea can no longer be guaranteed.

In this context, the rebuilding of a credible fleet in the Black Sea will require a lot of time and a lot of money. At the moment, in fact, there is no freedom of navigation either in that narrow basin or in its connecting routes with the Mediterranean, i.e. through the Dardanelles, the Sea of ​​Marmara and the Bosphorus. A situation that will presumably persist as long as the war in Ukraine continues.

As regards the Mediterranean, the Russian presence in Cyrenaica, so close to our coasts appears quite worrying both due to its aggressive posture and because it is a country whose missile armament is capable of threatening our territory, and both because the Russians are potentially very dangerous, as they are able to express a broad and long-term strategic vision. Added to this is the extreme activism of the Russians in making agreements for the use of bases along the entire southern bank of the basin.

As Admiral Fabio Caffio states, it is therefore necessary “…pay attention to the maritime arena of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, theater of the old Cold War on the sea and now the scene of a hybrid and asymmetric conflict which also involves commercial maritime traffic…”.

Today Putin is in a cul de sac from which he cannot seem to find an honorable way out. The social, economic and political implications of an aggressive, bloody and costly war could weigh on Moscow's future bargaining position for a long time. He would not want to become the Xi Jinping's valet but the facts tell us that the alliance is no longer between equals, with Russia hiring reluctantly the location of junior partners. Putin has now reached a point where he cannot afford to give in unless he has something to show as a trophy. And this, if poorly advised, could lead him to consider further aggressive options, deemed suitable to recover visibility and prestige.

The presence of relatively small but powerfully armed Russian surface units, with missiles capable of hitting at great distances, and the unscrupulousness with which Moscow is aggressively moving in the Mediterranean allows, in fact, the Russians to threaten the territory of Italy and NATO, to consolidate its alliances in the basin and to lay the foundations for strategic penetration into the African continent, rich in resources and raw materials.

Consequently, there exists the need to strengthen our overall naval and air force, in order to increase our ability to project forces into the wider Mediterranean, mainly through air, surface and underwater units capable of effectively dealing with the threat, whatever it may be, with suitable rules of engagement (given by politics) to adequately protect national interests and prestige.

Not only that, it will be important too evaluate the national arsenal infrastructure system with new eyes, which must be able to respond promptly and, to a certain extent independently of the industrial sector, to the needs of a Navy which will require a growing presence and efficiency at sea.

In the current situation of intense international competition for the exploitation of marine resources, it will therefore be essential to have eyes to see and ears to hear, maintaining a qualified naval presence in the waters of the eastern and central Mediterranean, with ships that are also capable of carrying out an effective deterrent action against any initiatives aimed at compressing our freedom to use the sea.

For an economy like the Italian one, based on the importation of raw materials, their transformation and the export of processed products, national interests are not protected only in front of the home beaches but especially on the seas far from the peninsula, where it is necessary to safeguard freedom of navigation along maritime trade routes of interest or underwater lines of communication and energy supply, in order to guarantee the well-being and prestige of the nation.

An overall simple concept, which history has taught all maritime countries and which scholars in the sector know well. It is up to our politicians to translate these lessons into concrete actions.

i Since 2013, Italy has been present in the Arctic Council as an observer.

ii With a SCALP/Storm Shadow missile attack, for example, on 13 September 2023 the Ukrainian Forces hit the amphibious assault ship hard Minsk (“Ropucha” class) and the conventional submarine Rostov-on-Don (“Kilo” class) while they were in port at Sevastoppli. Both as a result of the explosions and the subsequent fires on board, it is believed that the two units are no longer operational.

Photo: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation