Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated two new nuclear-powered submarines this week, promising to reinforce the country’s “military-naval might”. The submarines will be assigned to Russia’s Pacific fleet, underscoring Moscow’s desire to project its naval power well beyond Ukraine.
Amid freezing temperatures in the northern city of Severodvinsk, Putin extolled the virtues of the Russian navy’s two new nuclear-powered submarines on Monday. “With such vessels and such weapons, Russia will feel that it is safe,” Putin told officials and naval officers at the inauguration ceremony.
Fresh out of production, the submarines – named Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III – represent the pinnacle of Russian maritime power, each serving a specific purpose.
The Krasnoyarsk belongs to the Yasen-M class of attack submarines capable of launching both cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles (which travel at speeds exceeding Mach-5, or 6,125 km/h). Its primary purpose is “to strike targets on land or hunt other submarines at sea,” says Basil Germond, a specialist in maritime military security at Lancaster University in the UK.
The Emperor Alexander III is an elite Borei-A class submarine capable of firing nuclear missiles. “This submarine serves the primary purpose of the Russian navy: nuclear deterrence,” says Sim Tack, a military analyst for Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.
Both submarines replace ageing models from the Soviet era in circulation since the 1980s. The Borei-A, for instance, is “much more manoeuvrable and discreet than its predecessor,” says Will Kingston-Cox, a Russia specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.
Russia has often used submarines in the Black Sea to support the war effort in Ukraine with coastal bombardments. However, the Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III will not be used in the protracted conflict with the former Soviet republic. Instead, they are to be deployed in the Pacific.
Indeed, Putin’s inauguration speech seemed particularly disconnected from the war in Ukraine. “We will quantitatively strengthen the combat readiness of the Russian Navy, our naval power in the Arctic, the Far East, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Caspian Sea – the most important strategic areas of the world’s oceans,” Putin said.
“The commitment of expensive naval resources to areas beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe likely aims to threaten NATO and its allies across multiple regions,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War, a North American military think tank, in its daily briefing on the war in Ukraine on Tuesday.
Stationed in Vladivostok and several surrounding bases, Russia’s Pacific fleet has several advantages. It is the only Russian fleet that does not have to pass through a bottleneck to reach the high seas – no Øresund Strait (between Denmark and Sweden), no Bosphorus Strait or Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey – all of which are under high levels of surveillance from NATO countries.
Stationing submarines in the Pacific – often considered the territory of the US Navy and its NATO allies – also indicates a geopolitical strategy. “It is a way for Moscow to demonstrate it still considers the United States its main adversary and that, despite the war in Ukraine, Russia is also preparing to face them,” says Germond.
It is no coincidence that Putin chose to invest in submarines rather than other types of warships, says Germond. “Russia has never managed to create a fleet capable of competing with the West. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could not develop an aircraft carrier that could rival those of the Americans.”
In contrast, Russia’s heavy investment in submarines has long provided guarantees against a hypothetical American nuclear attack. They are an essential element of Russia’s deterrence strategy, providing what analysts call a “second-strike capability” – a nuclear power will think twice before bombing another if it knows that somewhere under the water, submarines are hiding, ready to retaliate.
The inauguration also serves as a reminder that Russia has ambitions beyond Ukraine. “[Putin] updated Russia’s maritime doctrine in July 2022 to emphasise the need to become a global naval power,” says Kingston-Cox.
These submarines are supposed to illustrate Moscow’s ability to simultaneously conduct a war in Ukraine and a naval modernisation program. “The Russian military’s long-term restructuring and expansion effort aims to prepare Russia for a future large-scale conventional war against NATO,” writes the Institute for the Study of War.
The Kremlin is certainly trying to convey the image of maritime power, but two submarines – nuclear-powered or not – will do little to change the balance of power in the Pacific, according to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24.
Moscow has signalled it does not intend to stop at two new submarines. On Monday, Putin said eight more – five Yasen-M and three Borei-A – would follow in the years to come. That is a costly plan, considering Borei-A class submarines cost over €650 million each.
“The submarines will come at the expense of resources allocated to other branches of the military,” says Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military matters and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research centre. While a few submarines will not cause Russia’s demise in Ukraine, “they demonstrate how schizophrenic Moscow can be in military matters”, he adds.
Yet Putin can ill afford to abandon his maritime modernisation program, however costly it is.
“Vladimir Putin has constantly repeated that the West represents a threat, and he must now prove to his public that he is taking the necessary measures to defend Russia,” says Tack.
The Russian president also needs a powerful navy to back up his claim to uphold Moscow’s standing among the powers that matter. That message is even more important now “that he has officially announced his candidacy for the presidential election in March 2024”, says Hawn.
Source : France24