March 18, 2015

Was there a Russian Black Sea Fleet Sub Spotted near Latvia?

Russian navy officers attend the launching ceremony of the Russian diesel-electric attack submarine Stary Oskol on Admiralty Shipyard in Saint Petersburg on August 28, 2014.
Russian navy officers attend the launching ceremony of the Russian diesel-electric attack submarine Stary Oskol on Admiralty Shipyard in Saint Petersburg on August 28, 2014.

The Russian Kilo Class submarines detected in the waters of the exclusive economic zone near Latvian shore might in fact not be the part of the Baltic Fleet, but new submarines training for a Black Sea mission. Even though the Russian Baltic Fleet has two Kilo class submarines – B 227 Vyborg and B 806 Dmitrov – it may also have two new black Sea Fleet improved Kilo class submarines – Novorossiysk and Rostov-on-Don – on sea trials before deployment to the Black Sea.

Remarkably, when reporting on the detection of Russian submarines near Latvia, the Russian government-owned RT used the same “Black Hole” characteristic name that it had used before in its January 2015 news feature about the second Rostov-on-Don diesel-electric improved Kilo class submarine being deployed on 4,000 kilometre deep-water trials from St. Petersburg to the Barents Sea.
These separate incidents connect the situation in the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean strategic puzzle. In parallel with the news on massive Russian snap readiness drills and troop redeployment in the north, west and south, Russia also announced the creation of the submarine brigade in the Black Sea on 17 March, including the appointment of a brigade commander that hails from the Pacific Fleet. It is expected that the brigade would include six improved Kilo class submarines that were supposed to enter service by the end of 2016.
With the first two submarines not yet having reached the Black Sea by now, it is far from certain that the formation of the Russian Black Sea submarine brigade will be on time. However, once delivered, the new submarines would give Russia substantial military operational advantages in the Black Sea. On top of “stealth” capabilities that the Russian media boasts of, they also have the Caliber land attack missile system. Therefore, they could project Russian military power towards the Ukrainian, Georgian, Bulgarian and Romanian littoral. In the absence of the Mistral landing ships that Russia expected to deploy in the Black Sea, such capabilities will be exceptionally useful for the Black Sea Fleet.
Another feature of the Russian Black Sea Fleet submarine program is the objective to use these boats to access the Mediterranean. Notably, the role of the Turkish Straits is critical in securing such access. But Russia’s relations with Turkey are far from amicable. A recent airspace encounter where Turkish F 16 fighters were scrambled to intercept a Russian Il 20 reconnaissance plane is one illustration of the complexity of these relations. On the other hand, a recent Russia-Cyprus agreement allowing Russian naval ships Cyprus port calls was noticed in the Turkish media. According to Sami Kohen of the Turkish Milliyet, Russia is advancing its strategy step by step to increase its presence and influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. This signals an inclination for change in the regional power balance…1
Yet another adversarial encounter of the Russian and Turkish militaries occurred during the exercise by Standing NATO Maritime Group Two in the Black Sea. On 4 March, three Su-30 fourth generation plus fighters recently deployed to Crimea and four Su-24 striker jets from the Black Sea Fleet carried out “an observation flight” above the USS guided missile cruiser Vicksburg and the Turkish frigate Turgutreis from the airfield in Novofedorivka, Crimea.2
While NATO held this exercise to demonstrate the assurance of the allied forces access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and the support of the Black Sea littoral NATO members, such as Bulgaria and Romania, Ukraine remains in the most vulnerable position, as it does not benefit from NATO guarantees directly. Perhaps the greatest concern is over Russia threatening the major Black Sea port of Odessa, which remains under Ukrainian control. While Ukraine protects Odessa from the land, air and sea, the country’s Naval Doctrine is still to be developed. Currently, Ukraine has few ships in operation after the Crimean annexation, with the Krivak class Hetman Sahaidachniy being its flagship frigate. A recent article jointly written by senior staff officer of the Ukrainian Navy, Andriy Ryzhenko, and expert from the Center for Civil-Military Relations, Glen Grant, called for the preparation of such a Naval Doctrine and the adoption of a program for the procurement of new and used multifunctional modular design ships and small boats for Ukraine, even beginning in 20153.
On a positive note, an overt offensive to seize Odessa seems too costly for Russia to realistically contemplate. In such a situation, Russia’s primary military-strategic instruments are probably the propaganda potential of the Russian weapons might and destruction capabilities. Such “respect-demanding” and fear inducing propaganda is another common aspect of Russian policy towards both the Black Sea and Baltic Sea regions. In just one news item, Interfax reported yesterday of the re-deployment of Tu 22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea and the maritime shipment of Iskander tactical missiles in the Baltic Sea to strengthen Russian land-based Baltic forces – both are nuclear weapons capable delivery vehicles.
1 English translation accessed via BBC Monitoring subscription service
2 RIA Novosti, March 4, English translation accessed via BBC Monitoring subscription service
3 12 Krokiv dlia vidrodzhennia ta rozvytky VMSU (Twelve steps for the revival of the Ukrainian Naval Forces) in Vyklyky ta Ryzyky (Challenges and Risks), No 5 (21), Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, March 16, 2015, p. 10

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