Russia, using all means at its disposal, wants to urgently convince the world
community that it has re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with, demanding
increased recognition and power in the world.
Ostensibly conducting joint naval exercises with India to help combat terrorism
and piracy, Moscow also had a sub-agenda in its planning. In fact the
"sub-agenda factor" is becoming an ever-present variable in appreciating
Russia's foreign policy conduct.
The Indra 2009 exercise, held for the fourth time since 2003, allowed both
countries to jointly practice the protection of shipping and combating piracy
at sea and terrorism, while strengthening interoperability and focusing on
their communications, joint maneuvering and artillery and rocket firing.
Russia's contribution to the naval exercises, held off the coast of
Mumbai in the Arabian Sea, was comparatively small, officially only consisting
of five ships drawn from the Northern and Pacific fleets. These were: the Pyotr
Velikiy (Peter the Great), the flagship of the Northern Fleet and a
nuclear-powered battle cruiser; the Admiral Vinogradov, an anti-submarine
warfare ship tasked with escorting merchant ships at the Horn of Africa; the
Fotiy Krylov, a rescue tugboat; and the tankers Pechenga and Boris Butoma.
Russia's Naval Main Staff did not confirm the participation of two large
landing ships from the Black Sea Fleet, the Azov and the Yamal, which left
Sevastopol on January 16, stating instead that there were "reinforced sub-units
of naval infantry on board all the Russian ships". India contributed two
destroyers, including the INS Delhi, and a small number of other vessels.
The Russian naval grouping rendezvoused off the Gao coast, commencing the first
stage of the joint naval exercises on January 26, spending two days in the port
of Marmagao before the final stage of Indra 2009 off the coast of Somalia.
On January 31, Russian Defense Ministry's Zvezda TV reported that the Pyotr
Velikiy had left the Indian port of Marmagao in the state of Goa, having
completed its two-day visit, especially highlighting that this marked the first
visit to India by a ship from Russia's Northern Fleet.
For two days in the Arabian Sea off the Goa coast, the Petr Velikiy practiced
"coordination of maneuvers and conducted communications drills" with the Indian
destroyer Delhi. The Pyotr Velikiy is equipped with Granit anti-ship missiles,
a 130mm automatic cannon, Kashtan, Kinzhal and S-300 air defense systems,
helicopters and machine guns, though its participation in the exercises was
more likely calculated to send a political message internationally that Russia
has restored its great power status. After Indra 2009, the Pyotr Velikiy will
make stopovers in Indonesia and China.
India's interests in Russia
Russia's ambassador to India, Vyacheslav Trubnikov, witnessed the exercises,
which he claimed had involved "several difficult maneuvers", including a
rehearsal to destroy aircraft carriers for the benefit of the Indian navy.
Trubnikov noted the long-standing defense cooperation between the two
countries, and that India's armed forces had been equipped in large quantities
by both the Soviet and Russian defense industries.
Since 2004, India has sought to procure an aircraft carrier from Russia, which
has experienced rising costs and numerous delays. The Admiral Gorshkov, renamed
Vikramaditya, is due to replace India's INS Viraat carrier, which is 50 years
old though still in service. Originally ordered for US$750 million and
scheduled for delivery in 2008, the actual price of the carrier has been
estimated at $1.2 billion and has caused disputes over the final price: Russia
reportedly now hopes to receive $4 billion.
Russia and India agreed in February 2008 to raise costs for the aircraft
carrier, currently docked at the Sevmash shipyard in northern Russia, by an
additional $800 million. This covers an overhaul of the ship and equipping it
with modern weaponry, including MiG-29K Fulcrum aircraft and Ka-27 Helix-A and
Ka-31 Helix-B anti-submarine helicopters. Delivery of the aircraft carrier is
now rescheduled for 2012.
Sending the Pyotr Velikiy not only signaled a departure from the pattern of
previous exercises with India's navy, it pointedly drew attention to Russia's
largest destroyer while serving as a gesture of Moscow's commitment to
strengthen India maritime security capabilities.
Previous Indra exercises were conducted in the Bay of Bengal, off Visakhapatnam
port in Andhra Pradesh, India's eastern naval command headquarters and a
submarine base for its Eastern Naval fleet. These exercises took on new
significance in light of the increased threats to maritime security from piracy
and in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008.
Yet, although the planning for the exercises may have been adjusted to take
into account these developments, the underlying symbolic significance in
dispatching the Pyotr Velikiy to India fits a wider pattern of using the navy
to support the image of a resurgent Russia.
This also coincides with the planned relocation of the naval headquarters from
Moscow to St Petersburg, at an estimated cost of $1 billion, which has already
commenced and is scheduled for completion later this year. Given Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin's links with St Petersburg, taking every opportunity to
appear at sea, it is highly likely that he played a major part in the decision
to move the headquarters back to what was once home to Russia's imperial navy.
Russia's navy and the ambitions of the political elite
The navy is assuming greater strategic importance as Russia seeks to maximize
its resurgence as a great power. President Dmitry Medvedev, visiting the
Nakhimov Naval Academy in St Petersburg on January 27, reassured the cadets
that despite Russia's financial downturn, its plans to reform and modernize the
navy will go ahead.
Aware of the promise made last July to introduce new aircraft carriers and
Borey-class submarines, Medvedev said Russia had turned away from the difficult
times in the 1990s when the government failed to adequately invest in the navy
and would honor the commitment to modernize; even if it means over a longer
period than originally planned. He appeared to single out the navy as being a
crucial part of plans to reform the country's armed forces, asserting forcibly,
"Without a proper navy, Russia does not have a future as a state."
These plans are encountering delays caused partly by Russia's economic troubles
and also the lack of highly skilled workers in its defense industry capable of
designing new weapons systems. The introduction of the new Bulava
submarine-launched ballistic missile has recently been delayed due to failures
in its testing program.
Raising the flag abroad
In the meantime, appearances by the Russian navy in the Caribbean and South
America, as well as joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea with Turkey
and these latest exercises with India, all serve as cheaper interim mechanisms
to promote Russia's great power status. This is coupled with negotiations
involving undisclosed countries to secure foreign bases for Russia's navy.
Colonel-General Anatoliy Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the General Staff,
confirmed that talks are ongoing, but would not identify the states concerned.
However, the Naval Main Staff seem less discreet, suggesting that future naval
bases would be located on the island of Socotra, Yemen, and in the ports of
Tartus, Syria and Tripoli, Libya. "The political decision on the given issue
has been made. It is difficult to say now how much time we will need to create
bases for our navy in these countries, but it will undoubtedly be done in a few
years," a source in the Main Staff explained.
To achieve this, the Russian navy would have to repair, modernize or rebuild
piers and design and build essential shore infrastructure with repair
facilities. Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Salih suggested locating a naval
base there to Federation Council speaker Sergey Mironov, during the latter's
visit in October 2008. As alluring as this may prove to the Russian political
elites, its military value is more open to question. Such foreign bases may be
about convincing themselves and a domestic audience of Russia's naval
capabilities while reflecting its position in the world.
Thus, under the guise of promoting greater inoperability and the coordination
of its navy with those of other states to facilitate an international response
to piracy and counter-terrorism, Russia is actually advancing its image as a
resurgent great power that will once again make its presence felt around the
While a gap exists between these political aspirations for its navy and its
actual capabilities, the likelihood is that the pattern of cost-effective
temporary deployments and joint exercises will be followed meticulously. In the
longer term, Medvedev will face more serious challenges in implementing the
type of ambitious modernization of the navy that he has touted.
Roger N McDermott is an honorary senior fellow, Department of Politics
and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) specializing
in defense and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.