Russia: Still a Paper Tiger in the Pacific?

Richard A. Bitzinger January 25, 2017 3:12 AM (UTC+8)
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Since the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov has become the Russian people’s greatest export. After that comes vodka, caviar, and suicidal novelists. One thing is for sure, no one was lining up to buy their cars.
–“Lord of War” (2005 film)

It cannot be denied that Russia is one of the leading arms exporters. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia was the second largest arms seller in recent years, capturing 25 percent of the total global market.

Russia’s largest customers are all in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, around two-thirds of Moscow’s weapons sales were just to Asia, according to SIPRI. India and Vietnam, for example, rely on Russia for the bulk of their arms imports.

Even China has resumed buying arms from Russia, to fill gaps in its own military-industrial complex. Jet engines, sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems, and transport aircraft top the list of recent Russian arms exports to China. Most important, in 2015, Beijing inked a US$2 billion deal with Moscow for two dozen Su-35 air-superiority fighter jet. The Su-35 is the current jewel-in-the-crown of the Russian combat aircraft family, and export sales are crucial.

Arms export successes conceal problems beneath the surface

Despite these successes in the international arms market, the Russian armed forces remain weak. Russian military budget in 2015 (again, using SIPRI data) was only one-third that of China’s and barely a tenth of the United States.’ Russia, in fact, only narrowly spends more on defense than the United Kingdom and France. Despite Putin’s pledge not to cut defense expenditures in the wake of a growing recession, the Russian government late last year slashed the military budget by 30 percent.

As a result, Russian armed forces, long starved of funding during the 1990s and 2000s, have been hit again just as they were on the brink of a recovery. Important military research and development (R& D) programs could be put on hold. The PAK-FA fifth-generation stealth fighter, for example, already more than a decade behind schedule, would likely be further delayed. Besides procurement, military training and construction will also be affected.

Consequently, the long-anticipated across-the-board modernization of the Russian armed forces will likely be put off even longer. This will severely impair its ability to project power, even slightly away from its frontiers.

The Kuznetsov’s Disastrous Turn in the Med

Nowhere was this more starkly demonstrated than with Russia’s disaster-prone efforts to deploy its sole aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, to the eastern Mediterranean, in support of Russian operations in Syria. Belching ominous black smoke, it had to be accompanied by a tugboat, in case it broke down. When it finally got to the Mediterranean, it suffered the disastrous loss of two of its 15 fighter jets, one crashing upon landing after an arrestor cable snapped, the other after takeoff.

Moreover, most of its combat aircraft were equipped with only short-range air-to-air missiles, making them useless for bombing sorties. In general, the Kuznetsov did not make much of a contribution to Russian operations in Syria.

Continuing Russian Weaknesses in the Far East

Russian military weaknesses are perhaps the most pronounced in the Asia-Pacific region. Russian military power in the Far East is best exemplified by its naval presence, and therefore by its Pacific Fleet, based in Vladivostok.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Pacific Fleet had experienced a tremendous buildup, and nearly a third of all Soviet naval assets were deployed to the Pacific. Its complement included two aircraft carriers, a nuclear-powered battlecruiser, and over 100 submarines.

Today, the Pacific Fleet is a shadow of itself. An aging arsenal remains, most of its currently deployed ships built before the 1990s, let alone the 21st Century.

In fact, the Russian Pacific Fleet boasts just two modern vessels, both nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) of the Borey-class), equipped with the new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Perhaps two more Borey-class SSBNs will be deployed to the Pacific, as well as additional diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines. However, plans to upgrade the rest of the Pacific Fleet are increasingly in doubt, given budget cuts. In particular, the fleet lost its anticipated French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ship, canceled by Paris in the wake of the Crimea crisis.

Consequently, Russia’s ability to project power into the Pacific Ocean are greatly limited, if not nearly impossible. Its last major exercise in the Far East, Vostok-2014, took place more than two years ago.

In general, the Russian Pacific Fleet has metamorphosed into basically a strategic deterrent force. Consequently, SSBNs are likely to become its key asset, and surface combatants will be relegated to coastal — or at best, bastion — defense.

Actually, such moves closely correspond to developments in other Russian fleets. For example, Russia has also been investing heavily in upgrading its Northern Fleet, headquartered at Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula. The Northern Fleet is most critically the home for Russia’s SSBN fleet, which is heavily dependent on Arctic operations for its patrols. Consequently, the most important elements of the Russian build up in the Arctic region have also been essentially strategic, epitomized by the deployment of several Borey-class SSBNs to the Northern Fleet. As with the Pacific Fleet, conventional naval forces do not appear to be receiving much attention.

Former President Obama once noted that Russia was basically a regional power, capable of threatening only its neighbors along its borders. For the most part, this will remain true for some time to come — although that may be no great comfort to countries like Estonia. When it comes to the Asia-Pacific, Russia’s military clout will continue to be particularly constrained — and so, therefore, will its political influence in the region.

Richard A. Bitzinger
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
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