A sea change in deployments

March 06, 2021

A sea change in deployments

By Nat South for the Saker Blog

This short analysis outlines a recent small but subtle “sea change” in Russian naval deployments that took place recently.

Firstly, the list below outlines an abridged overview of the current elements underpinning Russian naval policies to date:

  • The backbone of the Russian Navy lies in its multipronged capacity to field a range of ships, to support its littoral defence and also deploy primarily in the near sea zone.
  • A noticeable shift towards “distributed lethality”, with smaller but more versatile combat ships, with smaller corvettes and patrol boats as part of the mix as well as destroyers and the vitally important submarine fleet.
  • Continued development and deployment of (shipborne) long-range stand-off missiles, coupled with the advances in Russian missile technology.
  • Ensuring a wide distribution of firepower and spreading out the risks to minimise big potential combat losses. [1]

These are some of the current and anticipated elements that are relevant to this article, (I’m not covering the submarine fleet aspect). Generally speaking, recent Russian naval developments can cover both power projection and sea control as well as sea denial capabilities closer to home.

A 2019 RAND report mentions that “the Black Sea has historically been the gateway to the most vulnerable part of Russia.” [2] Unsurprisingly, given the rise in ongoing geopolitical tensions, the sharp uptick in NATO activities over several years in the Black Sea region, the bulk of naval modernisation is centred on the Black Sea Fleet. Likewise, the Black Sea Fleet provide the main part of the renewed Eastern Mediterranean Russian naval presence.

With the gradual increase in commissioning into service of the newest generation of naval ships, the Russian navy will invariably exercise more, extend its activities in order to train and maintain the skills at the heart of the latest technological developments.

In tandem, Russian geopolitical leverage will be exercised and strengthened regionally, (from the Barents, Black Seas to the North West Pacific). Similarly, the status quo regarding post 2015 power projection capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant will be maintained. As mentioned in the article “Towards a ‘corvette-centric’ Russian navy”, [1] and in “Rocking the boat – Sudan”, [3] brief periods of power projection into the Indian Ocean will gradually evolve alongside the capability building of the Russian Navy.

The broadening of activities connected to the slow-paced ongoing modernisation programme of the Russian Navy is an obvious situation, yet this perspective remains conspicuously absent from the majority of the reports that are [and will] be relayed by MSM articles in NATO member states. By its very nature, a number of Russian Navy deployments each year are newly constructed ships that transit to their Black Sea homeports.

Overall, there is a broader deliberate narrative to reshape certain aspects of Russian military activities by presenting information in a pernicious way. What’s more, the MSM and experts unfailingly resort to using a combination of default buzzwords to promote a negative image of Russian naval activities, some examples include “hybrid threat”, “malign behaviour”, “provocation from Russia” and “hostile activities”, to name but a few. [More on this particular aspect in an upcoming article].

In short, this results in “news items” being packaged in a totally artificial and misguiding way to shape popular opinion. MSM articles of certain Russian naval activities are often slingshoted in batches, habitually with hysterical clickbait type headlines, thus rendering routine naval activities and innocuous transits, into something more belligerent.

Back in 2017, [1] I mentioned that once the new patrol ships, light frigates & corvettes came into service, this would enable the Russian Navy to redistribute mission-tasking orders widely and more evenly, which some Western ‘Atlantists” contrivedly bundle as being part of an “hybrid threat”. I also added that potentially, the new ships would give a window of opportunity for older ships to be refitted, without compromising overall fleet combat readiness & effectiveness. As it currently stands, naval shipbuilding is slowly gathering pace, mostly small quantities of small missile ships, corvettes and even fewer frigates.

Indeed, the growing use of smaller-sized warships dovetails into the rolling plans for modernising some of the Soviet-era stock of larger ships to maintain a partial blue-water capability, (Marshal Ustinov, Project 1144.2 guided-missile cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, or the Udaloy class Marshal Shaposhnikov…). In this way, the Russian Navy is managing to maximize and diversify their combat capability.

Yet, this situation is barely acknowledged by a whole assortment of Western pundits and typical MSM ignoramuses, as they are inclined to using ‘old’ disparaging clichés because the Russian Navy ‘still’ uses old Soviet era ships.

I stated back in February 2020,[4], that the remaining current Cold War era destroyers and frigate that visited the Indian Ocean region will gradually fade away, to be replaced by a smaller fleet of modern frigates & corvettes.  Well, that scenario has in fact happened, much sooner than I had anticipated. Additionally, I need to add large patrol ships into the equation as well as corvettes and frigates. Why is this of interest? The arrival of the smaller classes of warships equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles in the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Sea Flotilla, has meant an increase in naval combat power, despite a limited range of action, (compared to the blue-water ships).

Project 22800 missile corvettes,

*Project 21631 missile corvettes.

*and project 22160 small missile ships

(*as well as the Project 11661K light frigate).

* All have operated outside Russia’s contiguous maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Several of the Russian ships and submarines forward deployed to the Mediterranean carried out strikes against militants in Syria using Kalibr cruise missiles.

Something of particular interest took place recently, something that marks a milestone for the Russian Navy. Several Russian naval ships took part in exercises in the Arabian Sea this month:

  1. “AMAN 2021” – (Pakistani-led multinational exercise) [5].
  2. “Marine Security Belt”, (binational exercise with Iran). [6].

Participating in these exercises were the:

  • Admiral Grigorovich (a),

(Project 11356Р/М class frigate commissioned in 2016).

  • Dmitry Rogachev (a),

(22160-class large patrol ship class commissioned in 2019).

  • Stoiky (b),

(Project 20380 class corvette commissioned in 2014).

The ‘Stoiky’ was accompanied by an oiler ‘Kola’ and a tug, ‘Yakov Grebelsky’. The Admiral Grigorovich was in company with the Dmitry Rogachev. In the meantime, the ‘Admiral Kasatonov’, was sailing around the Mediterranean, calling into Algeria, Greece and Egypt.

Details of type and class aside, what do you notice about these warships? ‘newbies’, all commissioned since 2014. That itself might not be amazing breaking news, but certainly, has slightly changed how things stand and shows that the Russian is reasserting a wider but momentary naval footprint with a new generation of warships.

What happened in the Arabian Sea symbolically opens a new chapter which is contrary to the negative comments made by ‘Atlantists’ on the Russian Navy:

  1. being dependent on deploying Soviet era warships,
  2. carrying out infrequent blue-water deployments with such ships.

Interestingly, the exercises involved three warships instead of the just the one being deployed, doing the naval diplomacy rounds. Although this is quite insignificant issue compared to what else is going on in the world, it does reflect a change in the outlook presented by the Russian Navy.

The older classes of ships that make long-distance deployments, were not present this year in the region. The category of ships I refer to include:

  • ‘Vice-Admiral Kulakov’,

(Udaloy class, commissioned 1981, modernised 2010),

  • ‘Admiral Vinogradrov’, (commissioned 1988),
  • ‘Admiral Tributs,’ (commissioned 1985) &
  • ‘Severomorsk’, (commissioned 1987).

All of which were and are the backbone of long-distance naval deployments for several decades until last year, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, as outlined in the article “Russian naval presence in Indian Ocean” [4]. I haven’t included in the list the ‘Yaroslav Mudry, (Neustrashimyy-class frigate) as it was commissioned in 2009.

The Russian Navy is consistent in the manner of deploying ships on long-distance voyages further afield, with usually one combat ship with one or two support ships (oiler and/or ocean-going tug). This pattern is certainly the case for bilateral exercises or naval diplomacy port calls. The exception to this is the ‘Dmitry Rogachev’, a patrol ship [7], that went with the ‘Admiral Grigorovich’. That was an eye opener to see a Project 22160 arrive in the Arabian Sea. Project 22160 ships are designed primarily for service in green-water area, as such as are not necessarily fitted to carry out long-distance deployments. Nonetheless, they have a good endurance of 60 days and a cruising range of 6,000NM.

Last year, the Russian Navy carried out a 2-month trial in the Arctic, with the Vasily Bykov, (Project 22160), as a testbed for the use of container modules and other auxiliary equipment in harsh conditions. These tests will eventually enable this class of ships to carry upgraded and bespoke armaments depending on the type of mission. Container-based modules can include dedicated systems & weapons for ASW and also Kalibr cruise missiles.

Back in 2017, the Baltic Fleet based corvettes, ‘Boykiy’ and ‘Soobrazitelniy’, (Project 20380), considered as medium-tonnage-size green-water ships, (“close maritime zone” operations), undertook a long-distance deployment, (20,000NM all in all), covering the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean and also the Indian Ocean. [8]

It would be interesting to see if a Karakurt (project 22800) small-missile ship goes to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in the near future. Although this might be not realistic, given its integral role, operating in the “close maritime zone” or the “near abroad”, under the umbrella of onshore defence systems. Nonetheless, it is theoretical possible for such a vessel to be forward deployed from Tartus on a flag waving mission. Importantly, not only would it highlight a greater versatility in deployment but would underscore the approach taken to having a wider distribution of firepower that spans across the green-water / blue-water operational distinction.

A gradual shift in using more often low-tonnage but more versatile combat ships, along with some medium-size tonnage is becoming more noticeable recently, markedly so than in February 2021. Equally, the Russian Navy green-water capability is extending farther from just being in the “close maritime zone”. The low and medium-tonnage sized ships have taken on the duties previously carried out by larger sized Soviet era ships.


[1] Towards a ‘corvette-centric’ Russian navy


[2] https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/AD1096677.pdf

[3] https://thesaker.is/rocking-the-boat-sudan/

[4] http://thesaker.is/russian-naval-presence-in-indian-ocean/

[5] https://www.rt.com/russia/515292-navy-pakistan-aman-drills-nato/

[6] https://tass.com/defense/1256465

[7] https://tass.com/defense/1245415

[8] https://tass.com/defense/981111

Foolish FONOPs

Foolish FONOPs

December 01, 2020

By Nat South for the Saker Blog

A new tiny twist in U.S. naval activities, albeit one that raises some eyebrows happened last week due to its location. The latest in “freedom of navigation operation”, aka ‘FONOP’ carried out by the U.S. Navy took place in Peter the Great Bay (Zaliv Petra Velikogo), near to Vladivostok in the Far East of Russia. The fact that Washington cherrypicked the location might be at first sight, insignificant and also petty considering the context, but there’s more to this given the timing and ongoing pinprick but widely applied pressure applied to Russia on many fronts these days, (military, political, trade and diplomatic).

The legal background and historical details for the Peter the Great Bay incident has been explained in the article “Driving Russia further into China’s arms”, which lays out the legal issues and interpretations of baselines, internal, territorial and historic waters.

The bottom line is that naval vessels do have a right to navigate within other countries’ 12 nautical mile territorial limit, if it is under the rule of “innocent passage”, (see Article 19 of UNCLOS), by transiting in a “continuous and expeditious” manner that is not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state”. There are specific activities that are not permitted including surveillance and flying shipborne aircraft.

Naval and air incursions have been going on for years and also back in the Soviet era, famously highlighted by the Black Sea ‘bumping’ incidents in 1986 and 1988, (also due to UNCLOS). The Black Sea remains one of the vital pressure points to this day, yet the Far East not so until December 2018, when the first post-Cold War FONOP in the area was carried out by the USS ‘McCampbell’.

The notion and implementation of FONOPs, started in 1979, are uniquely peculiar to the U.S. and symptomatic of Washington’s persistent mindset of “needing to poke their noses” where and when it suits them to prove all too often counterproductive point. Following the Peter the Great Bay incident, the U.S. Pacific Fleet stated that the “United States will never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.”

The concept of FONOPs also stands sharply at odds with Washington’s stance on UNCLOS, as the Senate has not ratified it. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that Washington has accepted UNCLOS as binding international law. Back in 2015, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joe Dunford, stated: “We undermine our leverage by not signing up to the same rule book by which we are asking other countries to accept.” Except that the U.S. would be bound by all the articles of UNCLOS and not stay in a position of cherry-picking just a selection that suits its narrow set of interests. Quite telling, the reasons as to why the U.S. shouldn’t ratify UNCLOS, as laid out in this Heritage Foundation document, namely the threat of lawsuits and being made accountable and abide by the decisions of the International Seabed Authority. This excerpt from another article speaks volumes about the mindset at work: “The U.S. can best protect its rights by maintaining a strong U.S. Navy, not by acceding to the convention.”

Cynically, the very fact that the U.S. hasn’t ratified it, means that Washington interprets UNCLOS with its usual ‘exceptionalism’ outlook and takes it upon itself to be the world’s leading proponent of upholding “freedom of navigation”; this only goes one way and it is principally the U.S. Navy that applies this concept, usually in the form of a destroyer. Typically, the style of Washington is to send in cruise missile carrying “505 feet of American fighting steel” over differences of legal views over claims over sea areas and reiterate pedantic enforcement of “innocent passage” in selected localities. The U.S. Coast Guard has been involved in FONOPs too, but in a very restricted capacity and more recently (and unusually so) one in the South China Sea.

The rationale for FONOPs is based uniquely on Washington’s interpretation of “excessive claims” made by other states that it finds unacceptable, “to protest other states’ excessive maritime claims and encourage those states to harmonize their claims with U.S. interpretations of international law” (Odell 2019) as well as maintain customary international law. There are two aspects to note, a. “innocent passage” and “excessive maritime claims” regarding territorial waters, since there is a fine line between these two statements. I am not at this stage going to go into the specifics and gritty details of the issues of either customary international law or UNCLOS, other to say it is complex and invariably there are conflicting views over interpretation. The crux of the legal matter is that the U.S. maintains the belief that if challenges to customary international law are not carried out, then this over time ultimately legitimatise them by setting a negative precedent. If this multiplied over and over worldwide, this ultimately erodes U.S. supremacy, (for an insight in this – read the top paragraph of page 3 of this document). In short, it sounds really immature and pathetic to nit-pick over where the baseline for Zaliv Petra Velikogo, yet this precisely what Washington did last week, because do not doing so erodes their maritime rights.

There are several elements that underpin a FONOP, legal, diplomatic and ultimately the operational naval stage. Originally, ‘operational’ FONOPs were designed as the next step to supplement diplomatic efforts to challenge excessive claims or when these efforts have proven fruitless. An example of this, the USCG did a FONOP 35 years ago in the North Western Passage, much to the annoyance of Canada.

As Odell stated, “the United States does not conduct FONOPs vis-à-vis all excessive maritime claims everywhere in the world every year”. The pattern, tempo and nature of ‘operational’ FONOPs has principally focussed on those countries who happen not to agree with the “rules-based liberal international order”, a concept exclusively promoted by Washington to uphold its global primacy. While other countries who take umbrage at what they perceive as excessive claims, they go to the ITLOS to try to settle the matter, the U.S. sends in the navy. What does that say?

The mantra often trotted out on these occasions by the U.S. Navy is that it “operates in close coordination with allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity.” In other words, only security and prosperity that serves first and foremost U.S. interests, namely via a rolled out globalised Monroe Doctrine. The FONOP concept has morphed into something wider -” to uphold security and prosperity interests”, not quite the same category as “challenging excessive maritime claims” or conducting “innocent passage” transits.

It is interesting to see that there is barely lukewarm support for FONOPs from those “allies and partners”, despite Washington’s active encouragement. In fact, they are not on the same page in terms of carrying out U.S. style FONOPs, especially in the South China Sea. Since a few states have competing interests and claims as well as strong trade relations themselves in the region, as such they aren’t keen on jumping on that particular kind of boat so to speak, (South Korea and Japan for instance are a case in point). U.S. FONOPs have been frequently carried out in the South China Sea for over a decade. Quite tellingly, Chinese PLA(N) ships have themselves sailed through U.S. waters back in 2015 to and from the Bering Sea and Washington merely twitched back then.

So the much vaunted short lived unilateral acts conducted by the U.S. can also be flipped, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango, so there is little that the U.S. could do if the PLA(N) (again) or let’s say even the Russian Navy decides to apply Article 19 “innocent passage” transit off continental U.S, the Aleutian Islands, Puerto Rico or Hawaii.

Another important pressure point is the Arctic, specifically the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Last year, I outlined the situation and background to FONOPs in the Arctic, as a result of the French Navy’s BSAH ‘Rhône’ transit from Norway to Canada via the NSR. Of interest to note that the Rhône’s voyage was essentially a very low key FONOP in nature, but without resorting to either using a combat ship or making public statements to the effect. Furthermore, I mentioned at the time that U.S. has started to take incremental steps towards a fully-fledged FONOP in the Arctic region.

As I write this, the U.S. had indeed taken further steps this year to carry out limited operations in the Barents Sea. In May, 4 US Navy ships and a UK frigate went to the Barents Sea, the first time in the area since the 1980s. On this occasion the Northern Fleet was notified, however this was not the case in September. In total, the US Navy went to the Barents: Sea 3 times in 2020 alone (2). The latest reason? – “This Barents Sea mission marks a significant milestone, clearly demonstrating our dynamic ability to operate anywhere in the world,” said Cmdr. John D. John, Ross’ commanding officer.

The U.S. isn’t actually trying to preserve UNCLOS for all, but in reality, trying to reimpose and expand a US‐led regional status quo, whether in the Barents or the South China Sea. It can thus be considered that FONOPs are little more than a barely concealed tool for keeping and deploying the U.S. Navy Fleets globally to obscure far flung places in order to make their combat capability posturing and presence known. If the U.S. had wanted to prove a point strictly regarding the principle of freedom of navigation, it would have been more tactful to send non-combat ships instead like the French apparently did. To certain extent, this can be summed up by the words of the commandant of the USCG, Adm Schultz, who said. “I think in the Arctic right now, if we did something with the Navy, it’s more about just showing our ability to project capability up there.”

Certainly, the U.S. Navy has a knack in conducting FONOPs near to the Russian Navy Fleets’ homeports or significant Chinese military installations. The Peter the Great Bay incident is no exception, given Vladivostok and the nearby new mega shipyard, ‘Bolshoy Kamen’, which just happens to be carrying out nuclear submarine upgrades. Hence the tone set recently by Moscow in response to the incident may be an indicator: “Such muscle flexing is apparently meant to exacerbate the situation, which once again proves that at the current historical stage the United States is opting to use force methods to advocate own foreign policy interests.”

So foolishly, the U.S. rattles the FONOP cage once more, with lofty pronouncements made once more, and more bloviating about freedom and security. What does this actually achieve other than more pushbacks and toughening of stances from Russia in this instance?

FONOPs are not a constructive diplomatic tool or even add value since they trigger more tensions and are also a cost to the military, (paradoxically even the U.S. ‘rules-based partners’ such as Canada and Australia see it that way too). Although, the aim of FONOPs is to shape the U.S.’s desired strategic effects and improve partnerships, they ultimately fail to do this is any consistent or meaningful manner of asserting maritime rights. Instead, FONOPs are seen as a crude instrument of U.S. military primacy, designed to send an antagonistic signal of power projection.

  1. Odell, Rachel, How Strategic Norm-Shaping Undergirds America’s Command of the Commons (August 31, 2019). MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2019-23,
  2. May: Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers USS Donald Cook, Porter and Roosevelt + HMS Kent; September: USS Ross + HMS Sutherland + HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl. October: USS Ross again).

Russian Navy showcases its military might in large-scale drills off Syrian coast: video


News Desk -2020-07-250

BEIRUT, LEBANON (9:50 A.M.) – The Russian Navy carried out large-scale drills off the coast of Syria’s Tartous Governorate this week, showcasing their military capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean region amid increased tensions between several nations.

According to Sputnik Arabic, the Syrian coastal region witnessed the qualitative training of the Russian Navy, as they used their warships, military choppers and combat aircraft to simulate the effectiveness of their forces in battle.

Sputnik filmed the naval drills from the coastal governorate of Tartous this week, which is where the Russian Navy is currently based in the eastern Mediterranean.

The publication reported the use of the advanced Raptor waterboats, which are classified among the fastest military boats in the Russian fleet, as they are able to sail at speeds of up to 50 knots, and to carry out various missions in the coast guard teams such as surveillance, and guard missions and rescue missions.

In addition to the training of the Raptor, large marine vessels, including the “Krasnodar” submarine and a missile cruiser, also took part in the military drills.

These Russian naval exercises come at a time of increased friction in the eastern Mediterranean, as Turkey’s role in Libya and their offshore drilling agitates Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece.

%d bloggers like this: