Russia's Massive Naval Problem
First tanks and now submarines?! Putin sure can’t seem to keep hold of his weapons. With Russia’s only aircraft carrier catching fire not once, not twice, but three times since 2018 and his guided missile cruiser the Moskva sinking in 2022, Russia’s Navy - widely considered one of the most powerful in the world - has seen better days. And now Russia’s submarine power is under serious threat. Here’s why. It’s no secret that things haven’t been going well for Russia. From crushing sanctions to
staggering military casualties, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired in a host of unexpected ways. It has also highlighted profound weaknesses in Russia’s military capabilities, exposing them as aging, corrupt, and poorly led. Nowhere is this more true than at sea. Despite statements by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev back in 2009 that “without a Navy, Russia does not have a future as a state”, the country’s surface fleet remains embarrassingly inept. Former US Navy Admiral James G. Foggo recently noted that it has been
allowed to “atrophy”, due to factors like poor maintenance, low funding, and corruption. This trend has been on full display during recent years, with the Russian Navy suffering a number of embarrassing high-profile mishaps. Its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov —nicknamed the ‘unluckiest ship in the world’— has caught fire at least three times since 2018. Earlier this year, Ukrainian intelligence assessed that the ship is in “critical condition” and “not capable of moving under its own power.” That’s not to mention the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, in April 2022. But now there’s an even bigger problem for Putin,
one deep below the waves. For all the issues with its surface fleet, Russia’s current fleet of 58 submarines have long been considered among the most powerful in the world. This includes 11 nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs, 17 nuclear-powered attack subs, and 9 nuclear-powered cruise missile subs, with several more on the way next year. While they haven’t been a factor in Ukraine, they are still considered a “critical threat” by the US military. However, their power may not last forever. Recent reports suggest that Russia’s submarine
capabilities are being seriously harmed by the backlash to its invasion, especially through the crippling effect of Western sanctions. So what does this mean for the future of the Russian military? And just how serious of a blow could it be to Putin’s war machine? To understand just how critical Putin’s submarine problem could be, we first need to take a quick look at some Russian naval history, which, funnily enough, is permeated with continuing and humiliating losses of fleets. But wait, there’s a plot twist and it occurs just after World War II… Russia has had military power at sea in one form or another since 1696, when Peter the Great first established the Imperial Russian Navy. Impressed by his visits to Western Europe, Peter realized that Russia could never be a true great power while remaining landlocked. By 1710, he had over 58 ships in the fleet, and despite some defeats, by Peter’s death in 1725, Russia was the dominant sea power in the Baltic. During the reign of
Catherine the Great, the empire’s ambitions at sea had grown, establishing a new Black Sea Fleet and annexing Crimea for the first time in 1783. By the time of her death in 1796, Russia possessed the world’s second largest navy after Britain. This period was the height of Russia’s imperial naval power. As naval historian Robert A. Theobald once put it, “To my mind, the death of Catherine marks
the high-water mark in Russian naval history. From this date to the end of the Imperial Navy, it was on a treadmill working hard, but getting nowhere.” This became obvious during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, where Russia suffered a stinging defeat to the combined forces of the Ottomans, France, and Britain. The shortcomings of the Imperial Navy were even more obvious by the time of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. But it gets worse. In response to Russian expansionism in the far east, the newly industrialized Japanese military gave Russian Tsar Nicholas II a humiliating defeat at sea. The war marked Japan’s emergence
as a great power, and contributed heavily to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Following the second Revolution in 1917, what remained of the old Imperial Navy came under control of the Soviet Union. And while Lenin and Stalin both aimed to rebuild a powerful Soviet Navy, it remained largely inept throughout both World Wars and into the early 1950s. As Theobald described it in his well-known 1953 presentation at the US Naval War College: “This is the history of a Navy which has lost more complete fleets than any other Navy in the world. It is the history of a Navy which has never been more than second rate; that has never been decisive in world history; and that has never developed a depth of tradition to compare with those of the Western Navies.”
But this would change drastically only a few years after his assessment, mainly due to one factor: modern submarines. While Russia had some early submarines before World War II, the first modern Soviet ballistic missile submarines were completed in the late 1950s. These early Soviet models were diesel-electric, and based on designs pioneered by the Germans, similarly to the United States. However, by 1960, the Soviet Navy had launched its first nuclear-powered attack submarines, giving the USSR below-surface capabilities greater than perhaps any country except the US. Soon after, the Soviets also developed nuclear SSGN class subs,
running on nuclear power but designed to launch limited ballistic missile strikes against American aircraft carriers and other naval deployments. Over the next three decades, the Soviet Navy continued to build and maintain a large fleet of submarines, relying on them heavily to challenge America's greater military strength during the Cold War. Because the true names of Soviet subs were rarely known abroad, most are still referred to by NATO code names, such as the Alfa-class nuclear subs. These use liquid-metal cooled reactor propulsion systems and titanium hulls, enabling them to move extremely fast, over 43 knots (80 km/hr) at an operational depth of 2,000 feet (600 m). Also important to Soviet deterrence and power projection were the Typhoon-class subs. The largest submarines ever built, Typhoons are over 563 feet (172 m) long,
have a beam of 81 feet (25 m), and can carry up to 20 Sturgeon nuclear capable ballistic missiles. These were just a few of the many varieties of subs developed by the Soviet Navy. And the Soviets also continued heavily building diesel-electric models as well, such as the Kilo-class attack subs and others. The fleet was never able to make the switch to fully-nuclear powered, largely due to budgetary and technological constraints. However, by its peak in 1980, the USSR’s submarine force had 480 boats, including 71 fast attack and 94 cruise and ballistic missile submarines.
Even following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, this submarine fleet remained a major part of Russia’s naval power. Dmitry Gorenburg of the Center for Naval Analyses has noted that during the post-Cold War period, Putin has focused on developing new submarine capabilities, while Russia has essentially lost the ability to construct new, advanced surface vessels. The most advanced of these submarine developments are the Yasen and updated Yasen-M class SSGNs. Developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, RAND Corporation researcher Edward Geist has described these as "the crown jewel of the contemporary Russian Navy and perhaps the pinnacle of present-day Russian military technology." And according to Admiral Foggo, one major advantage of the Yasen-class vessels is that they are “very quiet, which is the most important thing in submarine warfare." They can also carry both Tsirkon hypersonic and long-range Kalibr cruise missiles. Yet these
deadly subs also come with a hefty price tag: the Severodvinsk, the first Yasen-class model, reportedly cost over $1.6 billion. While this is still much cheaper than than the US’s most advanced subs, it is a very high price tag considering Russia’s far smaller economy. In the past few years, Putin’s government has also claimed that even more nuclear subs are in the works, including what Russian state media claimed to be a new "division" of submarines carrying nuclear-capable "super-torpedoes'' in the coming years.
Nick Childs, senior fellow for naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has argued that investments in submarines up to this point are one of the only things which has allowed Russia to maintain its status “among the leading powers.” While its fleet is still far smaller than during the Soviet era, Childs points out that it remains “very capable, and along with some of the older submarines would still pose a threat to NATO both at sea and against land-based targets." But even before the war in Ukraine, there were some doubts about the true effectiveness of Russia’s impressive seeming subs. While they are doubtless in better shape than its surface fleet, they have never been truly tested in combat. So how are Putin’s submarine fleets fairing in the Russo-Ukraine conflict? On land, the reckless nature of Russian military doctrine has been on full display in the invasion of Ukraine. But despite the enormous losses by Russia’s ground forces, its Navy has so far played
a very limited role in the conflict. This includes its submarines, which have remained mostly as a nuclear deterrent and threat. The exception to this is Russia’s Black Sea fleet, where submarines off the coast of Sevastopol and Novorossiysk have been used to fire Kalibr missiles into Ukraine.
None of these subs have so far been damaged or destroyed, and there are still concerns that they could be used to counter NATO activity and control trade routes in the Black Sea. But the consequences of Putin’s invasion have created a different kind of problem for the Russian Navy and its submarines. The crushing regime of Western sanctions imposed on Russia has begun to erode the country’s ability to resupply and maintain its military industry. And in December of 2022, the US State Department added even more sanctions directly targeting Russia’s naval power. These have already begun to work, cutting Russia off from the technology required in modern subs. As Admiral Foggo told Newsweek in an interview: "I think they've been severely crippled by these economic sanctions,” and "by their own foolishness in the war in Ukraine." In particular, the maintenance of existing subs and development
of new ones will become increasingly difficult, since "when they don't have the raw materials, they can't sustain the industrial base, they don't have the manpower—because that manpower is going into fighting the war [in Ukraine].” Military losses and brain drain make it likely that Russia will lose its ability to compete with Western countries in submarine development, especially when it comes to their ability to project power. Graeme P. Herd, of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies argues that “The protracted nature of the conflict and the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive undercuts Russian military credibility." The repeated military failures in Ukraine have created growing pressure for Russia to project an image of strength through its submarines. In turn, this has incentivized the Russian Navy to take “greater risks” by
using submarines which are not sea-worthy and fast-tracking new weapons systems without proper testing. Herd added that "Submarines are the most expensive ticket item in Russia's military budget and have no obvious utility in this war—so Russia compensates and projects power through acceptance of greater risk.” As a consequence, Russia’s submarines “will suffer indirect and long-term damage the longer the war lasts." Similarly, Herd and other experts have pointed out that the sanctions illustrate just how much of Russia’s military industrial complex was, and remains reliant on critical Western technology. Without the advanced components for submarines manufactured in the US, UK, France, Germany, and elsewhere, Russian development will be seriously stunted in the years to come. And there are almost no alternatives to the technology which sanctions
have cut Russia off from: parts from China and Iran, for example, are not advanced enough to meet Moscow’s requirements. While experts remain divided on just how dependent Russia’s nuclear submarines are on Western tech, it is pretty clear that at least some of imported components are necessary to build new vessels. These are mostly thought to be technologically-advanced electronic components for guidance, communication and missile deployment. Russian defense journalist Alexander Timokhin wrote in January that “The sanctions imposed on Russia after the ‘Special Military Operation’ left a sharp imprint on the country’s technological capabilities… The production of radar complexes, communication systems, guided missiles, sonar equipment, and other similar systems has proved to be difficult.” As a consequence, these restrictions could make it nearly impossible to build Yasen and Yasen-M class subs and other highly capable boats. Childs,
from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, points out that this trajectory is already visible, as “While the newest Russian submarines are very capable, Russia's inefficient shipbuilding industry has struggled to deliver them on time and in significant numbers." Like other experts, he agrees that Russia’s construction shortfalls will accelerate in the coming months and years, since "This could well be exacerbated by the increased demands on other sectors of the defense industry as a result of the war, as well as from the impact of sanctions on certain key components." So what do these deficiencies mean for Putin’s ambitions and the future of the Russian military? Well, experts have outlined two main possible scenarios for the future of Russia’s submarine fleet. One possibility is that as military resource constraints continue to grow, it
will lead to prioritization of the elements which have been most impacted— especially ground forces. As of May 2023, Russia has lost nearly 200,000 soldiers, a truly staggering figure for a modern military. In turn, as one analyst put it: "That will inevitably lead to cuts, or limits at least, in shipbuilding in the future." The other possibility is that Russia will be forced to funnel more investment into submarines, due to their relative importance and strategic value. This will mean less and less resources for replenishing ground troops and equipment,
which are both cheaper and more expendable. But even if Putin opts for the second scenario, any money spent now is likely to have a delayed impact. Past investments in submarine development and maintenance will carry the Russian fleet for at least a few years to come, but within five to ten years, it could be a very different picture. Just based on the size and current capabilities of Russian submarines, it will likely remain one of the world’s most powerful fleets for the next decade— but after that things are far more uncertain. Any modern submarine which breaks down in the years could become essentially useless, reduced to just so much expensive scrap metal. However Putin attempts to manage his growing
economic constraints, the main role of Russian submarines will probably remain as a nuclear deterrent. And there are also some indications that Putin has already realized just how spread thin his resources really are. In March, Russia’s Pacific Fleet underwent a series of military drills which were described as a “surprise inspection” of more than a dozen submarines— potentially signaling a lack of faith by the Kremlin in the readiness or maintenance of the fleet. Readouts from the Kremlin show that Putin recently told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that while Russia’s “priorities” remain the war in Ukraine, "still, the objective to develop the navy, including in the Pacific theater of operations, remains relevant." Adding that "It is clear that some of the fleet's assets can be used in conflicts elsewhere." This indicates both
that Putin does not believe submarines can make much of a difference in Ukraine, and that they remain most useful as a nuclear deterrent. As Russia’s submarines begin to break down in the coming years, with no easy way to maintain them or build new state of the art models, the country will also become less able to project power in this way. This will almost certainly happen regardless of which where the Kremlin prioritizes resources, especially since casualties in Ukraine show no sign of slowing down. As losses climb higher and higher,
and as sanctions continue their squeeze, it may also provoke Putin into even more aggressive and reckless strategies. In fact, there is evidence that this is already taking place. In the past few months, Russia has deployed submarines in increasingly threatening positions. As Michael Peterson, the director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute, told Newsweek: "We have indications that nuclear-powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along Europe periphery, in ways that mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War." Such aggressive posturing is likely tied to Putin’s growing issues, in an attempt to project a facade of Russia as a true global power, despite an economy less than half the size of California. This weakness is also reflected in overly
optimistic predictions for its military industrial complex. A recent analysis by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded —similarly to other experts— that “Russian officials continue to claim that Russian defense manufacturers are increasing production amidst ongoing indications that the Russian defense industrial base (DIB) is unable to meet Russia’s long-term economic and military goals.” There have been rosy claims by officials like Alexey Rakhmanov, head of the Russian United Shipbuilding Company, that submarine production time will soon be cut by 8 to 13 months. But there is little evidence to support this. And in another sign of growing weakness, Putin signed a decree on February 27th, reducing previous plans to construct at least three nuclear reactor-equipped Lider class icebreakers by 2035 down to just a single vessel. Again, this likely reflects the fact that the need to replenish stocks of conventional ground weaponry lost in Ukraine, “will likely consume the majority of Russia‘s DIB and limit Russia’s ability to produce systems aimed at longer-term strategic goals.” This includes both nuclear icebreakers and submarines, indicating that Russia’s resources are spread much thinner than Putin would like the world to believe. So to sum up: despite claims by the Kremlin, there
are strong signs that Russia’s disastrous strategy in Ukraine has backfired even more than we know. The squeeze of Western sanctions now threatens to render even the deadly Russian submarine fleet obsolete. The longer the war goes on, and the more isolated Russia becomes, the harder it will be to obtain the advanced components needed for these vessels. This will continue to erode the country’s industrial base, possibly crippling all long-term defense production. And because Russian losses in Ukraine are so heavy, Putin also faces a crisis of credibility, and growing pressure to project a facade of power. This has already led to reckless, aggressive
posturing by Russian subs, and a willingness to use vessels which are not even sea-worthy, a problem which seems likely to increase. Because the Russian Navy has historically been so reliant on them to project power, there is little question that the stagnation of its submarine fleet will be a serious blow in the coming years. But what do you think? Will sanctions and battlefield losses eventually doom Russia’s submarine fleet? Or can Putin find a way around these issues and keep Russia as a great power? Let us know what you think in the comment section below, and don’t forget to subscribe for more military content and analysis.