Russia wastes its great naval advantage.

Russia has no future as a state without a proper navy,” then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2009, as Moscow was moving forward with far-reaching plans for its naval forces.

Years later, however, the Russian surface fleet falls short, a relatively unimpressive force that has been allowed to “stunt,” as a former US Navy admiral previously stated. With high-profile mishaps such as the loss of the Black Sea flagship Moskva in April 2022 and the habit of burning down Russia’s only aircraft carrier, many of Russia’s surface ships, except for a few newer and smaller, are not up to par.

But the same cannot be said of the ships that Russia hides beneath the surface of the world’s oceans and seas. Unlike the more visible surface ships, Russian submarines are considered some of the best in the world.

However, the capabilities of Russian submarines risk being diluted by their concentration on the Ukraine war, which mainly involves ground forces, and Western sanctions jeopardize their further development.

The Russian Navy is “the best underwater.”

Retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo told Newsweek that Moscow’s superior submarines rank just below the United States. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit, estimates that Russia operates 58 diesel and nuclear submarines.

 By this count, Russia has 17 nuclear attack submarines and nine cruise missile nuclear submarines (SSGNs).

Among the Russian fleet are the Yasen-class and upgraded Yasen-M SSGNs, which RAND corporation expert Edward Geist previously described as “the jewel in the crown of the contemporary Russian Navy and perhaps the pinnacle of Russian military technology.

They are capable of transporting Russia’s long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, which have been fired against Ukrainian sites, as well as the country’s new hypersonic Tsirkon and Zircon missiles.

In addition, Russian official media reported in December that the Navy would be receiving additional nuclear submarines in the coming months, following the December 2022 ceremony marking the handover of the Borei-class Generalissimo Suvorov.

Russia has announced new investments in its submarine capabilities, including what Russian state media claimed would be a new “division” of nuclear-capable “super torpedo”-carrying submarines in the coming years.

In terms of capacity, range, and stealth, the Russian submarine force “far surpasses” its surface fleet, as stated by Graeme P. Herd of the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies.

Throughout the post-Cold War period, Russia has focused on developing submarines and new capabilities for submarine ships, while Moscow has largely lost its ability to build new large surface ships, Dmitry Gorenburg added. , from the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), an American think tank.

The Russian Navy, and the forerunner, the Soviet Navy, have always been “the best underwater,” and nuclear-powered submarine technology continues to rank Moscow “among the leading powers,” according to Nick Childs, senior researcher on naval forces and maritime security of the group of experts of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

Its fleet may not have as many nuclear-powered submarines as it did for much of the 20th century, but the Yasen-class submarines it does have are “very capable and, along with some of the older submarines, would still be a threat to NATO both at sea and against land targets,” he told Newsweek.

Michael Petersen, director of Russia’s Institute for Maritime Studies, previously stated that Moscow’s submarine fleet was a “critical challenge” for the United States, and many experts agree.

However, while the fleet is impressive on paper, the state of preservation and operation of Soviet-era submarines is largely unknown, according to Frederik Mertens, a strategic analyst at the research organization Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). The Russian submarine force has never been “fully combat tested,” Childs added, and while the submarines are supposed to be superior to the surface fleet, “the extent of that remains unclear.”

Russia’s land forces and submarines reflect a “recklessness” and a willingness to take risks that NATO countries would not, according to Paul van Hooft, a senior strategic analyst at HCSS.

Russia wastes its great naval advantage.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Navy parade marking Russian Navy Day in Saint Petersburg, Russia, July 31, 2022.

The Russian Navy in Ukraine

When it comes to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the Russian Navy has barely been involved at all. Submarines with nuclear capabilities are dispersed between the Northern and Pacific fleets, neither of which has played a significant part in the conflict in Ukraine. According to Van Hooft, Russia’s nuclear deterrent relies on a second wave of submarines that safeguard the country’s nuclear submarines.

These submarines have as their “primary objective” “to launch strategic nuclear strikes against the United States,” Herd said. Last month, the Pacific Fleet underwent a series of military exercises described by the Kremlin as a “surprise inspection” involving 12 submarines.

According to a Kremlin reading, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that the development of the navy, notably in the Pacific theatre of operations, remained vital even though Russia’s “priorities” remained the war in Ukraine.

“It is clear that some of the fleet’s assets can be used in conflicts elsewhere,” Putin added.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet, with its bases in the Crimean port of Sevastopol and in the southern Russian city of Novorossiysk, has so far played a larger role in the war effort. 

Childs pointed out that Russian conventionally powered subs lurking in the Black Sea continue to represent a threat to NATO activity in the Black Sea and maritime routes, despite submarines being utilized to deploy land-attack cruise missiles like the Kalibrs. Despite this, Gorenburg claims that the Russian submarine fleet “has been largely unaffected” by the ongoing conflict.

The crisis, however, is reaching, or will eventually reach the Russian Navy. To lessen Moscow’s military might, Western backers of Kyiv, particularly the United States, have implemented sanctions; in December 2022, the State Department tightened its grip on Russia’s naval might.

“I think these economic sanctions have badly hurt them,” said retired Admiral Foggo, as well as “by their own folly in the Ukraine war.”

With “no raw materials, can’t maintain the industrial base, don’t have the manpower, because that manpower is leaving to fight the war,” as Foggo put it, it will be “increasingly difficult” to sustain the development of modern submarines in Ukraine.

This commitment to Russia’s ability to invest in forward-thinking development, such as next-generation submarines, “to rival the best in the West,” he said.

“The prolongation of the conflict and the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive undermine Russian military credibility,” Herd said. He said that pressure is likely to increase on the Russian Navy to project an image of strength across its fleet, causing it to take “greater risks” by using unseaworthy submarines and speeding up the development of weapon systems.

Submarines are the most expensive item in the Russian military budget and have no obvious utility in this war, so Russia compensates and projects power by accepting greater risk,” Herd said. Russian submarines “will suffer indirect and long-term damage the longer the war lasts.”

According to specialists like Herd, the sanctions show how dependent the Russian defense industrial complex was and is on Western technology, which could stunt Russia’s progress. 

She stated that few substitute sources are available without access to this technology for advanced Russian submarines. China’s technology, for example, cannot meet Moscow’s needs, she added.

It is difficult to gauge how dependent Russian submarines are on foreign technology, Gorenburg said, but imported technology will likely be needed for at least some parts of submarine development. However, he continued that one must also distinguish between surface and submarine fleets, particularly nuclear submarines, which are less likely to need foreign technology.

“Although the latest Russian submarines are very capable, the ineffective Russian shipping industry has struggled to deliver them on time and in significant numbers,” Childs added. “This could be exacerbated by increased demands on other sectors of the defense industry as a result of the war, as well as the impact of sanctions on certain key components,” he added. But experts present two possible scenarios for the future of the Russian submarine fleet.

Ultimately, suppose there are resource constraints across the Russian military. In that case, priority is likely to be given to rebuilding forces that have been hit the hardest, such as ground forces, Gorenburg said. “That will inevitably lead to cuts, or at least limits, in shipbuilding in the future.”

In spite of this, Childs argued that Russia should put more resources into submarines because of their “relative importance” in comparison to other military domains that have been damaged.

However, according to experts, the impact is likely to be delayed. The levels of investment that submarines have enjoyed are likely to sustain the fleets for years to come, while cuts will be felt much further down the line.

“They have emerged as a leading submarine power, probably for at least the next 20 years,” Gorenburg said, noting the investment of the previous decade. After that, “there could certainly be ramifications.”

However, maintaining both nuclear deterrent submarines and the underwater vessels that protect them will always be a top priority for Russia, Mertens said.

Ellie Cook