56 No Longer Ne­glected: The Asia-pa­cific in Rus­sia’s Strate­gic Think­ing

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By An­drey Gu­bin

a build-up in Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­cludes a re­vival of the pre­vi­ously ne­glected Rus­sian Pa­cific Fleet.

Given the dy­namism of Asia’s economies and Rus­sia’s own press­ing in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing its Far Eastern re­gions, Moscow is pay­ing se­ri­ous at­ten­tion to the grow­ing strate­gic value of its re­la­tions with Asia. While the China-us ri­valry plays a role in Rus­sia’s cal­cu­la­tions, it’s not the only rea­son for the coun­try’s in­creas­ing en­gage­ment in Asia. One con­se­quence of that deeper in­volve­ment is a no­table buildup and mod­ern­iza­tion of Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing a re­vival of the pre­vi­ously ne­glected Rus­sian Pa­cific Fleet, writes An­drey Gu­bin. VIEWED through the lens of the world’s me­dia, the main agenda of Rus­sian for­eign pol­icy is de­ploy­ing mil­i­tary as­sets on the western bor­der with nato and in the Mid­dle east, with lit­tle at­ten­tion paid to asia. how­ever, this view isn’t ac­cu­rate. In Rus­sia’s “For­eign Pol­icy Con­cept 2016,” Moscow de­clared its full in­volve­ment with asia-pa­cific in­te­gra­tion pro­cesses and out­lined two ma­jor goals. the first is con­nected with Rus­sia’s plan for com­pre­hen­sive de­vel­op­ment of its vast and eco­nom­i­cally back­ward Far eastern and siberian ter­ri­to­ries through eco­nomic and tech­no­log­i­cal co-op­er­a­tion with asia-pa­cific coun­tries. sec­ond, Rus­sia is ad­vo­cat­ing for the for­ma­tion of a trans­par­ent, non-bloc-ori­ented and equal se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture for the re­gion.

the pri­or­ity on the Rus­sian Far east isn’t new, nor is Moscow’s search for new part­ners in the asia-pa­cific con­nected with Rus­sia’s fad­ing eco­nomic re­la­tions with the euro­pean union due to the ukrainian cri­sis. But Rus­sia doesn’t pos­sess enough re­sources to pur­sue its “Go­ing east­ward” and “Grand eura­sia” plans. De­spite the fact that the Far eastern ter­ri­to­ries ac­count for 36 per­cent of Rus­sia’s to­tal land­mass and the coun­try has a Pa­cific coast­line of some 30,000km, Moscow has been late in in­clud­ing the asia-pa­cific in its strate­gic think­ing. Dur­ing the Cold War, the soviet union largely ig­nored this re­gional agenda, pre­fer­ring in­stead to sup­port some so­cial­ist na­tions such as Viet­nam, north Korea and Mon­go­lia. af­ter the ussr col­lapsed, global bipo­lar con­fronta­tion dis­ap­peared, which stim­u­lated Rus­sia to re­vise its old strat­egy, and iden­tify new chal­lenges and pos­si­bil­i­ties in the asia-pa­cific re­gion.

In ad­di­tion, Moscow has been long crit­i­cized for shy­ing away from tak­ing po­si­tions on key re­gional prob­lems. even to­day, Rus­sia of­fi­cially spec­i­fies only the Korean Penin­sula as a main hot spot for in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity within the asia-pa­cific re­gion, si­mul­ta­ne­ously call­ing for the es­tab­lish­ment of a mul­ti­lat­eral mech­a­nism ca­pa­ble of keep­ing the peace in north­east asia. Re­gard­ing ten­sions in the east China and south China seas, Moscow has con­sis­tently main­tained neu­tral­ity and called on all par­ties to mar­itime dis­putes to en­gage in di­a­logue aimed at a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion.

the Krem­lin’s for­eign-pol­icy strat­egy calls for a re­bal­anc­ing of the world’s power and de­vel­op­ment ca­pac­ity, be­cause a larger and larger share of it is shift­ing to­ward the asia-pa­cific re­gion. Rus­sia places prin­ci­pal value on build­ing the mil­i­tary-po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in asia, where the po­ten­tial for con­flict still ex­ists, ar­se­nals are grow­ing and the dan­ger of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of weapons of mass de­struc­tion is higher than ever. Rus­sia be­lieves that all dis­agree­ments in the re­gion should be re­solved by diplo­matic means, strictly in line with in­ter­na­tional law and pro­ce­dures. even in its “Mil­i­tary Doc­trine 2014,” Moscow cited the con­tain­ment and preven­tion of mil­i­tary con­flict in asia through a new model of col­lec­tive se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture as a main goal.

thus, we can see some de­ci­sive fea­tures of con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian strat­egy to­ward the asi­apa­cific. Moscow is striv­ing to di­ver­sify its part­ner­ships, us­ing the po­ten­tial of re­gional economies and ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions to foster re­gional in­te­gra­tion. With a wide range of in­ter­ests con­nected with its Far eastern ter­ri­to­ries, the Krem­lin is now seek­ing greater se­cu­rity there and en­hanc­ing its mil­i­tary ca­pac­ity. More­over, Moscow is en­ter­ing the asia-pa­cific — or even the Indo-pa­cific — more ac­tively, declar­ing its readi­ness to get in­volved in cri­sis man­age­ment or sup­port­ing key part­ners such as China and In­dia. Fi­nally, Rus­sia, just as the soviet union did, is mak­ing its Far east an in­te­gral part of its nu­clear-de­ter­rence sys­tem.

the China-us ri­valry

to­day, a ma­jor threat to Rus­sia’s na­tional-se­cu­rity in­ter­ests in the asia-pa­cific re­gion is un­doubt­edly the China-us ri­valry, es­pe­cially in the mil­i­tary sphere. there is no sin­gle re­gional coun­try that can present a clear threat to Rus­sia, but in­trare­gional dy­nam­ics are hav­ing an in­flu­ence on its for­eign pol­icy and de­fense strat­egy. China isn’t openly con­fronting the us, although Wash­ing­ton has of­fi­cially named Bei­jing as a re­vi­sion­ist state chal­leng­ing amer­i­can in­ter­ests. China also doesn’t have a for­mal al­liance with Rus­sia, hav­ing only one mil­i­tary treaty with north Korea. It is prob­a­bly time for China to make some strate­gic choices now that most of its ma­jor do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal is­sues have been re­solved. Rus­sia is con­sid­ered by some an­a­lysts such as aaron Fried­berg to be a “strate­gic rear area” for China, be­cause it can with­draw troops from the north­ern bor­der, which is calm and safe. If Bei­jing en­hances or even el­e­vates its co-op­er­a­tion with Rus­sia to the level of an al­liance, it would be­come less vul­ner­a­ble to an “ana­conda strat­egy,” a geo-eco­nomic stran­gle­hold in­volv­ing a naval block­ade of all sea lanes. sean Mirsky finds Rus­sia to be a “swing state” — po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily, Moscow can ei­ther ce­ment Chi­nese re­gional lead­er­ship or ruin its am­bi­tions.

tak­ing into ac­count re­cent mu­tual ini­tia­tives, such as China join­ing the Rus­sia-led eurasian eco­nomic union and Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment with China’s Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive, Bei­jing and Moscow could achieve a modus operandi for a Grand east asia, in­clud­ing Cen­tral asia and north­east asia. Rus­sia has im­pres­sive mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties in eura­sia, so China could save on mil­i­tary as­pects

of se­cu­rity, del­e­gat­ing this mis­sion to its strate­gic part­ner and con­cen­trat­ing on eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties. In­deed, a new for­mat for a so-called eurasian en­tente seems to have emerged on the ba­sis of the shang­hai Co-op­er­a­tion Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

One prac­ti­cal mil­i­tary side of sino-rus­sian co­op­er­a­tion can be found in joint ef­forts to counter the amer­i­can bal­lis­tic-mis­sile de­fense sys­tem. Rus­sia has sev­eral times ex­pressed con­cern about the de­ploy­ment of the us the­ater high al­ti­tude area De­fense (thaad) mis­sile sys­tem in south Korea and the pos­si­ble de­ploy­ment of the aegis ashore sys­tem in Ja­pan. these de­vel­op­ments aren’t very dan­ger­ous for Rus­sia it­self, be­cause its nu­clear de­ter­rence is still ef­fec­tive, es­pe­cially in light of the new sys­tems that were re­cently pre­sented by Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. how­ever, China’s strate­gic ca­pa­bil­i­ties aren’t so im­pres­sive and suf­fer a lot from amer­i­can ef­forts. so, a mil­i­tary al­liance with Rus­sia would have one very im­por­tant com­po­nent — pos­i­tive guar­an­tees of as­sis­tance in the case of a nu­clear at­tack.

army and air force Mod­ern­iza­tion

think­ing geopo­lit­i­cally, there is no di­rect threat to Rus­sian se­cu­rity from any con­ti­nen­tal na­tion in north­east asia. un­like in the pe­riod from 1960 to the 1980s, the peril of a mas­sive Chi­nese in­va­sion is no longer rel­e­vant, there­fore the de­ploy­ment of huge re­sources along the bor­der with China is no longer needed. Con­tem­po­rary Rus­sian mil­i­tary doc­trine to­tally ex­cludes any con­flict with China and re­jects the fears of some alarm-minded an­a­lysts who call for large group­ings of forces in the Far east.

how­ever, Rus­sia is mod­ern­iz­ing its weapons sys­tems in the eastern Mil­i­tary Dis­trict — from Baikal lake to the Kuril Is­lands — to make units more mo­bile and ca­pa­ble. land forces in its Far east in­clude four armies, all with con­ven­tional mu­ni­tions such as tanks, how­itzers and mul­ti­ple rocket launch­ers. some ar­tillery, such as the 8-inch Pion, can be loaded with nu­clear shells. Brigades of ss-26 stone short-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles are also an im­por­tant part of the mil­i­tary’s strike po­ten­tial, be­cause they are aimed at hit­ting anti-mis­sile and anti-air­craft bat­ter­ies of ri­vals. Rus­sia’s army Corps are lo­cated on the sakhalin and Kuril Is­lands and have a spe­cific role in an­ti­land­ing de­fense. there are also two air­borne brigades, some spe­cial forces, and nu­mer­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tions, lo­gis­tics, sup­port, re­pair and train­ing units within the eastern Mil­i­tary Dis­trict.

air De­fense con­sists of three divi­sions armed with sa-10d Grum­ble, sa-20b Gar­goyle and sa-17 Griz­zly mis­sile sys­tems. In ad­di­tion, the newly ob­tained sa-21 Growler com­plexes pos­sess ter­mi­nal anti-bal­lis­tic-mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

air forces in the Far east have a di­verse range of equip­ment. the new­est su-35 Flanker-e+ fighter has en­tered ser­vice, as well as the Ka-52 hokum B as­sault heli­copters. notably, the MIG31 Fox­hound in­ter­cep­tors are able not only to hit en­emy air­craft at a great dis­tance, but also to launch X-47 air-bal­lis­tic rock­ets. the fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth fighter su-57 is be­ing pro­duced in Kom­so­molsk-on-amur, and is ac­tively be­ing tested for fu­ture op­er­a­tions.

When dis­cussing the Rus­sian air Force, it’s im­pos­si­ble to omit the tu-95 Bear strate­gic bombers, which serve as the back­bone of the air com­po­nent of Rus­sia’s nu­clear de­ter­rence. up to 30 are based in amur Oblast, and of­ten we can see the bombers in the me­dia be­ing shad­owed by Ja­panese, us or Cana­dian fight­ers. the main weapons of re­tal­i­a­tion are the X-55 (as-15 Kent) and the X-101/102 cruise mis­siles, both in con­ven­tional and ther­monu­clear vari­ants. In Putin’s re­cent ad­dress to the Fed­eral assem­bly, he also men­tioned nu­clear-pow­ered ver­sions with un­lim­ited range and flight du­ra­tion, which are im­per­vi­ous to bal­lis­tic-mis­sile de­fense sys­tems.

blue-wa­ter Navy or Coastal DE­FENSE?

Con­tem­po­rary east asia has grad­u­ally be­come a venue for pos­si­ble naval con­fronta­tion as key play­ers aren’t crowded onto a con­ti­nent but sep­a­rated by vast seas. the main dis­putes within the re­gion are also linked with the sea: dis­puted is­lands, rocks and shelf ar­eas. Pa­cific na­tions ac­tively use the sea for eco­nomic pur­poses, in­clud­ing al­most all trade. We should note that large-scale con­flict on a con­ti­nent will lead to se­vere losses in terms of peo­ple and ma­teriel, while sea bat­tles are less bloody and costly, so the temp­ta­tion to use force at sea is stronger and the po­lit­i­cal thresh­old to start a naval cam­paign lower.

In July 2010, the flag­ship of the Rus­sian north­ern Fleet, the nu­clear-pow­ered cruiser Peter the Great and the flag­ship of the Black sea Fleet, the mis­sile cruiser Moscow, ar­rived in the sea of Ja­pan to par­tic­i­pate in the Vos­tok-2010 naval drill. Former Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev pointed out that on one side, Rus­sia has de­vel­oped co-op­er­a­tion with asia-pa­cific economies, how­ever, from another side, Rus­sia should be ready to main­tain se­cu­rity in the face of any emerg­ing prob­lems as it de­vel­ops its Far east. ac­cord­ing to Medvedev, such naval train­ing ex­er­cises have a role in demon­strat­ing Moscow’s abil­ity to com­plete any mil­i­tary task in the Pa­cific re­gion. this claim shows that Rus­sia is still more in­ter­ested in guard­ing its ex­ist­ing po­si­tions than in con­quer­ing new ones and doesn’t in­tend to com­pete with any na­tion at sea. Rus­sia’s Pa­cific Fleet is more ori­ented to

When dis­cussing the Rus­sian Air Force, it’s im­pos­si­ble to omit the Tu-95 Bear strate­gic bombers, which serve as the back­bone of the air com­po­nent of Rus­sia’s nu­clear de­ter­rence. Up to 30 are based in Amur Oblast, and of­ten we can see the bombers in the me­dia be­ing shad­owed by Ja­panese, US or Cana­dian fight­ers.

nu­clear de­ter­rence and guard­ing strate­gi­cally im­por­tant straits and coastal wa­ters.

the col­lapse of the soviet union was a real catas­tro­phe for the Pa­cific Fleet. two Kiev-class air­craft car­ri­ers, three Kara-class frigates, three Ivan Ro­gov-class am­phibi­ous ships, and sev­eral sovre­menny-class de­stroy­ers were scrapped from 1990 to the 2000s. the nu­clear-pow­ered Kirov-class cruiser Ad­mi­ral Lazarev, three sovre­menny-class de­stroy­ers and some other ships were de­com­mis­sioned and pre­pared for other uses — while the fate of the aban­doned ships an­chored in the naval base at Pri­morye is still un­clear. the unique nu­clear-pow­ered Ka­pus­ta­class re­con­nais­sance ship Ural was dis­patched for scrap­ping in au­gust 2016 be­cause re­build­ing it ap­peared to be too ex­pen­sive. ac­tu­ally, from 1991 un­til 2003, the Rus­sian Pa­cific Fleet didn’t com­mis­sion any new com­bat ships and faced short­ages of fuel, parts and qual­i­fied crew mem­bers. a lot of aux­il­iary ships and ves­sels such as tankers and tugs were lent or sold to com­mer­cial firms. Only at the end of the 2000s did the build­ing of new units and mod­ern­iza­tion of ex­ist­ing ones be­gin, as the com­pre­hen­sive de­vel­op­ment of the Far east was pri­or­i­tized and the im­por­tance of the mil­i­tary role in this emerged as es­sen­tial.

an­a­lysts point out that even in 2010, the Pa­cific Fleet fo­cused on tasks in in­ner seas, and es­cort and anti-pi­rate mis­sions, be­ing too weak for strate­gic op­er­a­tions on the high seas. to­day, the Pa­cific Fleet is still not as large or ca­pa­ble as the north­ern Fleet, but the move to strengthen it is ob­vi­ous. the core of the Pa­cific Fleet is the slava­class mis­sile cruiser Varyag — the flag­ship of the Fleet — one sovre­menny-class de­stroyer, three udaloy-class frigates, four am­phibi­ous ships and 30+ smaller ships such as corvettes, mis­sile boats and mine-sweep­ers. the new­est sur­face ship, the mis­sile corvette Sover­shenny, en­tered ser­vice in July 2017. un­der the na­tional ar­ma­ment Pro­gram to 2020, the Pa­cific Fleet is set to ac­quire sev­eral sur­face com­bat ships in­clud­ing two new frigates and five corvettes. the cur­rently moth­balled nu­clear-pow­ered cruiser Ad­mi­ral Lazarev can be up­graded and re­turned to ser­vice, while its sis­ter ship, Ad­mi­ral Ushakov, will be re­moved from the north­ern Fleet. One udaloy is docked for re­pair and seems to be armed with new mis­siles and other new ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

un­for­tu­nately, due to the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of re­la­tions with the eu since 2014, the French gov­ern­ment can­celed the Rus­sian navy’s or­der for two large Mis­tral-class land­ing ships. the Vladi­vos­tok, mean­while, was pri­mar­ily as­signed to the Pa­cific Fleet, but to­day she is to be sold to egypt.

the strate­gic parts of the Pa­cific Fleet — Delta Iii-class nu­clear-pow­ered sub­marines with bal­lis­tic mis­siles — be­came ob­so­lete in the 2000s; the youngest one, the Ryazan, ar­rived for ser­vice at Kam­chatka in dis­tant 1982. as for to­day, the naval com­po­nent of Rus­sia’s nu­clear de­ter­rence is met by two brand-new Borei-class and three up­graded Delta-iii-class sub­marines. Cur­rent plans pre­sume the to­tal sub­sti­tu­tion of Deltas with Bor­eis, so three ad­di­tional sub­marines are to come into ser­vice in the next five to seven years. notably, new sub­marines are armed with 16 Bulava (ss-n-30) mis­siles each, ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing up to six nu­clear war­heads each. In the case of hav­ing to deal with over­pass­ing amer­i­can bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fenses, the Bulava can be equipped with 10 in­di­vid­u­ally tar­geted blocks on a “school bus” clus­ter prin­ci­ple, with ex­tremely high pre­ci­sion. arms ex­perts remark that the solid-fu­eled ss-n-30 are un­likely to be hit by the thaad mis­sile-de­fense sys­tem. the sm-3 on aegis ships has some po­ten­tial to in­ter­cept them in the ini­tial stage of flight af­ter launch, but oper­a­tionally, this is very prob­lem­atic.

Rus­sia’s sub­stan­tive strike po­ten­tial is linked also to the Os­car-ii nu­clear sub­marines. there

are three on duty and another three un­der re­pair and mod­ern­iza­tion. this class is known to be armed with ss-n-19 ship­wreck su­per-sonic cruise mis­siles — 24 on each sub­ma­rine. how­ever, af­ter up­grad­ing in 2020, the Os­cars may be armed with sev­eral op­tions — 72 ss-n-27 siz­zler or ss-n-26 stro­bile cruise mis­siles. Po­ten­tially the hypersonic Zir­con can be loaded onto these sub­marines, when tested and ready. Dur­ing Putin’s ad­dress to the Fed­eral assem­bly in March 2018, he noted that it was an Os­car sub­ma­rine equipped with un­der­wa­ter com­bat drones that was able to de­liver a nu­clear pay­load stealth­ily at high speed. around 2020, the Pa­cific Fleet could also ob­tain three more new at­tack sub­marines of the Yasen or Graney class to com­ple­ment the Os­cars.

at­tack sub­marines to­day are rep­re­sented by only one akula-class sub­ma­rine, while three ad­di­tional ones are be­ing mod­ern­ized. In ad­di­tion to nu­clear sub­marines, there are eight quite ca­pa­ble con­ven­tional Kilo-class sub­marines, and some new ones are ex­pected to en­hance coastal de­fenses.

the in­te­gral parts of the Rus­sian navy in the coastal ar­eas are anti-ship mis­sile units. new sys­tems, the ssc-6 sen­night and ssc-5 stooge, have been de­ployed in Pri­morye, in the sakhalin and Kurils, protecting strate­gi­cally im­por­tant wa­ters and straits as well as navy bases and crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture. anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare ca­pa­bil­i­ties are be­ing en­hanced by mod­ern­ized pa­trol air­craft, while the anti-ship ca­pa­bil­i­ties of tac­ti­cal avi­a­tion are also in the fo­cus. the most im­pres­sive are the tu-22m3 Back­fire bombers.

since 2010, ships of the Pa­cific Fleet have been tak­ing part in in­ter­na­tional train­ing and an­tipiracy mis­sions, and con­duct­ing dis­tance vis­its of friend­ship and ex­change. In­ter­est­ingly, dur­ing an in­ter­na­tional train­ing ex­er­cise in 2017, the Rus­sian Pa­cific Fleet was awarded the first prize for mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness. this fact is tes­ti­mony to the high pri­or­ity be­ing given to the build-up of Rus­sia’s re­gional naval forces af­ter a long pe­riod of ne­glect.


Based on all of the above, one can con­clude that to­day Rus­sia is quite ca­pa­ble con­ven­tion­ally and in nu­clear terms in its Far east. ships are sail­ing around the re­gion as en­voys of peace or for joint drills, while bombers and pa­trol air­craft are fly­ing and ob­serv­ing pos­si­ble threats, just as they did dur­ing the soviet era, but in a far less ag­gres­sive and scary way. It is ob­vi­ous that the bet­ter Rus­sia de­vel­ops its Far east, the more mil­i­tary ca­pac­ity it will have.

how­ever, there are no states in the Pa­cific con­fronting Rus­sia. even Ja­pan, which has claims on the south­ern Kurils (their so-called north­ern ter­ri­to­ries), prefers to for­get about its al­liance with the us and is try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate peace­fully with Rus­sia, us­ing mostly car­rots not sticks, such as fi­nan­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal as­sis­tance for de­vel­op­ment. the only ri­val — and one with fad­ing in­flu­ence — is the us, and if China turns anti-amer­i­can in the same man­ner as Wash­ing­ton has be­come a “dragon killer,” no­body knows how long peace can be sus­tained. China is se­ri­ous about as­sem­bling its “string of pearls” strat­egy to con­trol the Indo-pa­cific re­gion. Rus­sia ex­pressed in­for­mal sup­port for the idea in 2016, dis­patch­ing ships to the south China sea for joint naval drills, in which the sce­nario sim­u­lated an at­tack on a “small is­land,” much like the nu­mer­ous dis­puted small is­lands in east asia. an­drey gu­bin is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the far Eastern fed­eral univer­sity, rus­sia.

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