The Baltic Sea in Russia’s maritime Strategy

Michael B. Petersen,
Russia Maritime Studies Institute, United States Naval War College,

Military and economic affairs are closely intertwined in Russia’s maritime domain. Moscow’s global strategy, often mistaken for being improvisational and ad hoc, is instead well-articulated and forward looking, particularly regarding maritime issues. Overall, in the maritime domain, it prioritizes economic development, military security, and diplomatic influence with foreign countries. Moscow views U.S. unipolarity as a threat to global security, and seeks to establish Russia as a global power alternative to what it views as a dangerous United States. It sees the economic opportunity and global linkages offered by the maritime domain as a critical component in its effort to achieve this goal. The Baltic Sea provides an excellent example of how Russia’s economic and military interests overlap, and of how the Baltic Fleet contributes to Russia’s maritime efforts to establish Russia as a global power alternative.

Russia’s current Maritime Doctrine prioritizes economic and naval activities in the Baltic Sea. Port, pipeline, and logistics infrastructure improvement receive particular emphasis. Since 2015, Baltic port modernization and pipeline construction has grown steadily, and large-scale infrastructure improvements have improved cargo turnover and profitability at ports such as Ust Luga and Primorsk. At the same time, such improvements have lowered profitability at Baltic Republic ports that are losing throughput as a result of these improvements. Likewise, construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, considered a critical component of Russia’s economic future, continues despite strong resistance from the United States.

As this maritime economic infrastructure grows, so do Russian concerns about its security. Russian strategists hold that in wartime, the U.S. will target critical military, communications, and economic targets. Because Moscow views its port and pipeline infrastructure as vital to the nation’s overall economic health and national survival, it has attempted to build up its Baltic Fleet and strategic Aerospace Defense Forces in an effort to reduce the vulnerability of this infrastructure, in effect tying military activities to economic activities in the region. While this militarization of the Baltic maritime frontier is largely defensive, it does not preclude the possibility of Russian preemptive offensive operations, or, as Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov has put it, “active defense.”

Russian wartime strategy views strikes on adversary critical infrastructure as a key part of an effort to force opponents to sue for peace. It looks in part to a navy equipped with Kalibr long-range land-attack cruise missiles to do so. To this end, the Baltic Fleet has been slowly upgrading to become a “Kalibrised” force. While its modernization has proceeded slowly, especially because resources have had to be diverted to the Black Sea since 2014, it is still an improving force. Among many other warships, the Baltic Fleet currently has four Kalibr-capable corvettes, smaller vessels that are nonetheless each able to launch land attack missiles some 1600 kilometers. The Navy hopes to add at least six more to the Baltic Fleet, and has yet-unspecified plans to add Kalibr-capable Kilo-class diesel submarines as well.

Deterrence and warfighting are not the Baltic Fleet’s only tasks. While the fleet is well-known as a testing and training ground, it also plays a notable, but underappreciated role in Russia’s global presence missions and maritime diplomacy. Navy Commander-in-Chief Nikolai Evmenov has called out the Baltic Fleet’s role in this effort. Its ships regularly deploy to the Atlantic and beyond on “long-distance missions.” The frigate Yaroslav Mudry has been a stalwart in this regard, deploying several times to the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean. During high-level arms talks between Indonesia and Russia, it even made a diplomatic port call in Jakarta in 2016. Perhaps most remarkable is the fleet’s oceanographic research vessel Admiral Vladimirsky, which has circumnavigated the globe multiple times, including stopping for research in Antarctica.

Russia’s Baltic Region is a microcosm of its larger global maritime interests. Expanding investments in port and commercial infrastructure are defended by a modernizing military on the maritime frontier. The logic of Russian strategic thought drives its military to maintain a high state of forward readiness, which in turn, particularly after 2014, generates tremendous concern in the region. Moreover, the Baltic Fleet itself plays a critical role in Russia’s regional and global strategy, defending economic interests and asserting security interests around the world. While Russia’s overall progress with these various priorities is often halting and sometimes painful, it is nevertheless moving out on a clear maritime strategy, and its Baltic efforts reflect that strategy.

*The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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