Russia’s naval power: From Peter the Great to Putin the Great?

Russia’s naval power: From Peter the Great to Putin the Great?

Since 1980, Russia celebrates its Navy Day on the last Sunday of July. Navy Day in Russia was established in 1939. This year, the celebrations organized on the 30th of July covered the whole Russian coast line from Vladivostok in the far east to St. Petersburg in the west, from Severomorsk in the north to Sevastapol in Crimea. Tartus, Russia’s base in Syria, was also included in the wide spectrum of celebrations manifesting Russia’s naval power.

Russia’s emphasis on enhancing its naval power has been drawing the attention of political analysts for the last couple of years. Historians and politico-military observers argue that the 17th century Russian expansionist policy under Peter the Great is now being revisited by Vladimir Putin. Russia’s increasing presence in the Arctic, its annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the Syrian quagmire which reiterated the importance of Russia’s naval base in Tartus happen to strengthen those arguments.

Russia is among the countries that has the longest coastline on Earth. Ironically, until the end of the 17th century, it was not a country which had maritime access to the Mediterranean. In 1696, Peter the Great’s seizure of the port city of Azov in the northern part of Black Sea is considered to be a major military victory to open the sea passage for Russia to the Mediterranean. But Azov was only the beginning of Peter’s greater exploits in favor of making Russia a great naval power. His campaign in the Baltic Sea, after causing Sweden to lose its influence there, resulted with the establishment of St. Petersburg as the new capital of the country opening to the West. 

Peter the Great was also willing to expand his empire’s naval presence to the Arctic. He built a modern shipyard in the Arctic city of Arkhangelsk but the climatic conditions kept the waters in this part of the country to be frozen and did not allow Peter the Great to see the results of his desire to create an Arctic fleet.

Vladimir Putin, not much different from what his great-great ancestor once contemplated, has embarked upon a serious plan to expand Russia’s naval power to make Russia great again. Thanks to global warming, Russia is now an Arctic power with a sizeable naval presence.

Many scientists forecast that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in a time frame of two decades. It is worth noticing, however, that although Russia’s economic performance is not currently believed to be at its best, Putin has recently commissioned three Arctic nuclear ice-breakers to his Arctic fleet in order to pursue the dream of Peter the Great.

Russia is steadily transforming into a major naval power. In addition to its Arctic ambitions, enhanced Russian military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in Syria, namely Tartus, is a testament to Peter the Great’s apparent reincarnation in Vladimir Putin.

The challenge, however, is much greater in the Black Sea. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia did not only resolve the problem of the status of its naval base in Sevastapol but also prolonged its Black Sea coast and the exclusive economic zone in the basin. NATO has already flagged its concern about the changing strategic balance in the Black Sea by introducing its new concept of “tailored forward presence.” This new concept, in its maritime component, envisages NATO visits to Romanian and Bulgarian ports, coordinated training and exercises. 

Interestingly, Russia’s Navy Day celebrations coincided with the United States Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Estonia, the first leg of his visit to the wider Black Sea region which will further include Georgia and Montenegro. All these developments hint a possible new confrontation in the Black Sea basin. This is the time when Turkey should place more focus on the role of the navy in its military structure.