Russia's navy is flexing its muscles around the world, but it may end up paying for Moscow's losses in Ukraine

Russia's navy is flexing its muscles around the world, but it may end up paying for Moscow's losses in Ukraine
  • Russia's navy has had little involvement in Ukraine, losing only one major warship so far.

  • The navy has also shown off its reach in recent months, with exercises in other parts of the world.

  • But the Russian navy may lose out in the future as Moscow tries to rebuild the rest of its military.

Russia has done major military exercises at the far corners of the world this year, demonstrating its reach and capabilities even as it takes heavy losses in Ukraine.

Exercises in the Indian and Pacific oceans show that Russia's military is not as degraded and that the Kremlin is not as isolated as Kyiv and its backers would like, but experts say the forces deployed to send that message will lose out when Moscow begins to rebuild the military it has shattered in Ukraine.

Russian officials said in January that the guided-missile frigate Admiral Gorshkov and a tanker ship would deploy for an exercise hosted by South Africa in February.

Gorshkov, the first of Russia's Project 22350-class frigates, has been equipped with the Zircon hypersonic missile — a class of weapon that Moscow has touted as "invincible" — which it tested as it sailed through the Atlantic, practicing to strike "a target simulating an enemy warship," Russia's Defense Ministry said.

Russia navy sailors officers in South Africa
Russian sailors at a press conference in Richards Bay on February 22.GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images

During the exercise itself — called Mosi II and running from February 17 and February 28 — the Russian ships trained with South African and Chinese warships. The Russians then sailed east for an exercise with Chinese and Iranian ships in mid-March and made a port call in Saudi Arabia, a first for a Russian warship, in early April before heading to Russia's base at Tartus in Syria.

While China and Iran are two of Russia's biggest backers, South Africa has declared itself neutral on the war in Ukraine and maintains good relations with Washington and Moscow, but Pretoria played down the exercise, with the foreign minister calling it "an exercise with friends."

Opposition politicians and the US both criticized it, however, for allowing Russia to display its military during the anniversary of its attack on Ukraine. (More recently, the US accused South Africa of providing weapons and ammunition to Moscow.)

"Right now, what I am really concerned about is Mosi II," Gen. Michael Langley, commander of US Africa Command, told US lawmakers in March, calling the exercise "a messaging campaign" by Russia and China.

For Russia, the exercise was a political statement "more than anything else," said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian military affairs, describing it as "part of Putin's continued campaign to try and woo the Global South" and present himself as trying to counter "the evil West and the American hegemon."

Iran China Russia navy warship exercise Indian Ocean
Iranian, Chinese, and Russian naval forces during an exercise in the Indian Ocean on March 15.Iranian Army / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

After Gorshkov sailed to Syria in mid-April, Russia announced a surprise exercise to inspect the readiness of the Pacific Fleet and test its "capacity to repel a maritime attack."

The drills, which lasted a week, involved 25,000 personnel, 167 naval ships, including 12 submarines, and 89 aircraft, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Russia's military closed off parts of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan to practice firing torpedoes, missiles, and artillery.

Shoigu also said the forces involved trained to "repel the landing of an adversary force" on Sakhalin Island and the southern Kuril Islands, the latter of which are claimed by Japan and are a source of tension.

Russia's military has conducted exercises in other regions since attacking Ukraine, but the Pacific Fleet exercise was notable for its size and location. Russia has used operations in the Pacific, including joint patrols with China as well as bomber flights and naval drills near Alaska, to send messages to the US and its allies in the past.

While Russia's navy has so far been relatively unscathed by the war in Ukraine — the only major loss has been the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva — it has always been the Russian military's "weakest arm," Galeotti told Insider.

"The navy in and of itself can't really do much except act as a spoiler," Galeotti added. "We can't ignore the fact that the Russian navy is still able to project its force, but beyond just simply projecting force for the sake of showing that it can, there's not a lot that it can do."

Russia Navy Yasen submarine Dmitry Medvedev
Russian navy Yasen-class submarine Severodvinsk is launched in Severomorsk in June 2010.VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP via Getty Images

Those capabilities may only erode further as Russia reevaluates its defense priorities in response to a new geopolitical environment and the need to reconstitute the rest of its forces.

Russia's navy received heavy investment in the 2000s, as President Vladimir Putin rebuilt the military after a decade of post-Soviet decay.

The undersea force received special focus, with the development of new, better-armed subs that have worried NATO commanders. Moscow also focused on building smaller, more capable surface warships, like the Admiral Gorshkov-class. While it still struggles with its larger ships, Russia's navy now has dozens of frigates and corvettes armed with effective long-range weapons.

While Russia's submarine force will likely continue receiving attention and resources, its other ambitions are expected to suffer.

Modernization plans for the navy and air force "were predicated on the introduction of new technologies," Galeotti said. "These are all projects that actually had very high tech aspirations built into them, which are always a bit unrealistic, frankly. Now they are entirely unattainable."

Ship construction and repair can't be delayed indefinitely without risking permanent harm to the fleet and to Russia's shipbuilding industry, meaning that Russian leaders will have to find a way to balance competing demands, said Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the Rand Corporation think-tank.

Russia navy frigate corvette St. Petersburg
Russian navy corvette Gremyashchiy, front, and the frigate Admiral Kasatonov in St Petersburg in July 2019.Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty Images

"If they're trying to allocate with real challenges to the funds that they have available, I think they're probably going to divert resources into rebuilding the army and rebuilding missiles, probably at the expense at least of the general-purpose navy" rather than strategic naval forces, Massicot said during an event hosted by Georgetown University in April.

"The navy has been a bill-payer for some of the other services in Russia," Massicot said.

Galeotti said it would likely take a decade for Russia to rebuild its military to what it was January 2022 if it can find the funds and access the materials needed for new weaponry, which were "very, very questionable assumptions."

How Moscow uses what resources it has left will be scrutinized by the US military, which has grown increasingly concerned as Russia has fielded more advanced warships over the past decade.

Russia's navy "will probably face a lot of challenges" in the long-run, Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, commander of the Office of Naval Intelligence, said at the West Conference in San Diego in February.

"When Russia has the wherewithal to rebuild some of the things that have been destroyed on the army and the air force side," Studeman added, "the Navy is going to have to contribute to building up the other combat arms there, and so we'll be watching very carefully what the impacts are for advanced weapon systems or platforms development."

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