What is Russia’s Pacific Fleet Designed to Do? – With Nancy Pelosi’s whirlwind trip to Taiwan still making waves, the cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan has once again entered the news. Lurking in the background, however, is the Russian Pacific Fleet, which has also increasingly made its presence in the region known.
History of Russia in the Pacific
Russia’s interest in the Pacific Ocean dates back hundreds of years and can be traced to Russian explorer Ivan Moskvitin’s discovery of the Sea of Okhotsk in 1639. Russia acquired its first major Pacific port with the foundation of Vladivostok in 1860, which soon after became the headquarters of the nascent Pacific Fleet.
Despite Tsarist Russia’s defeat by Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, its Soviet successor state would go on to achieve territorial gains against Japan in the Second World War, seizing the Kuril Islands (which stretch from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Japanese island of Hokkaido). This remains an irritant that consistently vexes relations between Moscow and Tokyo today.
However, while Russia has expressed interest in deepening its impact in the region (which is usually called the Asia-Pacific region in Russian terminology), its economic capability to do so remains limited.
Composition and Activity of the Russian Pacific Fleet
As a result of this reality, the bulk of Russia’s footprint in the western Pacific can be attributed to its military presence in the region, which is centered around the Pacific Fleet. The Pacific fleet has a remarkably wide area of responsibility which encompasses the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as part of Russian eastern Arctic which is accessible from the Pacific. As one of the Russian Navy’s only ocean-going fleets, the Pacific Fleet 53 warships assigned to it, including guided missile destroyers, corvettes, anti-submarine warfare ships, landing craft, minesweepers, guided missile boats, and the fleet’s flagship, the Slava-class cruiser Varyag. In addition, the fleet includes 23 submarines of various classes, including attack, guided missile, and nuclear ballistic missile submarines.
The composition of the fleet is changing slowly but surely. As a result of funding issues, the Russian Navy decided to cancel the modernization of the Pacific Fleet’s previous Kirov-class flagship battlecruiser, the Admiral Lazarev, and scrap the vessel instead. Nonetheless, the Pacific Fleet is slated to receive three new submarines in 2022, including the Borei-class ballistic missile submarine Knyaz Oleg, the diesel-electric attack submarine Magadan, and the Yasen-M-class nuclear submarine Novosibirsk.
Exercises hosted by the Pacific Fleet in recent years give some indication of the force Russia can assemble in the Pacific. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, 40 ships and 20 military aircraft took part in the fleet’s most exercise, which simulated anti-submarine operations and took place in early June. An earlier exercise that took place in what the Russian Ministry of Defense described as “the central Pacific” saw the fleet operate and practice surface combat operations far from Russian shores (300 to 500 miles from Hawaii), prompting the United States to scramble F-22s as a precaution against possible Russian bomber incursions into the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone. In keeping with the Fleet’s limited but growing Arctic mandate and Moscow’s developing interest in the region, the Pacific Fleet reportedly conducted submarine exercises in July on the “defense” of the Northern Sea Route, which Russia hopes to develop into a vital commercial artery between East Asia and Europe.
Partnership Between the Fleets of China and Russia and the Future of the Fleet
By virtue of the two states’ geography, China’s naval forces available in the Pacific will dwarf that of Russia’s for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the partnership between the two navies will likely only grow as time goes on. Already this year, Russia’s Pacific Fleet and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have conducted several joint exercises. While on their way to the Eastern Mediterranean ahead of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Pacific Fleet’s cruiser Varyag, the destroyer Admiral Tributs, and a supply ship participated in joint trilateral exercises with China and Iran in the Gulf of Oman. In June, a roughly 10-ship flotilla of Russian Pacific Fleet and Chinese PLAN ships embarked on a voyage that practically circled Japan, placing pressure on Japan.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet is reportedly a high priority for investment. In addition to the delivery of new submarines, Russia’s Pacific fleet is also slated to receive examples of the new Admiral Gorshkov class of frigates as well as Steregushchiy- and Gremyashchiy-class corvettes in the years to come. The theme of global confrontation with the United States which featured as an important element of Russia’s 2022 naval doctrine signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 31, seems to have an obvious place for the Pacific Fleet’s global reach, which could help drive future investment in the fleet. However, while Russia may seek to build the Pacific Fleet into a force to be reckoned with across the Pacific, constraints in financial or other resources may punch a hole in such large targets.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.