Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Andrey Gubin: Parade never ends - geopolitical context of Russian Day of the Navy ceremony

August 2, 2021

Every last Sunday of July for the last 82 years Russia celebrated the Day of the Navy. Initially it was established by a Soviet People’s Commissar for the Navy Nikolay Kuznetsov – the founding father of the Blue Ocean Navy built in the USSR during the Cold War up to 1970s.

However in 2021 Russian Navy celebrated its 325 year anniversary as Peter the Great firstly used nationally built ships in 1696 to fight Turkey on Azov Sea. Interestingly, impressed by the British tradition of the naval review by the First Lord of the Admiralty he adopted this practice in 1714 after the victory upon Sweden.

After Peter’s death for more than 150 years parades were held sporadically mostly to some special dates like 100 and 200-anniversaty of Saint-Petersburg (in 1803 and 1903) or visits of foreign monarchs. Large-scale and pompous reviews’ tradition was revived after the World War 2 aimed to show new technological achievements and success in trainings to common people as a patriotic gesture. Such naval festivals with concerts and elements of military show became especially loved in main naval bases where sailors were honored as well.

In 2006 President Putin gave to the Day of the Russian Navy a sense of glory and victories of Russian weapon and inverted it to the political symbol. The main grand parade was commanded to be held in Saint-Petersburg on Neva river since 2017, as Pacific, Northern, Baltic, Black Sea fleets and Caspian flotilla traditionally have their local parades in Vladivostok, Severomorsk, Baltiysk, Sevastopol and Astrakhan, respectively. Present event occurred to be the largest in the modern history as 50 ships, submarines and boats accompanied by 48 planes and helicopters were introduced.

In ceremonial speech Vladimir Putin outlined that today the Navy obtains all the necessary for guaranteed secure of the national interests as “we are able to detect any rival underwater, on surface or in the air and hit it imminently”. He also highlighted that Russia very rapidly broke through to the club of the leading global sea powers and maintained presence in the High Seas in all the strategically important areas including both Northern and Southern.

Certainly, President Putin implied the Arctic region which became extremely important for Russia due to huge resources’ deposits as well as Mediterranean and Africa. For instance, this year for the fifth time Russian ships took part in ceremony commemorated to the Day of the Navy in Syrian Tartus. Before, in June, frigate “Admiral Grigorovish” visited Port-Sudan where Moscow intends to facilitate a naval base. Notably, in May-June, 2021 Russian Pacific Fleet conducted large-scale drills in the central part of the Pacific ocean in vicinity to the Hawaiian islands.

Evidently, Kremlin tries to project force globally with the naval capacity nevertheless it is still rather limited compared to the U.S. or Chinese. Russian Navy has only one aircraft carrier ‘Admiral Kuznetsov’ (almost the same to PRC’s Liaoning and Shandong) which is overloaded by operations and needs a rest and renovation and often is called a ‘white elephant’. There are a few large ocean-class ships with strike weapon as well like cruisers and destroyers. New ones are under development and can be launched in 3-5 years, entering service will take extra 3-5 years. Nonetheless, there were presented new Russian ships on the recent parade like ‘Admiral Kasatonov’ (Gorshkov-class), ‘Stoykiy’ (Stereguschiy-class), Buyan and Black Widow-class corvettes and Improved Kilo submarines. All of them are capable to sink naval targets within a range of hundreds kilometers and demonstrated successful hit by Club cruise missiles surface targets in Syria in a distance of 1500 km.

Presence of the nuclear-powered submarines in Saint-Petersburg like “Kniaz Vladimir” (Borei-class), ‘Oryol’ (Oscar II-class) and Vepr (Akula II-class) is the next signal. The first and the most important one is armed with 16 Bulava (SS-N-32) strategic missiles with up to 160 nuclear warheads in total which is an integral part of Russian nuclear deterrence system. This submarine became a rock-star during her inter-base passage for the parade as all the neighboring countries tracked the route and intimidated each other by nuclear Armageddon (hope they were joking). Considering the public introduction of such a formidable weapon Moscow is positioning itself as a peacemaker but ready for ultimate measures, which is absolutely a forewarning to Washington and its allies.

The next important feature is the foreign ships participation in celebration ceremonies. In Saint-Petersburg frigates of the Indian, Iranian and Pakistan Navies sailed in a wake column on Neva river. In Vladivostok two Vietnam warships parked in the Golden Horn Bay after Russian ones. Such gestures symbolize strong political ties of these countries with Russia and like-minded position on regional agenda. Indicatively, that Vietnam and Indian frigates were built on Russian dockyards and can be offered for other foreign customers.

It might looks strange for some observers that Chinese ships missed the Day of the Navy parade and didn’t visit Russian ports. Xian destroyer was in Saint-Petersburg 2 years ago and 2020 was a COVID mess... Definitely, the PLA Navy is too busy as it encounters U.S. in Taiwan strait and South China Sea and these day even the U.K. group appeared near disputed area. Probably there is no time for ceremonies having such tensions and COVID still matters as well.

Probably this year Russian and Chinese warships may meet on joint drills like they did in 2019 (海上联合-2019) off Qingdao but the schedule is still tentative. However Russian practice of demonstrating power by parades, drills and close-to-combat operations was willingly adopted in China and we might witness something impressive next year on occasion of PLA 100-years anniversary.

Author: Andrey V. Gubin, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Far Eastern Federal University.

He tweets at @AndreyGubin4

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