Much hubuff has been made over the last fortnight as a flotilla of Russian warships departed from wherever they were based near Finland (Murmansk?), and cruised down the North Sea, passing perilously close to the White Cliffs as they were spied with binoculars in the Dover Strait (the Channel). Much scary; very tabloid.
NATO kept a close eye on them as they passed, including, understandably, a very miffed Royal Navy. As RAF Tornadoes overflew and took some pictures to check nothing nefarious was happening, the convoy was shadowed by H.M.S. Duncan and H.M.S. Richmond, an imposing destroyer and a proud frigate of Her Majesty’s own fleet. Beyond that, several other European ships were close-by, and you can bet there were planes on runways at continental airbases, armed and ready to go. As the flotilla left the Channel, they would be met by H.M.S. Dragon, another destroyer. The papers, of course, had a field day, banging on about Putin’s growing nerve and hysterically playing up fears of a standoff between the two forces.
Really though, there was nothing to get worked up about. Putin was just bolstering his ability to commit war crimes in Aleppo, and boffins in Downing Street were drawing up plans for the various ways they could pretend to care. Admiral Kuznetsov and Peter the Great, the two really important ships Vlad decided he wanted in the Mediterranean, along with all of their escorts, happen to be part of Russia’s North Sea Fleet, based — you guessed it — in the North Sea; the Dover Strait was just the fastest way to get there. I’m sure he was rubbing his fingers together at the opportunity to test the waters some more in the West (tee-hee), but this was hardly a deliberate provocation — just a happy accidental one.
It was perfectly right for us to escort them, too, before anyone accuses me of being a Putinbot: they may have been sailing through international waters, but they aren’t allies of the UK, or of NATO, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable if a non-friendly force of that size was allowed to pass so close to British territory without some kind of challenge.
In short, what happened was no cause for alarm, and nor did it justify indifference: it was a major movement of naval forces by one nation that prompted a response by another — interesting dinner conversation, but that is all. If they stopped at Portsmouth and started shelling the docks, I might be slightly more energised. But as I watched the shaky footage of Admiral Kuznetsov ploughing along, and the slightly more stable shots of H.M.S Duncan chugging after her, I was struck by several, somewhat larger topics I wanted to talk about.
The first is the hilariously decrepit state of the Russian Navy, and indeed of the country in general. Poor old Kuznetsov looked like she was burning tractor tires, the amount of smoke coming out of her, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read that the fleet is accompanied by a tugboat, in case she breaks down. Indeed, the “heavy aviation missile cruiser” has been plagued with engineering problems since she was launched from Ukraine in 1985 (might have had something to do with it), including poor quality oil, engine failures, such as one during a manoeuvre she had to be towed back from by our ubiquitous tug, evaporator break-downs, leading to severe water shortages, and — best till last — some quite serious issues with the Sukhoi Su-33 air wing, as the Su-27 fighters they were based on weren’t actually that well fitted for carrier operations; in fact the redesigned planes are so awful that, despite valiant export efforts, nobody bought them except Russia, who only took 24. Much has been made by American Putinbots of Kuznetsov and her “terrifying” P-700 Granit “shipwreck” missiles; I could list all of the ways Granit is an overrated system trumpeted by people who don’t know very much about naval warfare, but I’ll just confine myself to saying they were removed during her mid-life refit, you idiots. At the same time the old Su-33 air wing was (sensibly) replaced with a MIG 29KR wing, though this posed its own problems as they struggled to find carrier-qualified pilots. In case you’re wondering how Peter the Great is getting on, in 2004 Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov said her nuclear reactor was in an extremely bad condition and “could explode at any moment”; 2 of the other 3 ships in the class are in such a bad way they literally cannot be safely activated.
The Russian Navy in general hasn’t fared much better. I implore you to hop on Google to get a comprehensive account of the sorry events that befell the maritime force as the Soviet Union broke up, but it isn’t actually clear how many ships are really active, or even seaworthy: many of them just sit in port permanently, flying an ensign so that their skeleton crews are entitled to be paid, gently rusting. Apparently these are in “reserve,” though this is severely stretching the term.
As far as I can discern, of the 33 frigates, destroyers, cruisers and carriers, 7 are in “reserve,” including 3 of the 4 much-trumpeted nuclear-powered Kirov battlecruisers, with those horrifying Granit missiles (one of them, Admiral Nakhimov, is due to re-enter service in 2018, but I see this as a damning indictment, as the refit began in 2006). The rest are in somewhat questionable condition, as my little assessment of the Kuznetsov (Russia’s only CV, as they sold her sister-ship to the Chinese Navy), should highlight, and spread out over 5 fleets, all over the world — an essential move to defend the coasts of such a large country, I suppose, though I wonder if limited range has anything to do with such a thin deployment . . .
Don’t be fooled by the large numbers you see as you scan the lists for these fleets: most of those hulls are corvettes, minesweepers and submarines, which give the illusion of a much more imposing armada than Vlad’s actually got. I suppose all 81 corvettes, 24 patrol boats, 45 minesweepers and 51 landing craft might together be able to overcome a couple of American destroyers, but I’d put less money on it than I would any of them actually having the range to cross the Bering Strait.
You don’t need to live in Ushuaia or salivate over H.M.S. Conquerer to know that the 54 submarines (excluding SSBNs and special-purpose) might be a little more troublesome; but, again, 7 of these are mothballed (along with 2 SSBNs — good plot for a movie), and the rest are plagued by the same engineering issues and lack of maintenance. 22 of these are not nuclear, which does wonders for their range, I’m sure, and the few remaining Putinbots yet to be red-pilled are advised to research the 2008 K-152 incident.
No. I’m not worried about the crackpot leader of a broken country with a GDP smaller than Italy and a set of tin soldiers built in the Cold War. But for different reasons I’m not exactly complacent either, as will be revealed in the second part of this little naval essay.