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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 112. Russia's Six Fleets: A Sinking Superpower

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Russia's naval forces, structured around six distinct fleets, are navigating turbulent waters in the current geopolitical climate. While all six of these fleets have seen modest improvements, especially in their submarine capabilities, the conflict in Ukraine is now stretching resources thin, with senior figures from within the Navy warning that the Army's problem today, is going to be the Navy's problem tomorrow. This looming situation poses critical questions, like how will Russia's navy will adapt to these emerging challenges, and what programs are likely to face the chopping block when times get tough? So to help us answer those questions, we turn to our panel of experts:




PART I: A Fleeting Fear - (04:44)

with Nick Childs

- Snr Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security at the IISS

- Naval Data Specialist for "The Military Balance"

- Fmr Defence Journalist for the BBC

  1. Russian Naval Modernization under Putin: The Russian Navy, traditionally seen as less important than ground forces, but has received increased budgetary attention during Putin's tenure, particularly for modernization. This reflects Putin's view of the Navy as essential for Russia's status as a world power.

  2. Submarine Capability and Global Naval Ranking: Russia's strongest naval capability lies in its submarine fleet, especially nuclear-powered and ballistic missile submarines. This is a legacy area of strength, but overall, Russia's naval capability lags behind other major powers, including China and, in some respects, even Japan.

  3. Strategic Roles of Different Russian Fleets: Each of Russia's six fleets (Tartarus/Mediterranean, Caspian, Black Sea, Baltic, Pacific, Northern) has unique strategic roles, assets, and challenges. Their individual strategic purposes vary, from power projection and regional dominance to maintaining strategic deterrent capabilities.

  4. Challenges and Adaptations in Conflicts: Russian naval fleets, particularly the Black Sea Fleet, have faced significant challenges in recent conflicts (e.g., Syria, Ukraine). These challenges include adapting to innovative warfare methods and maintaining dominance in their operational areas. This has led to relocations and strategic shifts, such as moving facilities to more protected locations.

  5. Future Focus and Strategic Importance: The Northern Fleet, with its significant submarine capabilities, is seen as the most important and capable fleet, with expectations of increased strategic value in the future. The Pacific Fleet is also gaining importance. However, the overall effectiveness and capability of the Russian surface fleet remain a question due to issues in naval shipbuilding and modernization.

PART II: The Buckling Branch - (27:41)

with Mark Galeotti

- Snr Assc for RUSI

- Author of "Putin's Wars"

- Renowed military analyst specialising in Russia and the former Soviet States

  1. Impact of the Ukraine War on the Black Sea Fleet: The Black Sea Fleet has faced unexpected setbacks and has shifted towards a more defensive role. In the future, Russia may rely more heavily on its Navy to project power, especially post-war.

  2. Focus on Northern and Pacific Fleets for Global Presence: To reassert its military power, Russia will likely concentrate on the Northern Fleet, which protects its nuclear submarines and has a presence in the North Atlantic, and the Pacific Fleet, to maintain a semblance of global relevance.

  3. Naval Procurement Challenges: Naval procurement is a long and slow process. The Russian Navy has experienced shrinkage but also modernization, particularly with smaller, more potent ships equipped with caliber missiles. However, these upgrades are hampered by budget constraints and long-term planning requirements.

  4. Influence of Navy Command and Budget Constraints: The Russian Navy's budget is mainly fixed for maintaining existing capabilities, limiting the scope for significant new developments. The current financial strains and focus on the ground forces in Ukraine mean that naval expansion or modernization faces significant challenges.

  5. Shrinking Export Market Impact: Sanctions and reliance on foreign components, especially from Ukraine, are problematic for Russia. The dwindling export market, particularly with traditional buyers like China and India diversifying away from Russian military equipment, will likely impact the Navy's long-term development and modernization.

PART III: A Rusting Remnant - (50:23)

with H.I. Sutton

- Founder of Covert Shores

- Expert Naval Capability Analyst

- Author of "World Submarines"

  1. Russia's Naval Prioritization: Russia has been prioritizing its submarine force within its Navy, investing heavily in advanced technology and large submarines, often at the expense of other naval programs. The submarine force is regarded as the most elite and significantly funded part of the Russian Navy.

  2. Comparison with Global Naval Powers: Russian nuclear-powered submarines, particularly attack submarines like the Yasen class, are considered nearly as stealthy and dangerous as those of the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy. However, Russian surface warships, despite some interesting features, do not match up to the best warships outside of Russia.

  3. Technological Advances and Limitations: The Borei-class submarines represent a significant technological advancement over their predecessors like the Delta IV class, particularly in stealth. Russia's current technology, though formidable, is not advancing as rapidly as Western technologies, narrowing the gap in naval capabilities.

  4. Seabed Warfare and Intelligence Activities: Russia shows a strong investment in seabed warfare, with a dedicated fleet of submarines controlled by a deepwater research directorate which functions primarily as a spy organization. This focus on seabed warfare is linked to the increasing dependence on undersea infrastructures like communication and power cables.

  5. Challenges and Future Prospects: Russia faces challenges in maintaining its Submarine Force due to financial constraints, with greater focus needed on basic naval elements due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The future of the Russian Navy is uncertain, with potential reductions in ambitious projects like new aircraft carriers and large destroyers, and a shift in focus towards more feasible programs.

Russia's Six Fleets: A Sinking Superpower (Released January 9th 2024)



I: Putin's Wars

- By Mark Galeotti

II: Russian Naval Strategy

- By Andrew Monaghan

III: Russia's War on Everybody

- By Keir Giles


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:


This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Cameron, Rick Roth, Daniel Axtman and Cale Rombout



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