The moves come as Russia’s contentious anti-U.S. adoption ban enters into force, after President Vladimir Putin signed a bill widely seen as payback for new U.S. legislation that blacklists human rights violators in Russia and elsewhere, denying them U.S. visas and freezing any U.S.-based assets.
An unspecified number of ships from the four major components of the Russian Navy are heading for the Mediterranean and Black seas, where they will hold combined exercises late this month, Moscow’s Defense Ministry said this week.
“The Russian Navy’s drills of this scope will be held for the first time over the past few decades and are designed to improve control, ensure and practice multiservice force interaction of the fleets in the far-off maritime zones,” it said in a statement.
The war games will involve ships from the Northern Fleet based near Murmansk, the Kaliningrad-based Baltic Fleet, the Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet and the Pacific Fleet headquartered in distant Vladivostok.
The ministry said the aim would be to “practice the issues of establishing a multiservice grouping of forces outside Russia” and to help personnel acquire skills needed for “combat training missions in the Black and Mediterranean seas.”
The drills would also simulate operations loading marine troops and paratroopers onto amphibious ships from the “rough coast of the North Caucasus” – an area that could include the territory of Russia or of Abkhazia, the pro-Moscow breakaway region of Georgia.
The memo made no mention of Syria, where Moscow’s longstanding close relationship with the Assad regime has been strained by the worsening civil war. Last month Russian media reported that more navy vessels were being deployed to the area, possibly to take part in any evacuation of tens of thousands of Russian citizens there that may be necessary. The Russian Navy maintains Soviet-era support facilities at the Syrian port of Tartus.
The Black Sea component of the planned exercises is noteworthy. Russia has long considered the sea as crucial to its strategic interests and prioritized a 2010 agreement with Ukraine to extend its lease for the Black Sea Fleet to use the Crimean port of Sevastopol for at least another 25 years. (Ukraine’s previous government had wanted the Russian ships and personnel to leave when the current lease expires in 2017.)
Russia’s brief war with Black Sea neighbor Georgia in 2008 reinforced the importance of the sea to Moscow.
The remaining three countries that share the Black Sea with Russia, Georgia and Ukraine – Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania – are members of NATO, and Putin now faces the fact that two of them are to host elements of a NATO ballistic missile defense system that he firmly opposes.
A radar station is already operating in Turkey, and from 2015 Romania has offered to host a missile interceptor site, both as part of an umbrella designed to counter an attack from Iran.
Russia says the shield will weaken its own nuclear deterrent, an assertion the Pentagon denies.
A defense journal article last November by an analyst with a Russian state military research institute, Anna Glazova, said the U.S. was trying to “take military control of the Black Sea region,” an area which she said had for centuries been a Russian zone of special interest. Glazova cited the missile defense agreements as well as reports of growing U.S.-Georgia military relations and strengthening U.S.-Turkey political ties.
While campaigning early this year for a return to the presidency, Putin in a lengthy editorial on defense policy spoke of the need for decisive steps “to counter the U.S. and NATO efforts in the deployment of missile defense.”
“Russia’s military response to the global U.S. missile shield, including its European part, will be effective and asymmetrical, a match for U.S. missile defense policy,” he wrote.
Against that background, Russia’s defense ministry in another announcement Thursday said that under a major military expansion program, the navy will get at least 54 new ships by 2016.
They will include six “multi-purpose and strategic submarines,” 18 surface warships of various types and 30 “special-purpose and counter-subversion vessels,” according to the official RIA Novosti news agency.
“The implementation of the shipbuilding program envisages serial construction along with the introduction of new technical and modernization solutions into each subsequently built warship,” the ministry said.
RIA Novosti said Russia is in the middle of a program that will see around $659 billion spent on arms procurement by 2020.
In his campaign article on defense policy, Putin argued that Russia could “no longer delay our efforts to create a modern armed forces and comprehensively strengthen our defensive potential,” saying it was necessary to make up for years of underfunding of the navy and army.
“Our Navy has resumed its presence in the strategic areas of the world ocean, including the Mediterranean Sea,” Putin wrote. “This demonstration of the ‘Russian flag’ will be regular now.”