The task force that sailed out of the Northern Fleet’s Severomorsk base near Murmansk on Monday comprises the nuclear-powered missile cruiser and fleet flagship Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great); the anti-submarine ship Admiral Chabanenko; and support vessels.
The voyage will take them westward through the Barents Sea and then across the Atlantic to Venezuela. According to North Fleet press service officials, they will undertake “combat training tasks, including missile launchings and artillery exercises” in Venezuelan waters and nearby neutral waters.
(Officials have not confirmed reports that the ships may call at the Syrian port of Tartus either on the outward or return journey. Russia announced last week it was upgrading Soviet-era facilities at the Mediterranean port for use by its warships. Moscow reportedly views Tartus as a possible alternative to Sevastopol in Crimea, if Ukraine kicks out the Black Sea Fleet when its lease expires in 2017.)
Despite official denials, the Caribbean mission at a time of strained relations between Russia and the West is widely viewed as the Kremlin’s response to the deployment of NATO ships to the Black Sea following Russia’s invasion of Georgia last month.
After U.S. Navy ships delivered humanitarian aid and other NATO members’ ships visited the area, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned that their presence would not go unanswered.
From Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s perspective, the joint exercises scheduled for Nov. 10-14 are an opportunity to respond to Washington’s decision, announced last April, to re-establish the U.S. Fourth Fleet, whose area of focus encompasses the Caribbean and Central and South American waters.
Headquartered at Mayport, Fla., the fleet’s five declared missions include support for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, traditional maritime exercises, and anti-drug support operations.
But Chavez sees a sixth mission: to threaten his government and those of his left-wing allies in the region.
The Venezuelan leader, who this week is visiting Moscow for the second time in two months, said Sunday Latin America needs strong ties with Russia to help reduce American influence in the region. Two Russian strategic nuclear bombers recently returned home after a weeklong visit to Venezuela.
More than symbolism
“This is not purely a symbolic move,” Dr. Stephen Blank, a Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) expert at the U.S. Army War College, said Tuesday in response to queries about the naval mission.
“While Russia cannot long sustain naval power in the Caribbean, its exercises are part of a larger policy to increase all manner of relations with sympathetic Latin American states in order to show Washington that just as it seeks access to states in the CIS, Russia can do the same thing to Washington,” he said.
“Thus this series of exercises is intended as part of the global Russian challenge to U.S. policy and is multi-dimensional, i.e. political, economic, and military, in nature.”
‘They have ships that can sail that far?’
When reports broke about the planned naval mission, the Pentagon responded coolly, with spokesman Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon quoted as saying, “We’ll see how it goes.”
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack reacted scornfully, saying on Sept. 8 that Russia evidently had “found a few ships that can make it that far.”
Later that week McCormack revisited the subject. “Somebody told me that they had a tugboat accompanying them in case they break down along the way,” he told a Sept. 12 briefing. “It was very interesting that they found some ships that could actually make it that far down to Venezuela.”
Russian Navy spokesman Capt. Igor Dygalo shot back in response, “Do not forget that the Russian Navy has nuclear submarines and surface ships capable of conducting training and combat missions anywhere in the world.”
“The return of the Russian Navy to global oceans is an accomplished fact, whether you accept it or not,” he told reporters in Moscow.
Dygalo said the Navy “remains a serious deterrent prepared to thwart any threat to Russia’s national security, and if necessary provide an adequate response to any act of aggression.” But those who saw a “secret agenda” behind the planned joint exercises were mistaken, he added.
Russian media highlighted the capabilities of the Pyotr Velikiy which, the RIA Novosti state press agency said, “has a practically unlimited operational range and carries 20 SS-N-19 Shipwreck surface-to-surface missiles with either nuclear or high-explosive warheads and about 500 surface-to-air missiles of different types, supplemented by a large number of other weaponry.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta on Monday carried a front page photograph of the missile cruiser, noting that in addition to its missiles and other weapons, the ship carries a detachment of Marines and has a flight deck capable of handling both helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft.
The ship also featured on the front pages of Izvestia, which said this was the first time a nuclear-powered missile cruiser was taking part in international exercises, and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which said the mission was aimed at highlighting Russia’s readiness to counter U.S. or NATO actions “in all spheres.”
‘A huge floating target’
The once-formidable Soviet Navy went into decline after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and a funding shortage delayed the commissioning of the Pyotr Velikiy by a decade.
Morale hit rock bottom in 2000 when the nuclear submarine Kursk – ironically one of Russia’s newest and most modern vessels – sank with all hands during exercises in the Barents Sea. The Pyotr Velikiy was involved in those abortive maneuvers and the unsuccessful attempt to save the Kursk’s 118 sailors.
The cruiser again made headlines in 2004, when the since retired navy chief, Adm. Vladimir Kuroyedov, told reporters that the ship – at sea for only seven years at the time – was in such poor repair it could “explode at any moment.”
The remarks caused a furor, and Kuroyedov retracted them just hours later, amid reports attributing his claims to infighting among senior Navy figures.
Pyotr Velikiy continues to be the pride of the Northern Fleet, and last April carried out what the Navy said was a successful live missile firing exercise in the Barents Sea
In an article headlined “Russia’s fist in America’s belly,” the mass circulation tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda on Tuesday called the ship “one of the world’s most powerful destroyers” with “unlimited cruising endurance” and “peerless” firepower.
“The Pentagon’s calmness is only a facade,” it said. “The U.S. Navy has a lot more to worry about now.”
RIA Novosti’s military analyst Ilya Kramnik said the arrival in America’s backyard of the Russian Navy’s two newest capital ships “will be a nasty surprise to Washington, compelling it to devote more attention to regional defenses.”
“Both warships can support each other and have the capability to inflict major losses on any adversary before they are outgunned,” Kramnik said.
Another military analyst, Alexander Golts, wrote that, like the visit of the Russian bombers, “there is little military justification for the naval escapade – except perhaps to remind Washington that the Russian fleet still has ships capable of reaching the Caribbean Sea.”
“The Pyotr Velikiy was created to engage other aircraft carrier groups in battle, but without powerful air support, the cruiser is little more than a huge floating target,” said Golts, who is deputy editor of the online newspaper, Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
On the issue of the condition of the Russian ships, Army War College expert Blank said he had “no reason to believe a priori that any of the Russian ships taking part in this exercise are not seaworthy though they are probably inferior in quality to U.S. ships.”