The Russian navy is getting smaller by the day. But the Russian merchant marine—the ships that haul the country’s exports—is getting bigger.
The importance to Moscow of sea trade—in particular exports of liquified natural gas—combined with the steady rusting-away of the Soviet-vintage naval fleet, represents a profound problem for the regime of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
“Russia’s vulnerabilities at sea seem clear and growing,” wrote Bradford Dismukes, a retired U.S. Navy captain and political scientist.
For the United States and its allies, Russia’s maritime vulnerability is an opportunity. In wartime, the U.S. and allied fleets could blockade Russian sea trade, putting a choke-hold on the Russian economy that could force Moscow to end the war on terms favorable to Washington and its friends.
“In addition to new LNG carriers, Russia’s significant assets at sea include a large merchant marine,” Dismukes wrote. “Russia ranks second—after China—in the number of nationally-flagged … merchant ships. They are largely older container ships and bulk carriers, and have relatively small intrinsic value. However, they, like Russia’s fishing fleet (also the world’s second-largest), are important earners of hard currency through service in cabotage and international hauling.”
These ships serve a small number of major Russian ports. St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Murmansk in the far north. Vladivostok on the Pacific. Numerous maritime choke-points surround these ports, in particular those on the Baltic and Black Sea.
A large and economically vital merchant marine sailing through narrow choke-points to and from a small number of ports practically invites attack during a major war. To make matters worse for Moscow, its fleet suffers from a dearth of large, long-range warships that could protect merchant ships on the open ocean.
The Russian navy operates just one aircraft carrier—the aging and unreliable Admiral Kuznetsov—plus one nuclear-powered battlecruiser and a handful of destroyers and frigates. The balance of the 360-ship Russian fleet is made up of small coastal warships and submarines.
For Russia, “naval escort of individual civil ships by surface ships or (more likely) submarines would be possible on a limited scale, but would be infeasible for the civil fleets at large,” Dismukes wrote.
U.S. and allied naval fleets, by contrast, are stacked with large, long-range warships. More than a thousand, in all. Foremost among them—scores of nuclear-powered attack submarines plus the U.S. Navy’s 11 nuclear aircraft carriers, the Royal Navy’s two conventional carriers and the French fleet’s sole flattop, which also has conventional propulsion.
Western naval planners shouldn’t ignore their obvious advantage in commerce-warfare. “The West must credibly threaten to deprive Russia of the use of the world oceans,” Dismukes wrote.
Dismukes recommended American ships hunt down Russian ships in Arctic waters while European vessels work the seas around the continent and U.S. allies in the Pacific region—namely, Japan and South Korea—close Russia’s eastern ports.
Strangled by blockade following, say, a Russian invasion of the Baltic states, “Russia would face a choice between holding on to local gains on its periphery … at the cost of being cut off from most of the world economy. The latter would mean a death knell for Russia’s hopes to benefit from export of LNG and agricultural products.”
Not only could blockade end a war on terms favorable to the West, the threat of blockade actually could prevent a war. “The U.S. and its allies should make clear to Russia—through action and declaratory policy—that aggression will be met with blockade, regardless of the timing or shape of NATO’s response on the ground,” Dismukes wrote.
If there’s a downside, it’s that sinking civilian vessels and killing civilian seafarers could come at a political cost to the American and allied governments. Dismukes proposed a novel solution. Don’t sink Russian merchant vessels, just disable them using a new kind of weapon.
“This problem can be almost completely eliminated by the development of a new weapon ideally suited for [blockade-enforcement]—the propulsion-disabler,” Dismukes wrote. “P.D.s are small, smart torpedo-like devices that destroy a ship’s screws and rudders without human casualties or significant damage to the rest of the ship. They deprive a ship of its mobility, rendering it a helpless burden on its owner.”