On 29 June 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu fired the Baltic Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Victor Kravchuk, his Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Sergei Popov, and numerous other officers.
The Defense Ministry’s press release (quoted in Russia Beyond the Headlines) cited “…serious omissions in the organization of combat preparedness…as well as the distortion of the real state of affairs in reports presented to the Defense Minister.” Western reporting on events highlights that the mass firings are “unprecedented in the post-Soviet Navy.”
In addition to the readiness and personnel issues, some reports of VADM Kravchuk’s shortcomings suggest criminal connections or corruption, specifically related to 2012 organizational changes and infrastructure projects in Kaliningrad as well as unconfirmed reports of a recent collision involving a Baltic Fleet submarine and a German or Polish Navy vessel.
Collisions get commanding officers fired – for a fleet commander to be relieved so publically, more negatives must come into play. Dmitry Gorenburg in his Russian Military Reform blog ably wraps up multiple contributing factors: an August 2015 readiness drill included specific failures; the Baltic Fleet’s new Steregushchiy class corvettes “have had more than their share of accidents and fires” and have not deployed in their nine years of services; and the earlier removal of VADM Kravchuk’s patron ADM Chirkov as Commander of the Russian Navy. Ultimately, “corruption that has a negative effect on combat readiness will not be tolerated.”
Moreover, Gorenburg says, action against the Baltic Fleet could be taken without disrupting ongoing naval operations. This is an important consideration – since the annexation of Crimea, much of NATO’s concern about further Russian aggression has focused on the Baltic region. That is certainly legitimate, but the Black Sea has also seen potentially dangerous air and naval interactions. The Black Sea Fleet is also responsible for ongoing operations related to Syria; Northern Fleet missions, especially submarine operations, have strategic significance for the Kremlin. While the Baltic region figures prominently in Western strategic considerations, Russia’s Baltic Fleet may be the easiest to shakeup without current impact.
The new leadership coming largely from other fleets will face a readiness inspection at the end of the year. Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Alexander Nosatov was previously Black Sea Fleet Deputy Commander (although he has experience in the Baltic, commanding the Kaliningrad base from 2009-2012) and his Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Igor Mukhametshin was the head of the Pacific Fleet submarine force. One senior officer holdover from before the firings is Vice Admiral Sergey Eliseyev who was deputy commander of the Ukrainian Navy until the aftermath of the Crimea annexation.
Defense Minister Shoigu has stressed readiness inspections since his appointment in 2012. Many of these inspections have been no-notice or “snap exercises.” NATO and US officials are rightly concerned about these snap exercises – the movement of tens of thousands of troops for exercises can mask other movements, and at the very least drastically shortens the warning time available to decision-makers. In response to NATO exercises or maneuvers significant Russian movements increase the probability of inadvertent escalation – especially in the Baltic or Black Sea regions where international waters and airspace provide a stage for interactions. The rhetoric surrounding snap exercises is a key component of Putin’s information campaign, providing a narrative of NATO threat for international and domestic audiences.
Despite all these important considerations, the primary deliverable of a readiness exercise is readiness. The public sacking of a fleet commander over readiness issues is an indicator of a defense establishment taking readiness very seriously. We will continue to watch Russia’s snap exercises, but the results and aftermath of the Baltic Fleet re-inspection at the end of 2016 may be particularly telling for the strategic direction of Russia’s military forces.
Captain Steven Horrell is the US Navy Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of the US Navy or the Department of Defense. Photo credit: www.kremlin.ru.