|Russian naval warships, submarines berthed at port in the eastern city of Vladivostok on Sept. 5, 2012. /AP|
The Russian navy is about to stage its largest war exercise in a long time — possibly the largest since before the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s a chance for President Vladimir Putin to show off his military might, of course. But the exercise may also be a subtle warning to the United States: Stay clear of waters that traditionally lie in Russia’s sphere of influence.I just want to mention something here: Putin is a long time Navalist, and this is not some small thing in his world, indeed he has been wanting this for over a decade. Putin has always been navalist, and nothing has changed.
The Russian defense ministry says its the “first time in decades” it’s launched naval exercises on this scale. The drills involve warships from all of Russia’s fleets: “the Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific,” noted a statement from the ministry. The exercise will be reportedly held in late January, and involve amphibious landings in the Caucasus and naval exercises in the Mediterranean.
Putin has undertaken a major $659 billion arms buildup through 2020. On Thursday, the Defense Ministry in Moscow also announced the scale of its ongoing naval increase. By 2016, a statement noted, Russia will have 18 new warships, “and also 30 special-purpose and counter-subversion vessels,” along with six new submarines. One of these vessels, the Borei class ballistic missile sub Yuri Dolgoruky, joined the fleet this week.
When Boris Yeltsin resigned in December of 1999, in those first three months when Putin was still only acting President and before he was officially elected President the first time in March of 2000, he ordered the Russian Navy to prepare for its largest exercise since the end of the cold war for late summer in 2000. His objective was well known at the time, Putin wanted Russia to resume operations in the Mediterranean Sea, which is where Putin and many of his cold war strategists have long believed to be the center of gravity that exists between Russia and NATO (thus the US).
During that major Russian naval exercise in August of 2000 the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk suffered an explosion during training and the result was the Russian Navy sidelined for most of the decade. The major Russian naval upcoming exercise has been coming since 2000, and I fully expect it to be something the Russian government pushes across their media as a very big deal.
Russia is reducing the size of their Army, Air Force, and missile forces, but is increasing the size of their Navy. China is also holding static the size of their Army and Air Force, while increasing the size of their Navy. This pattern of military power investment that heavily favors increasing the size of naval forces is being repeated in many nations today.
When people talk about the early part of the 21st century as the emerging Maritime Century, they aren't describing the 21st century in those terms because of what the United States is focused on with our military power, nor what our European allies are focused on with their military power, rather the phrase describes what the emerging and growing economic and military powers across Asia (and to some degree, South America) are doing. We may have the largest Navy in the world, but the United States is not leading the world into the emerging Maritime Century - indeed it is openly acknowledged today that US naval power is in relative decline while the rest of the world engages in this maritime shift.
But it is important to note the emerging Maritime Century isn't simply a description of naval power, rather it is a description of the central role the maritime domain is and will play in the 21st century. Trade is a big part of it, but the emerging technologies that already are but also will in the future convert the worlds oceans into territories cultivated for resources is a global economic trend that will not be reversed, and there will be a competition for those resources. There will also be consequences of these activities, both predictable and unforeseen.
We do not know what the Maritime Century will look like 10, 20, or even 30 years from now, although it is a safe bet that it will last at least the first half of the 21st century. In the early years of the 21st century as we observe large scale naval exercises by Russia, China, India, and whomever else plays the naval game over the next decade, and we watch nations like Russia, China, Brazil, and Argentina attempt to systematically claim large swaths of sea within their regional periphery as sovereign territory without any basis in international law - keep in mind we are watching how the Maritime Century began.