Russian Navy diesel-electric attack submarine Magadan during a launch ceremony at Admiralty Shipyard in St. Petersburg, Russia, March 26, 2021. Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images
The Russian Navy has been busy.
It's stepping up operations in the Arctic, expanding its presence in Africa and the Middle East, and keeping a close eye on NATO around Europe.
It's also making progress on a number of high-profile shipbuilding projects. It plans to commission or receive six new submarines — three of them nuclear-powered — by the end of this year and expects to receive a fully modernized Kirov-class nuclear battlecruiser and to begin sea trials for its only aircraft carrier by the end of 2022.
These are impressive advances for a force that largely fell into disrepair after the Cold War. While the Russian Navy isn't as big as its Soviet forebear, the work shows that the Kremlin is committing to its modernization.
Post-Cold War dilapidation
Remains of Soviet Navy ships slowly sink after being scrapped, at Labour Bay, Russian Island, July 26, 1993. VLADIMIR MASHATIN/AFP via Getty Images
The Soviet Navy was a considerable blue-water force at the end of the Cold War, numbering about 650 ships by 1990. The US Navy had 570 ships in service at that time.
That Soviet fleet included seven aircraft carriers, 73 guided missile cruisers and destroyers, and as many as 260 submarines, though some of those vessels were not combat-capable and were counted to boost the fleet's numbers.
Russia inherited the bulk of the Soviet fleet after the dissolution of the USSR but couldn't afford to operate most of it. Moscow maintained a number of the larger, higher-end vessels, but ultimately wrote off 70% of the Soviet ships.
Russia's Navy went into a period of neglect and dilapidation after the Cold War, with deadly accidents further tarnishing its prestige.
In 2000, the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk exploded and sank, killing all 118 crewmen. In 2016, malfunctions on board its only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, caused the loss of two jets and forced its entire air wing to operate from land.
The carrier continues to face problems during its refit, with multiple accidents resulting in deaths and further damage.
Those incidents underline another critical problem for Russia's Navy: A lack of expertise and suitable shipyards after nearly two decades of neglect. The loss of access to Ukrainian shipyards and expertise, particularly after Russia's incursions in Ukraine in 2014, caused further problems.
New ships, new capabilities
Russian Navy frigate Admiral Groshkov launches a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in the White Sea, October 7, 2020. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
Today, the Russian Navy operates about 360 vessels of all types. Big guided-missile cruisers and destroyers have been largely replaced by smaller warships, such as corvettes and frigates.
"Basically, they're building subs and small surface combatants," Mark Cancian, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Marine Corps colonel, told Insider. "That represents primarily a home-defense force, although they retain some ability to send forces overseas."
Corvettes like those of the Karakurt and Stereguschiy classes are meant to support larger guided-missile frigates, namely the Admiral Gorshkov-class and Admiral Grigorovich-class.
Many of these ships are smaller in size and armament than their NATO counterparts, but new technology and weaponry, especially the Kalibr cruise missile, which was introduced in 2015, give them an edge.
Comparable to the US-made Tomahawk, the Kalibr can carry a 450 kg warhead to targets 1,500 km to 2,500 km away. The Kalibr has repeatedly proven its worth on Russia's ships and subs, most notably against land targets in Syria. It can also be used against naval targets.
The result is a green-water naval force with dozens of small, missile-laden ships with long-range strike capability at their core. Russia's high-end legacy ships also continue to show the flag around the world, a reminder that Moscow is still a great naval power.
"The fact that the Russians are building a lot of smaller ships but yet still have these long-range precision guided munitions really benefits that approach," Jeffrey Edmonds, a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis, told Insider. "You can have ships sitting in the Caspian Sea that can hit targets in Europe, and a lot of these are fairly small, so they're not difficult to produce and they're not expensive."
Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks at the launch of the new Yasen-class submarine K-329 Severodvinsksk, in Severomorsk, June 15, 2010. VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP via Getty Images
Like its Soviet predecessor, the Russian Navy's true strength is underwater. Russia's submarine force is now 59 boats, including 12 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) and nine nuclear-powered cruise-missile submarines (SSGNs).
Russia hasn't embraced smaller, cheaper alternatives for its submarine fleet — largely because of the importance of nuclear weapons to Russian defense doctrine and the role submarines have in launching them.
Russian military strategists also see submarines as among the best weapons to defeat the US Navy. For their part, US Navy officers have taken note of the Russian submarine fleet's expanding capabilities.
The submarine fleet of the future will be based around Borei-class SSBNs and Yasen-class SSGNs, which are slowly replacing their predecessors. Built after the Cold War, they are considered the best submarines Russia has ever made and first-rate vessels on par with their NATO counterparts.
Borei-class subs have six torpedo tubes and carries 16 new RSM-56 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Each missile carries six to 10 150-kiloton nuclear warheads and can travel some 8,000 km.
Yasen-class subs have 10 torpedo tubes and eight vertical missile launchers, allowing the launch of 32 Kalibr or 24 P-800 Oniks anti-ship missiles. The Yasen-class has already proven it is able to evade NATO detection for extended periods.
Russia has four Borei SSBNs and one Yasen SSGN in service. It hopes to have 10 Boreis and at least nine Yasens by 2030.
A new Russian military
Russian frigate Admiral Makarov in the Black Sea near Feodosia in Crimea, November 28, 2020. Sergei Malgavko\TASS via Getty Images
The Russian Navy is currently outfitting all its ships with Kalibr missiles and plans to put the Zircon hypersonic missile, which is still being tested, on both submarines and surface ships. The Zircon, capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 8, will further enhance the fleet.
The new investments and developments are just one part of a broader effort to modernize the Russian military.
"There was this tremendous reckoning after the disappointing showing of the Russian military against Georgia in 2008, and the Russian military has gone through a huge reorganization," Cancian said.
The Russians have slimmed down their force with the intention to make it a higher-quality, more professional force with more modern equipment.
For the Navy, this has meant restructuring the fleet, focusing on quality over quantity to the extent allowed by budgets and ship-building capability. With new weaponry, the fleet now has a larger and more important role in Russia's defense strategy.
"In a certain sense, the Navy is now more integrated into Russia's strategic framework that they refer to as 'strategic deterrence,'" Edmonds said, noting that the threat from Kalibr-equipped warships enables Russia to threaten critical infrastructure across virtually all of Europe.
There are serious obstacles — the lack of expertise and infrastructure are major challenges to shipbuilding — but Russia is committed to overcoming them. Its Navy is not likely to reach the size of the Soviet fleet, but recent developments show that it is no longer the dilapidated force it was in the 1990s.
"The gears might be turning slowly, but they are turning again," Edmonds said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2019. "They're getting there."
With new ships and submarines armed with new weapons, Russia's Navy is reminding the world it's a force to be reckoned with.