The Race for Global Influence

DAVID BERCUSON  –  Jul 31, 2018

Russia is busy showing off its navy these days, in an obvious attempt to intimidate.

According to British officials, Russian subs have increased their presence in the North Atlantic about ten-fold, and British, Canadian and U.S. warships have responded at least 30 times to signs of Russian subs operating there. The UK, which has a larger fleet than Canada, is struggling to respond to Russian presences in waters near the UK. Canada’s upgraded frigates are trying to help, but with mission locations spread between the Arabian gulf, the Caribbean, and the western Pacific, the fleet is stretched very thin. The U.S. Navy is still intent on being a global force but, with the exception of the waters within which the three to four deployed carrier battle groups are sailing, even they can only help so much.

What are the Russians up to? They are not preparing for global war because nation to nation warfare among the larger powers is unthinkable. Putin may be a thug, but he is not interested in physical war either.

As cyber resources increase in Russia, China, the United States and other countries, it is far easier, cheaper (and with little to no loss of blood) to use cyber tools to shut down electric grids, freeze the transfer of water resources, even shut down municipal sewage facilities. There are so many options to wreak horrors on another nation’s infrastructure without firing a shot.

Those submarines, and the other ships of the burgeoning Russian fleet are tokens to buy diplomatic leverage in whatever area of the world the Russians are going after. Take the case of the sole Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. Notably absent from a Russian Navy Day parade (after a less-than-successful appearance off the coast of Syria last year), Admiral Kuznetsov is due for extensive refits and repairs and won’t be back at sea until 2021. Its performance in the Syrian war was less than Homeric. That doesn’t mean that Russia’s improving fleet isn’t to be taken seriously. The new Gorshkov-class frigate is larger, better armed, and faster than comparable U.S. vessels.

So what are these ships for? The missile-carrying submarines are there for deterrence. The attack submarines’ main mission is to shadow American (and soon British) carrier groups. And they are out to learn all they can about Allied sound and electronic equipment. They are also diplomatic chess pieces to move about the global commons to show the flag and buy influence. But then that’s largely true of Allied navies as well. With Russia’s resurgence, China’s modernization, and Trump beating the drum for more NATO spending, we are all in the midst of another great arms race. For influence, not for actual fighting.

– David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute