The CSS Blog Network

Russia: A Land Power Hungry for the Sea

Courtesy of MASS MoCA/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 April 2017.

Trying to understand the military behavior of nations has been a hobby of Western academics, beginning with the great geopoliticians of former centuries, such as Nicholas Spykman, Sir Halford Mackinder, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Simply, the argument is that geography demanded that insular and coastal nations such as England, Japan, and the Netherlands develop strong navies to support their national economic and political interests. Conversely, Germany, the Turkish Republic, and the Roman Empire were required to use their formidable land armies to defend and expand their territories. Russia stands out as a one-off. Situated squarely on the borders of Eastern Europe and central Asia, she endured numerous land assaults, and, accordingly built large defensive and offensive land armies. However, in fits and starts, she has also assembled naval forces equal to or greater than most of her presumptive adversaries. Why does Russia, a traditional land power, engage in such counterintuitive and unique behavior? Do recent international events shed light on Russia’s future naval activities?

When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on building a navy 330 years ago, he did so to defend the homeland from Swedish and Turkish enemies, north and south, while at the same time buying Russia a seat at the “great power” diplomatic table. Serendipitously, his navy did enable him to expand Russian boundaries and give him access to the world’s oceans. A second noteworthy Russian foray into the sea was at the height of the Cold War when Soviet Adm. Gorshkov planned and built a naval force that rivalled American supremacy at sea. His submarines alone (385) outnumbered those of the NATO Alliance and they regularly patrolled off the American Atlantic and Pacific coasts until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the surface of the oceans, it was commonplace for U.S. warships visiting exotic ports around the world to be joined by their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War.

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The Two Levels of Russia’s South China Sea Policies

Courtesy of Lazopoulos George/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

This article was originally published by the East-West Center (EWC) on 28 March 2017.

Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.

One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.

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Fish Wars: How Fishing Can Start – and Stop – Conflict

Courtesy of Annelieke B/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This article was published by Political Violence @ a Glance on 17 March 2017.

On February 18, the US sent naval ships to the South China Seas, an area of armed tension over rich but dwindling fishing grounds (among other things). The following day, a newspaper headline proclaimed the risk of “global fish wars” sparked by climate change and rising nationalism.

Is the world on the brink of interstate fish wars? Probably not: a large-scale military dispute is not likely to erupt over tuna, and conflict over fish affected by climate change could occur over a long time horizon. But as fish become more difficult to find, understanding the links between fisheries and violent armed conflict is increasingly important.

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The Threat is Here, It’s Just Distributed Unevenly: A2/AD and the Aircraft Carrier

USS George Washington is underway in the Pacific Ocean

Courtesy of Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 28 July 2016

Editor’s Note: You can read a longer account of Steve Blank’s visit to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson at his website later this week.

Sitting backwards in a plane with no windows, strapped in a 4-point harness, head encased in a helmet, eyes covered by goggles, your brain can’t process the acceleration. As the C-2 A Greyhound is hurled off an aircraft carrier into the air via a catapult, your body is thrown forward in the air, until a few seconds later, hundreds of feet above the carrier now at 150 miles per hour you yell, “Holy sh*t!” And no one can hear you through the noise, helmet, and ear protectors.

I just spent two days a hundred miles off the coast of Mexico as a guest of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson with Pete Newell (my fellow instructor in the Hacking for Defense class) and 11 other Stanford faculty from CISAC and the Hoover Institution. It’s hard to spend time on a carrier and not be impressed with the Navy and the dedicated people who man the carrier and serve their country.

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10 Things You Should Know About the Recent South China Sea Ruling

Storm clouds

Courtesy Peter Baer/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) on 18 July 2016

The recent arbitration tribunal’s ruling on the Philippines’ case against China represents a milestone both in international law and in the politics of the South China Sea. In a sweeping, magisterial, and unequivocal decision, the tribunal has moved the goalposts, changed the channel, and put China on the defensive. From this point forward the main question will not be who owns what in the South China Sea, but who does or does not respect international law. China has rejected the decision in the strongest possible terms, with evident (and no doubt heartfelt) emotion. Whether China sticks to that script or ultimately decides that the costs of noncompliance outweigh the benefits is, of course, the $64,000 question. We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile, though, here are key some things about the decision that you may not have noticed:

When it comes to maritime rights, UNCLOS trumps all. The tribunal has made clear that other state-to-state agreements or principles of customary international law can confer maritime rights, but only if they are consistent with UNCLOS principles.Put another way: if you want to be seen to be playing by the rules, you have to be seen to be playing by UNCLOS rules.

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