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Vladimir Putin brandishes his nuclear submarines to give the impression of power

Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated two new nuclear-powered submarines on Monday. These submersibles will be assigned to the Pacific Fleet, a reminder that Moscow’s ambitions do not stop at Ukraine.

They are brand new and are supposed to represent the best in terms of Russian maritime strike force. On Monday, December 11, Vladimir Putin inaugurated the nuclear-powered submarines Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III.

From the city of Severodvinsk, in the north of Russia, the Russian president spoke at length – and under the snow – of the merits of these two submersibles of different models. The Krasnoyarsk belongs to the Yasen-M class, attack submarines capable of launching cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles (going at speeds exceeding Mach-5, or 6,125 km/h) “to target targets on the ground or go hunting for other submarines at sea”, notes Basil Germond, specialist in maritime military security issues at Lancaster University, in Great Britain.

For his part, Emperor Alexander III is a proud representative of Borei-A type submarines, the elite of Russian submersibles, and can be used to fire nuclear missiles. “This submarine serves the main objective of the Russian navy: nuclear deterrence,” summarizes Sim Tack, a military analyst for Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company.

Submarines for global ambitions

They mainly replace “aging models from the Soviet era, in circulation since the 1980s,” notes Sim Tack. The Borei-A, for example, is “much more maneuverable and discreet than its predecessor”, assures Will Kingston-Cox, Russia specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.

What should the Ukrainian general staff be concerned about? Russian submarines have in fact “shown their effectiveness in the Black Sea to support coastal bombardments”, underlines Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center.

Read alsoBattle of the Black Sea: who is still afraid of the Russian fleet?

But actually, not at all. Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III were not intended to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine. These two ships will strengthen the Russian fleet in the Pacific, and Vladimir Putin’s entire speech during this inauguration seemed particularly disconnected from Ukrainian news.

He especially insisted on the need for Russia “to extend its military naval capabilities beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe”, analyzed the Institute for the Study of War, a research center. North American military reflection, in its daily update on the war in Ukraine, published Monday December 11.

In his speech, Vladimir Putin insisted on his desire to see the Russian navy shine “in the Pacific, the Arctic, the Caspian Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea”.

The Pacific Fleet, stationed in Vladivostok and several surrounding bases, presents several advantages justifying its reinforcement first. First, “she is the only one who does not have to cross a bottleneck to get to the high seas,” underlines Jeff Hawn. No Oresund Strait, Bosphorus Strait or Dardanelles – all under close surveillance by NATO countries – for this fleet to cross.

The Pacific also represents a geopolitical choice. This area is often considered a private preserve for the American navy and those of its NATO allies. In this context, “it is a way for Moscow to remind that it has not forgotten that the United States is its main adversary and that, despite the war in Ukraine, Russia is also preparing to face them”, assures Basil Germond.

Submarines, a Russian specialty

It is also no coincidence that Vladimir Putin chose to focus on submarines rather than other types of warships. Historically, “Russia has never succeeded in creating a fleet capable of competing with that of the West. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was thus unable to develop an aircraft carrier that could reach the ankle of those of the Americans”, explains Basil Germond.

On the other hand, it invested heavily in submarines “because it was the spearhead of its deterrent force”, underlines Sim Tack. Submersibles represent, in fact, the best Russian guarantee of having the possibility of responding to a hypothetical American nuclear attack. This is what we call the ability to strike second, which is an essential element of deterrence: a nuclear power will think twice before bombing another if it knows that, somewhere underwater, submarines are hiding which will respond with their own atomic bomb.

For Vladimir Putin, this inauguration also serves as a reminder that there is life beyond Ukraine for the master of the Kremlin. “He updated Russian maritime doctrine in July 2022 to emphasize the need to become a global naval power,” underlines Will Kingston-Cox.

These submarines are supposed to be two illustrations of Moscow’s capacity to wage a war in Ukraine and a program to modernize the navy to update it in the face of NATO’s maritime power. “Vladimir Putin thus seeks to strengthen and expand Russian capacity to threaten the West,” assures the Institute for the Study of War.

“This may be pushing the envelope a little further in analyzing the threat,” said Jeff Hawn. The Kremlin certainly seeks to give the impression of maritime power, but it is not two submarines – nuclear or not – which will change the balance of power very much in favor of the West, assure all the experts interviewed by France 24 .

Expensive submarines

Moscow, however, does not want to stop at two new submarines. Vladimir Putin assured that there were around ten others who “were going to strengthen the fleets in the years to come”.

A costly plan (a Borei class submarine costs more than $700 million) “which is done mechanically to the detriment of the resources allocated to other branches of the army,” assures Jeff Hawn. It may not be a few submarines that will cause Russia’s downfall in Ukraine, but “they demonstrate the extent to which Moscow can be schizophrenic in military matters”, underlines this American analyst.

However, it is difficult for Russia to put an end to the maritime modernization program. “Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that the West represents a threat, and he must now prove to his public opinion that he is taking the necessary measures to defend himself,” explains Sim Tack.

The Russian president continues to ensure that he guarantees Russia a place of choice in the concert of nations… which also involves having a powerful navy. And the message is all the more important to get across now “that he has officially announced his candidacy for the presidential election of March 2024,” concludes Jeff Hawn.

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