There Was a Russian Nuclear Sub in the Gulf of Mexico On Tuesday, And This is Normal

The Gulf of Mexico became the backdrop for international intrigue on Tuesday, when the Navy reported that it detected a Russian Akula-class submarine that has apparently been criss-crossing the Gulf undisturbed for a month. For the record, Akula simply means "shark." The article makes reference to the fact that the last such occurrence happened in 2009 when the occasional Russian strategic bomber skirted North American airspace; this has been happening since Russia restarted such flights in 2007.

One question, however, stands out: If it took a month to find a nuclear submarine in America’s backyard, how many more came and went undetected over the course of the last few months?

The greater point is that this incident reveals nothing unusual or remarkable about Russian military doctrine. It is true that in the last two decades Russia was forced to scale back significantly on its deployments, procurements, and the rest of its foreign and military policy, but with the inevitable recovery following the USSR’s collapse, Moscow can begin investing again. First came the ambitious naval plans, which foresee the construction of new submarines and aircraft carriers by 2030. The first steps to the realization of that policy were taken with the gradual deployment of the new Borei-class of subs, meant to replace the Delta III and Typhoon classes. These will be the backbone of the Russian submarine fleet for at least a generation.

In terms of why Russia behaves the way it does, the country is currently being buoyed by revenues from energy and resource exports. Russia has experienced gradual economic growth since Vladimir Putin took the reins of power in Moscow in 2000 and its international position has grown accordingly. Despite this, however, the fundamental character of Russian foreign policy has never changed.

First, the traditional crisis points in global politics are close to Russia’s borders. On the one hand this proximity poses significant security risks. On the other hand, the logistical costs of addressing these risks are lower, since they don’t often require moving entire armies halfway around the world, as America typically has to do.

Second, Russia’s geographic spread does not predispose it to having unfettered access to warm seas, and thus, multiple strategic ports, in contrast to America and its choice of two ice-free coastlines. For this reason, the Russian navy relies on the submarine rather than the aircraft carrier as its strategic asset to project power; this is why the Admiral Kuznetsov is the only carrier in the Russian inventory and Russian surface fleets have primarily regional, and not global, roles. The deployment value of a carrier for surface projection will add desirable capacity to the Russian navy, but they will not need as many as the United States does.

Strategic bombers are the air component of Russian global reach. The Tupolev-95 has a range of over 15,000 kilometers and with in-air refuelling it can stay airborne for the length of any operation. In other words, it can deliver a payload anywhere in the world and its designated role as a nuclear strategic bomber makes it an easy, but unattractive target to shoot down, because the consequences of doing so can be truly horrific. It is a simple, but effective, weapons platform.

Submarines and strategic aviation combine to form the main arm of Russian global reach, and if their submarines have hitherto unhindered access to any maritime area of their choosing, then they are a very effective remote global access platform that does not necessarily require the deployment of significant numbers of personnel to handle a problem which threatens Russian interests somewhere in the world.

The army has traditionally never fought far from Russian borders. Its battles have been in Europe, central Asia, and the far East, but rarely beyond that. In areas further away, the Russians act via proxies and logistical support rather than employing a direct role. In episodes like the Korean, Vietnam, or Ogaden wars, which saw the deployment of Russian personnel, it was still largely in positions of instruction or support. Given that Russia is surrounded by a number of powerful countries and it does not have ready access to multiple ports on warm seas means that access to sea lanes is consequently difficult and a mass deployment in a far part of the world would indeed be too expensive and risky to not only ship, but also supply. Precisely for that reason, the capability is there, but it is not central to defense policy.

This combination of factors does not make Russia the most powerful country in the world, but does put it in a very comfortable position to act vis-a-vis other leading actors in the international system as an equal. Because of its size and resources, ability for global access and nuclear weapons have always made Russia a superpower, regardless of whether the year is 1992 or 2012. This state of affairs is what makes Russia so uncomfortable to the West. Treaties between the United States and Russia on nuclear weapons are maintained accordingly, but conventional treaties are not perfectly kept, mainly because they can be broken with diplomatic rebuff as the most serious response. The example of Russia’s Arctic exercise in the source material for this article is pointedly demonstrative.  

Despite the ability to project power, Russian diplomacy is still somewhat more constrained than its American counterpart, and typically involves forging an international alliance to bring more influence on an issue. A contemporary example is the Russo-Chinese concert on the Syrian Question, where the alliance makes the Russian position much more widely felt than if Moscow were operating alone. However, there are exceptions – for instance, missile defense negotiations with NATO are an exclusively bilateral act. Whereas the American military infrastructure around the world brings a considerable diplomatic dividend with a number of states, Russia simply has to rely on other kinds of policies to get similar results, but at a lower intensity.

Overall, submarines operate as a fundamental feature of Russia’s military and foreign policy. It is no surprise the submarine was found in the Gulf of Mexico – Russia is just doing what it has always done.

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