Russian Aspirations vs. Operations
I don’t know if you’ve been following it but an interesting story has been unfolding off the coast of Somalia. Last week pirates (who, interestingly, claim legitimacy as a sort of Coast Guard for Somalia) seized an arms-carrying Ukrainian cargo ship off the coast of Somalia and are demanding a $20 million ransom for the release of the crew and ship. American, French, and British ships are in the area and the Russians have dispatched a frigate. Ukraine has relatively little in the way of blue water navy, one submarine, one frigate, a few corvettes, a number of near-in patrol and support craft.
That’s where this article from the IHT comes in:
MOSCOW: Russia’s decision to dispatch a warship to pirate-infested waters off Somalia reflects its determination to project power worldwide. But it remains unclear what role the vessel might play in the latest hostage crisis there.
The Russian Navy has said only that it ordered the guided missile frigate Neustrashimy (Intrepid) to the northwest Indian Ocean to protect commercial shipping lanes and defend the lives of Russian citizens.
But there has been speculation Russia could try to free the hostages aboard a Ukrainian ship, the Faina, that was seized by Somalia-based pirates last week. Russia has dealt harshly with hostage-takers in recent years.
The pirates have demanded US$20 million for the release of the ship and its 20-man crew, which includes two Russians. Besides more than 30 battle tanks, the ship is loaded with armaments and the pirates warn they will fight to the death if attacked.
The seizure, analysts say, has given Russia another chance to display its might following its brief war with Georgia — which the Kremlin justified, in part, as an effort to protect Russian citizens living in two Georgian breakaway regions.
“It’s another show of the flag intended to demonstrate that Russia would protect its citizens wherever it deems it necessary,” said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation.
Those may be Russia’s aspirations but its operational capability is somewhat different. The frigate deployed from the Baltic. It will also be interesting to see what they do with respect to logistics.
Russia’s status as a world power is highly dependent on its nuclear arsenal which is why I believe that Russia will be quite reluctant to relinquish that arsenal in the foreseeable future. It’s able to project quite a bit of force in its “near abroad” as we saw in its recent adventure in Georgia. To assert or retain status as a world power on a basis other than its nuclear arsenal Russia must retain control of the Black and Caspian Seas and hold on to its eastern territories, which will become increasingly difficult as its population dwindles.
I’ve drawn a line in red on the map at the top of this post to suggest a prospective route between the Baltic and Somalia. Once you’ve reached the Suez Canal, it’s through the Red Sea and a dash around the Horn of Africa.
UPDATE (James Joyner): We’ve been following the Somali pirates story on a breaking basis on Atlantic Update and the issue was discussed by Nick Gvosdev in “NATO’s Tunnel Vision: Seeing Beyond Russia” and J. Peter Pham in “The Challenge of Somali Piracy.”