NAPLES, Italy — Russia’s Defense Ministry announced plans this week for a massive naval exercise and a significant buildup of its fleet as part of an effort to restore its naval prowess after years of post-Soviet decline.
The multiple naval drills will be held in the Mediterranean and Black seas in late January, according to the national news agency RIA Novosti.
“The Russian navy’s drills of this scope will be held for the first time over the past few decades,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to the news agency.
The naval drills will simulate operations to load servicemembers from land onto amphibious ships. Russian sailors and ships from its Northern, Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets are en route to the exercise sites, according to the RIA Novosti report.
Despite speculation about Russia’s intentions in the Mediterranean, Russia has not indicated it will use its growing naval presence to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington and a Russian military expert.
“I don’t think the U.S. needs to be concerned,” Weitz said in telephone interview. “If anything, what they are going to do with their navy is evacuate all the Russians from Syria.”
Russia is undergoing a $659 billion rearmament program through 2020 and has plans to add 18 warships and more than 30 other vessels to its fleet by 2016, including six submarines, RIA Novosti reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years devoted massive sums of money toward rebuilding the military, Weitz said. In all, Russia has pledged to replace 45 percent of its army and navy equipment by 2015, according to Weitz’s research.
“What you are seeing is Russia has been trying to revive its navy for really the past five, six years. They are building up their fleet,” Weitz said. “It’s for all the reasons most countries want navies, to show their flag, have influence, being able to protect trade.”
Russian defense officials have announced in recent months the acquisition of a new nuclear-powered missile submarine, sea trials for a remodeled anti-submarine helicopter and a new deep-sea research vessel.
At the height of the Soviet Union’s influence, its naval forces could go head to head against the United States.
“Now I would put them in the same league as France,” Weitz said.
Stephen Blank, a Russian foreign policy professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, said it’s unlikely Russia’s defense contractors have the capabilities to deliver dozens of new warships.
“They are not going to get back to Cold War status. They would like to. But I don’t think they can really project sustainable naval power in a conflict beyond the Black Sea,” Blank said. “It’s something that bears watching, but I wouldn’t get hysterical about it.”
Blank said Russia’s influence has suffered in recent years as its allies in Libya and Syria have been removed from power or threatened. He doesn’t expect Russia will be able to keep Assad at Syria’s helm.
Navy officials said they are not concerned but will keep an eye on the Mediterranean-based exercises per regular protocol.
“We monitor all exercises in the 6th fleet,” said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Marc Boyd, spokesman for U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa.
“A lot of this is just for show,” Blank said. “Their Black Sea fleet couldn’t take on the 6th Fleet, let alone NATO if they had to.”