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21 November 2014
by Peter Coates

Russian gunboat diplomacy in Australia's region

President Putin's unsmiling face only briefly darkened Brisbane's G20 Summit in mid November 2014. But Putin's frosty style was reinforced by the small Russian fleet of warships that sailed into the Coral Sea off Queensland. The fleet provided a reminder that gunboat diplomacy still exists. "Gunboat diplomacy" refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power. The fleet's appearance provides a golden opportunity to place some naval issues in context.

The Russian fleet consisted of the 30 year old missile cruiser Varyag, the old anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and the replenishment-oiler Boris Butoma. Given the age of the ships (with cranky old engines) the Russians thought it a safe bet to also include the tugboat Fotiy Krylov. Escorting the fleet, but unseen may have been an aging nuclear propelled attack submarine – perhaps an Akula.

Russia sends fleet of warships towards Australia ahead of G20 summit

As usual Putin didn't facilitate any diplomatic niceties. The Russian ships weren't invited and the Russian Captains didn't ask for a port visit when they were radioed by our ANZAC frigates HMAS Stuart and HMAS Parramatta. As well as our frigates, and despite official denials, Australia would have been remiss not to have placed a Collins class submarine on G20 security duty between Brisbane and the Russian fleet. Failing that a US nuclear propelled attack submarine of the Los Angeles or Virginia class may have shadowed the Russian force from its surface fleet base at Vladivostok (see map) then southwards to Australia.

Russian Interests
This Russian fleet display furthers such interests as: underlining Russia's great power and nuclear power status; that Russia is in military competition with China, Japan, France (with its South Pacific islands) and the US; that Russia wishes to protect its rising trade; and Russia is making an implied claim to potential South China Sea resources – to name a few.

The South China Sea is potentially worth many $Billions in undersea mineral and energy resources and perhaps military bases on the islands. Russia (perhaps working with Vietnam) wishes to stress that that sea is more than a Chinese and Japanese theatre. The temporary presence of Varyag flags Russian interest in that sea.

Australian Reliance on the US
A display of gunboat diplomacy is most effective when the visiting warships are much more powerful than defending warships or entire countries. This Russian fleet off the coast of Queensland was a reminder how diminutive Australia is in power and therefore how dependent we are on the US Navy to counter the fleets of great powers. If those great powers have nuclear weapons they are much more dangerous.

Australia's constant feeding of the US alliance would not make sense without adequate levels of American naval and nuclear protection. President Obama cannot diverge from the Asia-Pacific pivot no matter how distracting events in Ukraine and Iraq-Syria are. In return Australia: hosts US bases; maintains forces in Afghanistan; has returned to Iraq; and bought the Joint Strike Fighter for an inflated alliance-clinching price.

The US Navy, particularly its new age capital ships, its nuclear submarines, is more than a match for all potentially hostile navies (China and Russia) combined, in a conventional war or nuclear war. In contrast, due to the combination of satellites and missiles US carrier groups are highly vulnerable in a conventional or nuclear war. But carriers are highly effective in low level conflicts (like the war in Iraq) where airstrikes and large-scale gun boat diplomacy are required.

Russian Firepower
Returning to the Varyag – it is designed as a "carrier killer". This missile cruiser's role has never been tested in warfare. Perhaps the closest thing was the Falklands War in 1982 where the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano carried only a few small missiles and was sunk by a British nuclear powered attack submarine long before Belgrano was in striking range of British carriers.

The Varyag fields 16 large Vulkan anti-ship (probably also land attack capable) cruise missiles. These missiles can be tipped with medium sized thermonuclear weapons - each one of which has a maximum yield of 350 kilotonnes (about 20 times as powerful as the Hiroshima Bomb). One would be enough to destroy an Australian fleet or a city like Brisbane. Varyag's accompanying destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov is also nuclear capable.

The Varyag also fields several conventional missiles and guns of various sizes. In this boppy Youtube is Varyag's sister ship Moskva firing its weapons fitted with conventional warheads. A Vulkan carrier-killing cruise missile appears about 33 seconds in.

Russia's current naval force deployed in our region provides implicit rather than more active gunboat diplomacy due to its largely unreformed Cold War role as a carrier killing force. The Russian fleet is more organised to fight a conventional or nuclear war than project power in peace-time or during low intensity conflicts. Low intensity conflicts largely require air power, particularly fixed wing jets, massed helicopters and increasingly drones. Put another way Russia's ability to further its political and economic interests in areas like the South China Sea remains limited by its aging fleet which is built around missile cruisers like Varyag and Moskva. However France is building Mistral amphibious assault ships for Russia that may help Russia make up some power projection deficiencies.

The current Russian inflexibility in its aging fleet is to Australia's advantage. In comparison with China Russia in the Pacific also brings few economic benefits for Australia. With Putin, the Russian Leader for Life, this Russian negativity is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.