Bob Bateman writes:
True, it was once a powerful force, and feared by NATO. But the salient point is why the Soviet Navy was feared. It was not because it could project power far from Russia’s shores. That has never been a capability the Soviet fleet maintained to any serious degree. No, it was feared because it might possibly stop the Americans from coming to the aid of its allies in Europe should a Soviet-led invasion of Western Germany occur.
In naval strategy form should follow function, and in this the Soviets succeeded. Their naval forces were designed primarily as an interdiction force, something which might intercept the huge numbers of ships which the US would have to send had the “balloon gone up” in Western Europe. Accordingly, they had lots of submarines, quite a few anti-submarine ships (to help neutralize the major threat American submarines posed to their own subs), and long-range anti-ship missiles.
What they did not have was the ability to “project” power onto the land in any appreciable way, then or now.
To my understanding, this isn’t quite right. The Soviets certainly pursued interdiction capability in the early part of the Cold War, borrowing late German U-boat designs to produce a huge, if technologically somewhat backward, submarine fleet. It was not unreasonable for NATO to believe that, in a war, the Russians would pursue a maritime strategy somewhat similar to that which the Germans pursued in both World Wars. The submarine fleet would attempt to sever the link between North America and Europe, disrupting the economies of both and preventing reinforcement from arriving in Germany. US and British naval strategy in the early Cold War was geared towards anti-submarine activity, such that some Essex class aircraft carriers were devoted specifically to anti-submarine roles. Although the terms can be misleading, one could argue that the Soviets were expected to carry out an “offensive” strategy of attacking trans-Atlantic supply routes, forcing NATO into a “defensive” strategy of protecting those same lines.
In the early 1970s, however, information coming out of the Soviet Navy (both covert and open source) began to indicate that the Soviets had an entirely different strategy than the one outlined above. Rather than being geared towards an attack on NATO supply lines, it appeared that the Soviets were concentrating on defending the Arctic Ocean from NATO incursion. The point of this was to provide safe launch areas for the USSR’s growing fleet of SSBNs. Unlike their American, British, and French equivalents, Soviet boomers were never quiet enough to make hiding a good bet. Consequently, Soviet strategy developed around the idea of creating concentric fortresses of surface ships and attack submarines around the SSBNs, thus securing them from attack. Soviet carriers were designed to provide area air defense, rather than strike power. The Soviet Navy retained an interdiction capability, but this was not its central focus. One factor in the newfound emphasis on protecting SSBNs was the belief that the lethality of conventional weapons had increased to such a degree that the trans-Atlantic supply line was meaningless; the conventional war would be won or lost with the forces in Europe on D-Day, and the settlement would be determined in substantial part by the nuclear forces available to both sides.
This would seem to me to be the essence of a defensive doctrine. The military organization designed itself around the task of protecting the least offensive elements of the Soviet nuclear triad (Soviet subs targeted cities rather than nuclear installations, which in deterrence theory was considered defensive). Defensive doctrines, according to some political science, ought to decrease international tension and alleviate the security dilemma (the idea that increasing our security reduces that of others). Interestingly enough, however, as US naval officers and theorists came to accept that Soviet intentions weren’t primarily interdictory, they responded with proposals for an offensive doctrine, designed to assault Soviet home areas and SSBN patrol areas. This development is substantially covered by John Hattendorf in The Evolution of the US Navy’s Maritime Doctrine, 1977-1986, which is a compilation and reformulation of classified analysis from the 1980s.
Nevertheless, Bateman is more or less correct about the power projection aspect of Soviet naval power. The Soviet Navy was never really designed to carry out expeditionary operations, or really any warfare operations outside of Soviet home areas. On the other hand, naval power is always, to some extent, fungible. Although in wartime the Soviet Navy was expected to stay home, in peacetime it patrolled widely, carrying out “show the flag” and other political operations all over the world. As such, the dispatch of Pyotr Velikiy and its task force to Venezuela isn’t really such a reach in terms of Soviet naval practice. The intent of the mission now, as in the past, is to send a political message to Venezuela and to the United States. The only real change is that what’s left of the Soviet Navy has substantially lost any capability beyond the political; the remnant is a force that was inadequate to the challenge of the USN in 1980, and is exceptionally inadequate to that challenge now. The Russian Navy is good for two things; sending political messages, and supporting belligerence against Russia’s neighbors. Neither of these is trivial, but nor are they earthshattering.