Russian sailors on ship

2023 Russian Navy Update: Diving Deep

by Matt Collins

Since its inception, the Russian Navy has gone from an undeveloped provincial fighting force to one of the world’s most feared seafaring forces.

From Bolshevik revolutions to world wars, what began as a pale imitation of eighteenth century Western fleets became a formidable organization. And now, Russia’s nuclear submarines silently patrol the world’s oceans–even on the Arctic frontier.

As such, Russian naval life has become an object of Western fascination, dramatized for the silver screen in every possible way from 1925’s Battleship Potemkin to 2018’s Hunter Killer.

It’s not just about life at sea, either; Russia’s nuclear submarines represent the frontline of an ongoing nuclear Cold War with roots that reach back through most of the last century.

So today, we’re diving deep into Russian Navy history. We’ll see how it all started, where things seem to be headed, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family from the unthinkable. 

Table of Contents

  • 01

    How We Got Here: Russian Navy History

  • 02

    Downfall in the Russo-Japanese War

  • 03

    The Role of Russia’s Navy in World War Two

  • 04

    Russian Submarines in the Nuclear Age

  • 05

    The Modern-day Threat of Russia’s Sea Power

  • 06

    Immediate Threat?

  • 07

    Tip of the Nuclear Spear

How We Got Here: Russian Navy History

Peter the Great (Image courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich)

The father of the Russian navy tradition, Tsar Peter the Great is arguably the most influential figure in modern Russian history.

After extensive travels in Western Europe, Peter returned to a country he saw as being behind the times and held back by its culture. So Peter set out to modernize Russian culture, politics, and its military forces. This resulted in Russia having its first-ever navy.

Modeling the organization after the navies he’d seen in Europe, he introduced a new maritime culture that embraced established Western naval techniques, the shipbuilding industry, and whole organizational structures.

This new Russian navy first saw action in the Russo-Turkish Wars, a series of conflicts throughout the eighteenth century. Under the command of Admiral Alexei Orlov, Russia’s Navy handily defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Chesma in 1770. This solidified Russia’s control over the Black Sea and established the country as a significant maritime power.

The Russian Navy would struggle through the nineteenth century, especially during the Napoleonic wars. But in 1827, the Battle of Navarino cemented the country’s naval power while marking the decline of one of their significant opponents—the Ottomans.

In particular, the Baltic Fleet earned substantial acclaim during these early days of Russian naval history.

Meanwhile, during the Crimean War, Admiral Dmitry Senyavin was known to have gotten the best of the British combatants at the Battle of Bomarsund.

But these early victories belied the catastrophic failure Russia’s Navy would soon face…

Downfall in the Russo-Japanese War

Japanese fleet bombard Russian warships with heavy guns during the Russo-Japanese War (Image courtesy of AP)

Russia’s war against Japan marks a central low point not just for Russia’s navy, but its military history overall.

On paper, it seemed like Russia—a much larger and ostensibly much better-armed nation—should’ve been able to steamroll the smaller Japan. Plus, there were racist assumptions at play, as it was assumed that Russia’s European-inspired forces would make short work of their Japanese opponents.

In reality, Japan had one of the best navies in the world. And Russia’s overwhelming manpower and military strength meant nothing if they couldn’t break through Japan’s navy.

With inefficient communications and sailors poorly trained for combat situations, Russia’s navy found its weaknesses by going up against such a vastly superior opponent. In this way, 1905’s Battle of Tsushima delivered a decisive naval victory for the Japanese, largely thanks to superior baseline tactics and coordination.

Through World War I, Russia’s navy remained in disarray–though individual naval units saw some success, like with the capture of the port of Trabazon in 1916. 

The following year, the Russian Revolution would occur, with enlisted men playing a significant role in overthrowing the tsarist regime and leading revolts against the provisional government.

There were naval men on the other side, too, however.

The White Sea Fleet, for example–stationed in Arkhangelsk–became a significant asset for the anti-Bolshevik forces amidst the chaos of the Russian Civil War (1918-1922). British and French naval support, such as the North Russia Campaign, further strengthened the White Army’s position in the region. 

Following the Civil War, the Soviet government focused on consolidating power and rebuilding the country. From this perspective, the navy was not a priority, and its development remained limited during the interwar. 

Nonetheless, notable ships like the cruiser Kirov and the submarine Shch-303 were launched, signaling the beginnings of Soviet naval expansion.

The Role of Russia’s Navy in World War Two

Russian battleships in the Black Sea during World War I. (Image courtesy of David Lauder via Wikipedia)

By World War II, the Russian Navy had officially been dubbed the “Soviet Navy”–or, informally, the “Red Fleet”–and it played a crucial role in the overall Soviet war effort. 

During the brutal Siege of Leningrad, for example–a battle that practically became an atrocity, with losses topping 1.5 million–the Baltic Fleet played a central defensive role. Under constant threat of naval bombardment and German air raids, the fleet worked around the clock to maintain supply lines across Lake Lagoda. Indeed, the Lake was such a vital artery for supplies and relief that it earned the nickname the “Road of Life.”

Then, when icebreakers and supply ships came to the relief of the embattled city, the Baltic Fleet was there to defend them.

The Baltic Fleet even had its “Dunkirk” moment on the Hanko Peninsula in December 1941. With German forces bearing down on them, the fleet evacuated some 23,000 troops and civilians—avoiding a potentially disastrous defeat.

With that said, the Black Sea Fleet faced devastating surprise attacks from German and Romanian forces. But despite the losses, they continued launching operations and counteroffensives.

During the Siege of Sevastopol (1941-1942), the fleet provided vital naval and artillery support to the defenders on land. Augmented by this support, Soviet troops heroically resisted the Germans, delaying their advance in the region, and buying time for reinforcements to arrive.

By 1943, the Black Sea Fleet had successfully retaken the Taman Peninsula, which had been occupied by German forces. This naval landing played a crucial role in pushing back the enemy and securing the region, ultimately leading to the liberation of the entire Crimean Peninsula later in the year.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Northern Fleet, based in the frigid port of Murmansk, served the crucial purpose of escorting supply convoys through the Arctic.

In addition to constant threats from German U-boats, these convoys wrestled with unpredictable seas and extreme weather conditions. The Northern Fleet, however, protected these convoys, assisted damaged vessels, and rescued survivors from the frigid Arctic waters.

The famous Arctic Convoy PQ-17 was one such convoy. While crossing in July 1942, the convoy’s leadership panicked early, ordering the ships to scatter. But the Northern Fleet persisted in its escort role, providing much-needed support and rescuing stranded crews. 

All in all, the performance of the Russian Navy during World War II was marked by resilience, sacrifice, and strategic contributions.

This means that, in the four decades since their embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Japanese, Russia’s Navy had something they could be proud of.

Their committed defense of convoys massively bolstered the war effort, and their multiple fleets were ultimately essential in defeating the Nazi war machine.

Russian Submarines in the Nuclear Age

Russian submarine

Russian Navy Northern Fleet Yasen-class nuclear-powered sub Kazan arrives at its home base in Severomorsk.  (Image courtesy of Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images)

The end of World War II saw the beginning of a new kind of war–and a whole new age–characterized by the Cold War and nuclear arms race.

Within this context, Russia’s nuclear submarine program traces its roots back to the 1950s, when Russian scientists inevitably combined the tremendous power of a nuclear reactor with the unique needs of a military submarine. 

One of the key figures behind Russia’s early nuclear submarine development was Sergei Kovalev—who would design multiple classes of Russian nuclear subs over the years.

Kovalev’s contributions were instrumental in creating efficient and reliable reactor systems and developing cutting-edge sonar and torpedo technologies for the submarines. With unique expertise and innovative designs, he kept the Soviet Navy on the cutting edge of Cold War weaponry.

Kovalev’s first real-world designs would come from the November-class submarines, Project 627. 

These nuclear-powered attack submarines entered service in the early 1960s. At the time, they represented a significant leap in underwater capabilities, combining nuclear propulsion with advanced sonar and torpedo systems. 

The class’s lead ship, the K-3 Leninskiy Komsomol, marked a watershed moment in naval history as the world’s first nuclear-powered attack submarine. Notably, the November class played a crucial role in the Soviet Navy’s strategy during the Cold War, bolstering its submarine fleet’s offensive capabilities.

While the November-class submarines focused on attack capabilities, the subsequent Hotel-class submarines, designated Project 658, were designed for a more strategic role.

Introduced in the early 1960s, these nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were equipped with an arsenal of R-13 ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. The most famous vessel of this class was the K-19, whose tragic history earned it the nickname “Hiroshima” among its crew. Unfortunately, the K-19 infamously suffered a meltdown after multiple mechanical failures, leading to the death of multiple crew members.

All in all, the Hotel-class submarines significantly enhanced the Soviet Union’s second-strike nuclear deterrent, representing a potent threat during the height of the Cold War. At any moment, one of these submarines could quietly unleash a nuclear barrage mere miles from the American coastline.

The subsequent Echo-class submarines (Project 659) were built on the success of their predecessors, becoming the first Soviet nuclear-powered submarines to be equipped with nuclear cruise missiles. 

Like the November-class, these submarines were multipurpose attack submarines, but their cruise missile capability provided a flexible long-range strike option. Equipped with the P-5 “Pyatyorka” cruise missiles, echo-class submarines were capable of delivering nuclear warheads with pinpoint precision over extreme decisions. This new strategic capability further solidified the Soviet Union’s status as a maritime nuclear power.

By the 1980s, Russia’s Hotel-Class SSBNs were showing their age. So the new Typhoon-class submarines, designated Project 941, were introduced. 

These massive ballistic missile submarines were the largest ever built, with a displacement of over 48,000 tons when submerged. Remarkably, the Typhoon-class submarines were armed with twenty R-39 Rif intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads. 

In addition to playing a vital role in the country’s deterrence strategy, these new submarines symbolized the Soviet Union’s inescapable military might. Typhoon-class subs even made Hollywood history by featuring prominently in Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October.

Most recent is the Borei-class (Project 955), which feature advanced technologies, improved stealth, and the capability to carry up to 16 Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Today, these Borei-class submarines are the cornerstone of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence, representing a continued commitment to maintaining a potent underwater nuclear force.

The Modern-day Threat of Russia’s Sea Power

The Russian submarine K-560 Severodvinsk

The Russian submarine K-560 Severodvinsk (Image courtesy of Russian Ministry of Defense)

Despite the gradual decline of Russia’s economy and political capital, the country’s navy—especially its nuclear submarines—remains a powerful and versatile force.

This stands in contrast to the country’s land-based forces, whose shortcomings have been exposed by the War in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was sunk in April of 2022 after taking multiple hits from Neptune anti-ship missiles.

At the same time, the value of traditional naval power is rapidly declining. After all, traditional destroyers have long since traded their massive cannons for missile bays, and aircraft carriers are all but obsolete thanks to advancements in drone warfare. So Russia’s failures on the surface mean less and less–but their commitment to a nuclear-equipped submarine fleet remains as strong as ever.

Hiding beneath the waves for weeks at a time, these submarines silently patrol vast oceans, taking every possible step to avoid detection by the enemy. They are manned by some of the Russian Navy’s best men, all dedicated to a mission they pray they’ll never have to undertake: a full-fledged nuclear retaliation.

Notably, new Borei-class submarines have an estimated range of over 8,000 kilometers, running up to 29 knots. Carrying 16 Bulava SLBMs with up to six multiple independent re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads, each sub holds the potential to decimate ninety-six targets.

The lead ship of this class is the Yuri Dolgorukiy, first commissioned in 2013. Since then, an unknown number of Borei-class subs have entered the water.

But despite their massive nuclear arsenal, SSBNs aren’t the natural predators under the waves. That distinction belongs to the fast attack subs—of which Russia has plenty. Built to hunt enemy SSBNs, attack subs are engineered to disable or destroy their targets before they can unleash their deadly payload.

This category is typified by Yasen-class submarines, designated Project 885, which feature a sleek new single-hull design. Packed with state-of-the-art sensor gear, these subs include active and passive sonar systems ideal for tracking and engaging enemy surface ships and submarines. 

The Severodvinsk, the lead ship of the Yasen-class, was commissioned in 2014, and several more have followed since then.

But despite modernization and significant investments, Russia’s nuclear fleet still faces practical challenges. After all, building and sailing a nuclear submarine requires perfection from everyone involved. And that’s difficult to ensure when wrestling with upkeep costs, training issues, and funding shortages. The 2019 fire aboard AS-31 Losharik is a testament to those challenges—a hard learned lesson, to be sure.

Nevertheless, Russia’s nuclear submarines are nearly always on patrol, frequently focusing on geopolitical areas. For example, Russian subs will often travel near undersea communications cables, leading critics to wonder whether they’re interfering (or planning to interfere) with vital infrastructure.

The Russian navy, for its part, denies these allegations, focusing instead on a new frontier: the Arctic.

After all, as ice caps recede, new opportunities for exploration are appearing—and new natural resources are suddenly within reach. So Russia’s submarines are now being deployed to project power not just in the Atlantic and the Pacific, but also in the Arctic Ocean.

As such, Russia’s nuclear submarines regularly participate in military exercises and conduct demonstrations of power. For example, the Northern Fleet’s Oscar-class submarine, Omsk, launched Kalibr cruise missiles during exercises in the Barents Sea in 2020. These exercises showcase Russia’s naval capabilities and serve as a reminder of its ability to project power globally.

Naturally, this means that NATO is always paying close attention to the Russian navy. Due to the sheer destructive power of Russia’s nuclear-equipped submarines and Russia’s frequent military aggression, these seafaring vessels pose a threat that the West cannot afford to ignore.

Accordingly, NATO has deployed widespread anti-submarine warfare assets and made substantial investments in modernizing naval assets throughout Western-aligned nations. But even then, the Russians may not even be the real threat… 

After all, if Russian submarine technology were to make its way into foreign hands, like the Chinese navy’s, it might provide the opportunity to leapfrog years of costly military development. 

What’s more, if China were suddenly able to build and launch its own fleet of Borei-class ballistic missile submarines, it would multiply the value of its relatively fledgling nuclear arsenal.

Immediate Threat?

Russian Black Sea fleet

Russian Black Sea fleet (Image courtesy of The Times)

That leaves us with the million-dollar question: do Russian submarines pose an immediate threat to you?

Well, yes and no… 

Since nuclear submarines are difficult to detect, they’re also challenging to destroy. Indeed, they’re often closer to the target, but in the event of an all-out nuclear attack (known as an “alpha strike”), logic dictates that the aggressor will be firing everything they’ve got at the target. Avoiding detection by having your missiles arrive a few minutes sooner will be a moot point, so it’s unlikely that SSBNs would participate in an alpha strike.

Instead, these subs shine for their second-strike capability. That’s a euphemism for the retaliatory strike that puts the “mutual” in “mutual assured destruction.” That means, after a military attack, these subs can retaliate by targeting political power centers, major military bases, or population centers.

Regardless of the morbid strategy, a nuclear bomb is a nuclear bomb regardless of its source. Ergo, if you’re ever up close and personal, you won’t care where it came from.

But you will need a respirator with P3 particle protection and a Reactor certification to avoid breathing in the fallout. In this case, we’re recommending the CM-7M gas mask. Optimized for use with rifles, this is typically more of a “tactical” choice due to the dual-eyepiece configuration. But you’re ultimately sacrificing very little in the way of overall visibility. 

Note that the CM-7M is also available in three different sizes, which means you can get a perfect fit for just about every family member. It’s also compatible with the whole universe of MIRA Safety upgrades and accessories, so you can clip on a gas mask microphone or install prescription spectacles in seconds.

For the gas mask filter, we recommend the NBC-77 SOF–MIRA Safety’s number one seller, and for good reason. Rated to protect the user from all known CBRN threats, it’s got a twenty-year shelf life that will outlast just about every other filter on the market. This makes the NBC-77 SOF the ultimate choice for dealing with the unknown.

Finally, we strongly recommend stocking up on potassium iodide pills immediately. It is, after all, one of the most affordable ways to protect yourself and your family. And when anyone needs these tablets, they’ll be long gone.

Remember that, in the aftermath of a nuclear blast or meltdown, large quantities of radioactive Iodine-131 can be ejected into the atmosphere. Indeed, I-131 can travel for miles on the wind before sinking back down to Earth as fallout. 

After that, I-131 can accumulate in your thyroid gland, leading to cancer. 

Potassium Iodide pills work by flushing your thyroid gland with safe iodine. This prevents the absorption of any I-131 for up to twenty-four hours, giving you much-needed time to make it to a safe zone in the aftermath of an attack.

Tip of the Nuclear Spear

The Battle of Tsushima

The Battle of Tsushima (Image courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich)

Following their defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, the Russian Navy was an international laughingstock.

But just over half a century later, in 1957, that same navy would launch the world’s first nuclear submarine, forever changing the calculus of global warfare.

That same Russian navy fought on both sides of the Bolshevik revolution, later weathering the disintegration of the USSR. And they’ve played an active role throughout the country's tenure. From empire to union to nation, the navy has stood fast as a beacon of Russia’s enduring power.

As such, the Russian navy remains a significant threat to the American public, primarily due to its role as an extension of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Yet despite the Russian government’s continued support of maintaining the Cold War-era status of its submarine program, some cracks are beginning to show–namely the Kursk submarine disaster in 2000, which claimed all hands, despite failed rescue attempts.

Ultimately, the mere existence of Russia’s nuclear submarine program has an effect all its own. And the presence of the Russian navy has now become enough to project power throughout the world, keeping Western nations on the lookout.

After all, the threat may be closer than you think…