The Ill Fated Moskva

By

Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the IPCS Web Journal available at the following site http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5822 )

At the beginning of Russian combat operations in Ukraine in late February 2022, Kremlin had delivered an ultimatum while massing forces on Ukraine’s borders: either Moscow would be given iron-clad assurances that Ukraine would never join NATO, or it would take military action. In fact, the 2022 war in Ukraine is the culmination of a decade of clashes pitting Ukrainian aspirations against Russian security anxieties. These tensions first broke out into an armed conflict in 2014 in the wake of mass Ukrainian insurgency aided by western artifices that toppled the then “democratically” elected regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russia annexed Crimea and appropriated the naval base at Sevastopol. It also set into motion an insurgency in the east to bring under its fold the ethnically kindred regions of Luhansk and the Donbas.

The situation in the Black Sea during the period preceding the “special military operations” was marked by three significant factors. First, the modernising of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which followed annexation of Crimea and the appropriation of the former main naval base at Sevastopol, it rejuvenated the fleet which had seen neglect, deprivation and distress for three decades post collapse of the USSR. By 2019 the resurgence of the Fleet was apparent when the force capability was designated to meet tasks of “maritime dominance and Sea Control”. Second, Turkey had prohibited transit of belligerent warships through the Straits. And third the challenge of NATO’s eastward expansion.

The Incident

A heavy cruiser of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the ‘Slava’ class missile cruiser,  Moskva, sank at 1852h local time on 14 April 2022 in position 45°10′43.39″N 30°55′30.54″E, about 80 nautical miles south of Odessa and around 50 nm from the Ukrainian coast, after being “seriously damaged.” That is as far as one can establish from reportage thus far of the matter. What caused the sinking, circumstances of the episode, or even the events leading to the catastrophe remain mired in fact-distorting partisan narratives.

Conflicting Accounts

The Russian defence ministry said ammunition on board exploded in an unexplained fire and the Moskva capsized under tow back to its base port at Sevastopol. Ukraine claims it struck the vessel with a salvo of two “Neptun” surface-to-surface missiles while the USA/NATO sources have put out a version to credit the episode to targetting  intelligence  passed on to Ukraine coast defence forces, this has been roundly denied by the Pentagon.

If indeed the Russian variant of events is to be believed then it speaks of either poor maintenance of on board damage prevention systems or of dismal crew competence. This deduction is founded on the norm that a warship puts to sea on a combat mission only if both man and machine are hazard-free; notwithstanding the ship’s “maturity” (Moskva was over 40 years old). Besides, what was the Moskva doing within missile range? If the Ukrainian recital is to be accepted, then why were follow-on salvos not launched, after all the fire control solution was at hand, target had been ‘crippled’ and escorts were in the vicinity? As far as US/NATO targeting data is concerned, this would have had to have been persistent using interoperable data link; at which time the question begs to be asked, why were more Russian warships not targeted?

Operational Situation

The operational situation in the northern Black Sea during the weeks preceding the sinking of the Moskva was as mentioned earlier marked by three factors. First, the modernising of the Russian Black Sea Fleet which followed annexation of Crimea and the appropriation of the former main naval base at Sevastopol, it rejuvenated the fleet which had seen neglect, deprivation and distress for three decades post collapse of the USSR. By 2019 the resurgence of the Fleet was apparent when the force capability was designated to meet tasks of “maritime dominance in the Black Sea, Sea Control and “counter-naval” operations.

Ukraine, on the other hand, anticipating the looming conflict, had resorted to defensive mining of the approaches to their main ports of Odessa, Ochakov, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny with around 420 vintage moored mines. It is reported that stormy sea conditions had set some of these adrift and freewheeled them to the south and western parts of the Black Sea.  By end-March, however, Ukrainian surface forces, coastal defence and naval aviation had been decimated, major ports blockaded and  Russia had established partial Sea Control in the Northern Black Sea.

Second, Turkey had imposed article 19 of the Montreux Convention that prohibits belligerent warships from transit through the straits. From an unsentimental angle, this placed the Straits under Turkish and therefore de-facto NATO control; unless Russia chose to militarily challenge the Convention. In the current situation, the Turkish government finds itself in a ticklish strategic situation, as both Ukraine and Russia are important partners in economic, energy and military agreements. Being a member of NATO, upsetting Russia over the Straits may well suck it into direct conflict if it does not succeed in a balancing act that threatens a teetering order.

Third, the challenge of an enlarging NATO and the consequent shrinkage in influence of the Russian State has been a source of considerable chagrin to the Kremlin. One of Russia’s seething demands has been for NATO to stop expanding eastward as it brought the “line-of-discord” to Russia’s door-step. The current standoff between Russia and NATO has been vitiated by the narrative of Western betrayal of not (debatably) upholding the promises made in 1990. And yet, Ukraine coming in the wake of Chechnya, Armenia and Georgia, there is that unmistakable reminder that Moscow retains a dominion perception of power.

Narrative

              The facts of the incident have not quite emerged; in the circumstance, to stitch together an account based on available media reports is at times contrary and at others, partisan. But as mentioned earlier the fact is, the Moskva capsized under tow and sank. An attempt is now made to fathom the incident based on derivations from available (indisputable) premises.

On 14 April 2022, the Moskva sank 80nm South of Odessa and 50nm East of the Ukrainian coast (see chart 1) and lay on the Odessa Shelf. Soundings in the area are between 50 to 100 metres. Being the flag ship of the Fleet, it may be assumed from the operational situation, that she was the designated Commander of the Russian blockading force deployed north of the line joining Sevastopol and the captured Zmiiniy (Snake) Island . That, the Moskva was operating within 50nm off the Ukrainian coast, would suggest that the Russian Command had either ruled out the threat to the blockading force from Ukrainian cruise missiles or had complete confidence in their ability to suppress enemy surveillance and control systems. It would appear the Russian forces did not, for some reason, even consider the possibility of targeting data coming from any other source. It is equally curious that contradictory media reports continue to emerge of US involvement in targeting despite Pentagon’s denial.

Analysis

Cruise missiles such as the “Neptune” are offshoots of the Russian Kh 35 or what is still in service in the Indian Navy, the “Uran” system. The missile cruises at sub-sonic speeds, but after lock-on target is achieved it may manoeuvre or boost speed. Their tolerance for un-factored target movement at any cognizable speed is limited; therefore the requirement for continuous target data to generate vectors “Along and Across the-line-of-fire”.

Commercial satellites systems may be used for the initial search of shipping, however for tracking and targeting high end military grade precision systems would have to be paired. This is critical to solve the fire control problem and establish any semblance of precision launch. Therefore, the suggestion of an alternate military targeting source.  Although it is known that Ukraine operates the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAV, it is dependent on tactical data link for networking, which theoretically allows for linkage with in-area USN/NATO maritime patrol aircraft and thereafter for targeting by shore based anti-ship missile units.

Whether NATO would have exploited the situation in such direct manner and risked a hot face off with Russia is the moot question. Besides, the Kremlin not having shown any reaction to the possibility of direct US/NATO involvement questions the validity of the proposition. Could the Moskva have challenged such a cooperative encounter, it certainly had the wherewithal and yet it did not. The question arises why not? There is of course the possibility of existence of tacit understanding between Russia and the USA of the limits of engagement.

A Clouded Conclusion

Maritime savvy dictates that in potentially hostile waters the most valuable warship be protected. If the Moskva was the Blockade Commander or indeed deployed to provide command and control, air-defence and anti-surface protection to the force, then it would have had a defensive surveillance and strike screen. Under these conditions it is not at all clear as to how the ship  was attacked and why there was no response? Unless the engagement was orchestrated by US/NATO forces, or the hapless ship ran into a mine or verily succumbed to a catastrophic accident.

Pope Francis’ macro-perspective of the conflict bears an irresistible logic that may provide insight into the fate of the Moskva, he said “We do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was perhaps, somehow either provoked or not prevented”.

Chart 1 The Northern Black Sea Theatre

Deciphering China’s Grand Strategy

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in the authors column “The Strategist” may be accessed at  http://ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5806

Xi’s Declarations

China’s strategic priorities constitute “comprehensive national security,” with regime-security being key and economic-security being the foundation and means to its Grand Strategy. The People’s Daily Online, reviewed Xi’s important declarations made while addressing the Central National Security Committee (CNSC) and the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCCP). Xi’s declarations included the following:

  • Uphold  Party’s Absolute Leadership over national security (17 Apr 2018, CNSC).
  • Improve strategic ability(17 April 2018, CNSC}.
  • Adhere to the organic unity of people’s security, political security, and national interest (18 Oct 2017, CCCP).
  • Play the first move well, play the active battle well, and be prepared to deal with any form of conflict, risk or challenge(18 Jan 2016, CCCP).
  • Take people’s security as the purpose and political security as the foundation, and embark on a national security path (15 Apr 2014, CNSC).

While some of the flavour may have been lost in translation the essence emerges only if we consider political survival of the CCP as key to national and economic security. Implying that the bulk of the population are mere vassals of the state. After-all, less than 6.7% of the population of China are members of the CCP.

What Do These Declarations Mean?

 “Absolute leadership” is a reminder to the world of the CCP’s internal stakes. If any saw in Beijing the possibility of egalitarianism, it must come as a rude awakening. It also brings into focus the reason why “galloping-growth” is an imperative for regime survival.

 “Strategic ability” of a nation is predicated on its people and their talent to generate wealth. People, for large nations, are also the most powerful consumers. When productive-age population shrinks, so do revenues. That has already happened to China since their “one child policy” of 1979. Adding to that Beijing’s policy of predatory economic statecraft and territorial ambitions, have hardly gone down well with the world community. No longer are nations enthused by China’s markets as they worry more about its disturbing intent.

 Examining the linkage between “unity of people’s security” with political security, and national interest; there is a contradiction that no action by the CCP can reconcile. The bond between people and politics is at best a tenuous one, for 6.7% of the population to claim first right of existence is only conceivable in a tyranny. George Orwell put it succinctly, “All tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. “ This is a reminder of the possibility of the state imploding.

“To play the first move well, play the active battle well and prepare to deal with any conflict” are curious exhortations to make to the people. In the game of chess, the best first move is one that seeks the centre of the board in order to control the maximum number of squares. In geo-politics this not only suggests a ready preparedness for conflict, but also advises timing and the skill to “rout the enemy before they form” (Sun Tzu, Art of War). The conquest of Tibet, offensive in Korea, First and Second Taiwan crises, Sino-Indian War of 1962, Sino-Soviet conflict, annexation of the Paracel Islands, China’s disregard of international law and its legally discredited expansionist claims in the South China Sea exemplify just what the “first move” means and what it entails for an adversary.

Grand Strategy Unravelled

Grand strategy refers to a plan of actions by which a nation achieves its major long-term objectives. To understand Beijing’s Grand Strategy, reliance has been placed on a combination of leadership declarations, policies, economic activities and the military means it has embraced.

Since inception in 1949, China’s strategic focus has shifted from revolution-survival-recovery to an emphasis on rejuvenation. Both internal and external factors have shaped this vision. Internally the “century of humiliation” has driven strategies of regime survival and rejuvenation. Externally, tensions with leading democracies of the world over its revisionist and expansionist policies have characterized the on-going rivalry.

Protecting Chinese ‘core interests’ of sovereignty of CCP-led political system and securing its “bloated” territorial integrity have been the source of its legitimacy. China has resolutely resisted any perceived challenges to these interests by aggressively garnering power whether in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet; while threatening control of Taiwan, Ladakh, the South and East China Seas.

Safeguarding China’s overseas interests has increasingly become a part of China’s strategy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi noting there are 30,000 global Chinese businesses and over 100 million Chinese who travel abroad annually, enlarged China’s security ambit providing assurance that ‘China’s armed forces will fulfil their international responsibilities; as  articulated in their 2019 Chinese defence white paper .

Xi’s ‘rejuvenation dream’ includes economic vibrancy, political initiatives, scientific innovation, cultural richness and military versatility; all critical components of the Grand Strategy. Meanwhile, China’s defence budget for 2019 was estimated at $175.4 billion (second to the US) enabling modernization, doctrinal changes and organizational reforms; all towards forging a first rate military.

The enigma of ‘the China-approach’ is that having greatly benefitted from international systems, China has deliberately undermined the very same system by not fully supporting its governing elements; whether WTO, UN, IMF or the World Bank.  

Dangers of Acquiescing

Over the past several years, the resolve to counter dynamics that threaten the status-quo has run into perilous shoals; weakening the idea of an equitable global-order. The world’s sole superpower blundered into strategic gaffes in managing the international environment; whether it was the anarchic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inability to effectively restrain Russia’s Ukraine policy or the financial meltdown of 2008. Worldwide leadership ambivalence has hit credibility of the international order.

The Counter Play

The interests of India and leading democracies of the world converge on many aspects in the Indo-Pacific. At its core lies maritime security. India’s Act East Policy, in addition to economic, cultural and commercial goals, includes strategic interests. The quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD), the Australia-UK-US alliance and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific aim at maintaining prosperity, security, and order in the Indo-Pacific. Though not stated, countering China’s belligerence in the region figures prominently.

The ‘counter-play’ in chess is an offensive move intended to reverse the opponent’s advantage in another part of the board. The Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits provide the space for strategic “counter play”; through these waters over 70% of China’s energy flow and 60% of trade ply. It is China’s “growth-jugular” and it is here that the world’s democracies must develop strategies that potentially signal the ability to stymie Xi’s dream of “rejuvenation.” 

The Quad and AUKUS-Compacts to Collar China

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar.

(Published in the author’s column “The Strategist” in the IPCS web journal. May be accessed at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5797)

Keywords: Pre-First World War Germany, China’s new era of rejuvenation, strategic culture of China’s leadership, Confucian ideology, realpolitik, South China Sea, predatory economics, Belt and Road Initiative, Great Wall, Long March, era of turbulence, AUKUS, Quad, National Defence in a New Era, Covid 19.

An historical analogy may be in order to fully understand the looming conflict between Chinese authoritarianism and the uneasy democracies of the world. In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of militarism, overbearing diplomacy, nationalism and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position, in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in conflict being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event, it was the response to ambitious revisionism and disregard for established norms of international order that led to war.

An observer of contemporary geopolitics will not fail to note the similarity in circumstance of China’s dazzling economic growth, “military muscularity” pivotal to its geopolitical vision, ambitions, nationalism and its realpolitik instincts. The critical assumption of China’s leadership is that their new era of rejuvenation will progress per script through questionable economic deals and coercion. This assumption is flawed for as Michael Howard pointed out in his Lessons of History (pg39) “force is the midwife of (violent) historical processes.” A clash is brewing, unintended as it may be; for nationalism and predatory economics is as much a source of conflict as counterforce and economic rivalry.

The strategic culture of Chinese leadership is driven by two dynamics — Confucian ideology and Realpolitik — the former is legacy of China’s past, the latter draws strength from rigidity of a totalitarian dispensation and its propensity to ‘power-politics’. This presents a dangerous cocktail. Confucian ideology treasures virtue and conservatism; it depends largely on the sagacity of the autocrat to speak for society. However, for an unrepresentative nationalistic state, Realpolitik places power and the threat of its use central to international relations. Beijing’s grandiose territorial claims coupled with leadership’s strategic culture provide both incentive and contrivance for conflict.

China’s economic policies are predatory, a key reason is opacity of dealings, for the Communist Party is opposed to any inconvenient transparency that might compel standardising products and divulging processes. The Belt and Road Initiative, which was supposed to deliver billions of dollars in infrastructure financing to some countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, has now turned into a massive debt trap.

To interpret China’s international and domestic behaviour one needs to look over the “Great Wall” and beyond the “Long March.” The former, was conceived to hold back Northern raiders, yet its completion over 1800 years comes at a time when invaders rule within; while the “Long March” was a bloody retreat in a civil war that underscored great human loss and ruthless control. Both events were inward “racking” and do not provide advocacy for use of power in the strategic environment of today. No surprises, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), readily resorts to strong-arming when it perceives an opening window of vulnerability or a closing window of opportunity in potential victims.

The Long March (Chinese posters.net)

China’s geopolitical aims are not secret. Xi, wants to consolidate China’s control over important lands and waterways that the “century of humiliation,” ostensibly, wrested from its influence. These areas include Hong Kong, Taiwan, chunks of Indian Territory, and some 80 per cent of the East and South China Seas (SCS). Contradictions erupt when use of force is tempered by tenets of Confucian thought; so the Korean War ends in a caustic stalemate, the 1962 conflict with India meanders to an unsettled impasse, the purpose and outcome of the Vietnam war of 1979 is clouded, the frenetic creation of artificial islands for military bases in the South China Sea tramples on established international norms and the recent skirmishes in Ladakh remain a continuum of the impasse. We stand, perilously, on the cusp of an era of turbulence.

On cue, in response to China’s aggressive manoeuvres; the recent announcement of the formation of a new trilateral alliance between Australia, UK and the US (AUKUS) and the continuing strategic security dialogue between Japan, Australia, India and the US (Quad) have made it amply clear that “countering China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific” is number one priority, and the two will do whatever it takes to succeed.  Ironically, Beijing’s recent White Paper titled “National Defence in a New Era” outlined its territorial ambitions in the South and East China Seas, Yellow Sea, Taiwan and Ladakh and warned regional powers of its willingness to use force and use it first if its ambitions are threatened.

The more palpable part of the ‘AUKUS’ is the transfer of 8 Nuclear-powered submarines (SSN); clearly, the SSNs will not be available to Australia for the next decade and a half, however they provides the basis for denial operations in these waters and gives access to a host of futuristic capabilities. AUKUS’s technology-sharing mission is complemented by the Quad presenting a new security architecture that combines both military and economic prowess amongst nations that share a vision of a free and rule-based Indo-Pacific. The resolve to strategic confrontation against revisionism in the Indo-Pacific is thus emphasised. Balance of power adherents, with justification, consider a visible demonstration of collective power as the only way to dampen Beijing’s aggressive expansionism.

That these initiatives have made China “edgy” is clear from their immediate declarations: “China will certainly punish Australia with no mercy” and Australian troops are most likely to be the first batch of soldiers to waste their lives in the SCS. President Xi Jinping avowed in July that those who get in the way of China’s ascent will have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel”.

Nations have become less enthused by China’s market and more worried about its disturbing intent. Fearing forced unification, Taiwan is tightening its ties to the U.S.; Japan, is engaged in its largest military build-up since the Cold War; India is readying strike forces along China’s borders, developing strategies to occlude vital sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and has engaged partnerships that threaten China’s vulnerabilities; Australia is opening up its northern coast to U.S. forces and is readying for acquisition of long-range missiles and SSNs. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom are sending warships into the Indo-Pacific to assert their rights.

 In the meantime China’s dubious role in the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has left it beleaguered.  

We began with a pre-First World War analogy of Germany. However, one may surmise that given the nuclear overhang, the rise of China with its burden of a ‘century-of-humiliation’ will demand a strategy tempered by tolerance and accommodation rather than principles of the past. But the other truth is, the fear of war, to authoritarian regimes such as China co-exists with belligerence and exalted nationalistic feelings that, while advancing concern of survival of dispensation, also boosts profitable involvement in the incessant preparedness for war. Herein lies the striking resemblance of China with pre-First World War Germany. And herein also lies the necessity to collar China through unified action that threatens regime survival by challenging its bellicosity in the Indo-Pacific.