Marshal Ustinov, SLAVA Class cruiser, seen leaving the Mediterranean on August 24 2022. Photo Michael J Sanchez
Russia Forced To Reduce Navy In Mediterranean As Ukraine War Drags On
One of Russia’s two SLAVA class cruisers deployed to the Mediterranean has left the sea. The Marshal Ustinov was seen sailing out through the Straits of Gibraltar today, and was photographed by Michael J Sanchez.
Open source analysis shows her refueling astern yesterday, from the tanker Vyazma. Trailing them is the UDALOY class destroyer, Vice-Admiral Kulakov.
This may be a sign that the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean, beefed up to support the invasion of Ukraine, are being forced to withdraw key assets.
Build Up During Tensions
The force in the Mediterranean was massively increased in the lead up to the invasion, to have heavy hitters in place during the initial period of war (IPW). Two SLAVA class cruisers and related escorts were concentrated there. Marshal Ustinov from the Northern Fleet and Varyag from the Pacific.
These forces are understood to act as an outer defense for the invasion, contributing to deterring direct NATO involvement. They are based at Tartus in Syria, Russia’s overseas base.
The Northern Fleet based Marshal Ustinov has been extensively upgraded in comparison to the Black Sea based Moskva. A major overhaul in 2012-17 didn’t just refurbish machinery, it upgraded the weapons. So it should, on paper, be better able to defend itself better than Moskva was.
Russia's Problem Of Sustained Deployment
However the ship has been deployed to the Mediterranean for over 6 months, entering the Med on February 7. This means that crew and system readiness is likely suffering.
The Russian navy does not have meaningful maintenance facilities in the Med. We can speculate that crew fatigue from longer periods of heightened readiness may be a factor. It is also possible that some of the crew are conscripts and may now be approaching (or past!) the end of their expected 1 year service.
There are limited support facilities at Tartus and the warships and submarines will need start needing significant maintenance. Before the war, shipyards in Cyprus were a possible solution to some needs, but those gates are now closed.
As a sign of this the warships and submarines have been observed spending more time in Tartus. In classic Soviet manner, they still contribute to the deterrent because they could sail at any time. But casual parallels to the Italian ‘fleet in being’ of World War Two are easy to make.
Are they so much in port because it’s more efficient, or because they are worried about breaking down? We do not know with open sources. But it was only a matter of time before they need to rotate the forces. And they generally don’t have many ships to take Ustinov’s place. Varyag, who has been deployed even longer, may be next, leaving forces there closer to pre-war levels.
Russian Navy ship ands submarine movements in and out of the Mediterranean will continue to be on the watchlist. Frederik Van Lokeren keeps a tracker, worth following.
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