Saturday, May 6, 2017

Parade Interrupted

Diesel submarine Kolpino moored on Neva River (May 3, 2017)
[credit: Sergey Kharitonov]

What should have been a traditional event marking Victory Day in St. Petersburg has ended in a mystery. Every ship that had already arrived in St. Petersburg has suddenly left, and those that were on their way have reversed course.

Patrol combatant Serpukhov underway near Kronshtadt (May 5, 2017)
[credit: Aleksey Akentyev]

In previous years, residents of St. Petersburg could walk along the Neva River on Victory Day and Navy Day and see several ships and even a submarine anchored on the river or moored at quays or floating piers on both sides of the river. And that's how this year's Victory Day preparations began on May 2 with the arrival of a new diesel submarine (Kolpino) and two light frigates (Urengoy and Zelenodolsk). On May 3, they were joined by two mine warfare ships (Aleksandr Obukhov and RT-57). On May 5, three Baltiysk-based warships (Liven, Morshansk, and Serpukhov) arrived in the St. Petersburg area and were expected to take their places on the Neva River over the next few hours.

But that's when the mystery began. Minutes after arriving near Northern Shipyard, all three warships reversed course and headed to Kronshtadt. The fleet commander's launch (Burevestnik), which was moored at a Neva River quay, also left port en route to Kronshtadt.

Today, all the remaining naval ships departed St. Petersburg heading to Kronshtadt. And Liven, Morshansk, and Serpukhov, which never got the chance to moor on the Neva River, departed Kronshtadt heading back to sea, presumably to Baltiysk.

As defense officials have provided no explanation as to the sudden departure of all scheduled Victory Day participants, everyone is left scratching their heads.

Weather forecast for St. Petersburg, May 7-9

One popular theory is that the weather in the St. Petersburg will be extremely poor over the next few days. Yes, it will be rainy or overcast most of the time. And the winds will kick up to 7 meters per second (15.7 miles per hour or 13.6 knots) on May 8. But is that too high for ships to be moored on the Neva River?

Another theory is that the Baltic Fleet may be subjected to a surprise inspection in the next few days, and the ships are returning to their respective bases to prepare.

Of course, it's not a surprise if you already know about it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Expansion of RF Navy Logistics Facility in Tartus

Tartus, Syria (October 25, 2014)
(credit: Google Earth)

On October 10 of last year, RF Deputy Minister of Defense Nikolay Pankov stated that documents had been prepared for establishing a "naval base, on a permanent basis, in Tartus." On December 23, RF President Putin signed Directive 424-rp, ordering the Ministry of Defense to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in coordinating and signing an agreement with Syria on expanding the existing RF naval logistics support facility in Tartus. That agreement, which was signed in Damascus on January 18, allows Russia to expand the facility and remain there until at least 2066. But missing from Putin's directive and the final agreement is the term "naval base."

"The Agreement between the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic on Expansion of the Territory of the Russian Federation Navy Logistics Support Facility in the Port of Tartus and Entry of Russian Federation Military Ships into the Territorial Sea, Internal Waters and Ports of the Syrian Arab Republic" has several interesting provisions:
  • Article 2 states that Syria concurs with Russia with regards to the "development and modernization of [the facility's] infrastructure for conducting repairs, resupply, and crew rest."
  • Article 5 permits "the simultaneous presence of 11 ships, including ships with nuclear power plants, at the facility."
  • Article 6 covers the port entry/departure notification process. At least 12 hours notice is required for ships to enter Tartus; if operationally necessary, 6 hours notice is authorized. For departures, 3 hours notice (1 hour if operationally necessary) is required.
  • Article 7 specifies some of the work RF can undertake (using its own funds) at the facility: capital repairs; installation of floating piers; dredging work; the catch-all "placement of necessary equipment to support the operations of RF military ships within the territory and water space of the logistics support facility"; use of required communications resources; conducting underwater work and permitting divers to dive from RF military ships.
  • Article 16 states that contents of annexes to this agreement may not be shared with a third party without prior written concurrence. Additionally, both sides "will refrain from official publication of annexes to this Agreement."
  • Article 17 indicates that if Syria requests, RF may (a) provide "maritime surface and underwater, airborne, and weather status reports for the Mediterranean Sea"; (b) "provide hydrographic support in the territorial sea, internal waters and ports of the Syrian Arab Republic"; (c) "provide support in organizing and conducting anti-swimmer support in the water space of the port of Tartus"; (d) "provide support in organizing and conducting search and rescue support in the territorial sea and internal waters of the Syrian Arab Republic"; (e) "provide support in organizing and conducting air defense of the port of Tartus"; (f) send RF representatives to provide support in restoring the technical readiness of Syria's military ships.
  • Article 25 specifies that this agreement is valid for 49 years and will automatically extend for 25-year periods unless one of the parties - within one year of the agreement's expiration - informs the other party of its intention to withdraw from the agreement.

As any annexes to the agreement will remain confidential (Article 16), it is difficult to fully assess the extent to which the facility will be expanded. For example, the specifics of infrastructure upgrades supporting ship repairs (Article 2) are not stated, but could include a number of options, such as the basing of a floating dry dock at the facility. Such a move would require additional waterfront space and/or upgrades to the existing territory.

But why there is no mention of a naval base in the agreement?

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta reporter Vladimir Mukhin, Iran has expressed concerns about the increased role of Russia in the Middle East, Russia and Turkey teaming up to settle the Syrian conflict, and Russia's intent to work with the U.S. and other countries as part of a coalition. Reading between the lines, Iran's concerns could have led to a change in the wording of the agreement - from the establishment of a naval base to a simpler, friendlier expansion of the existing logistics support facility.