Why was there a purge of Russian Black Sea fleet commanders?

Russia's Black Sea Fleet

News of the firing of the head of the Baltic fleet and of 50 other officers in Kaliningrad near Lithuania was completely unexpected. Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu said he decided on the sackings while visiting Kaliningrad.

The Russian Ministry of Defence, however, limited itself to a laconic announcement that Vice-admiral Viktor Kravchuk, his staff commander, rear-admiral Sergey Popov, and many other officers had been fired due to “serious violations”. The Baltic fleet’s leadership reportedly did not fulfill its combat-readiness requirements and failed to provide proper living conditions for the members of the fleet.

A similar purge occurred at the beginning of June in the Russian Federal Securtiy Service (FSS), when Vladimir Putin fired FSS Economic Surveillance Service chief Yuriy Jakovlev along with several other officers. Similar purges are nothing new in Russia – but why are they happening?

The wave of firings followed provocations near Lithuania. In the context of international events, the wave of firings in Russia could be down to a number of things. Recently, the Russian Baltic fleet has been acting especially aggressive, and similar behavior has been adopted by other Russian navies in the north and the far-east.

The captain of the USS Mount Whitney, which entered Klaipėda port on Thursday, admitted that there had been contacts in the Baltic sea with Russian naval ships and aircraft, but that they had avoided dangerous incidents.

“During my work in the Baltic sea exercise ‘Baltops 2016,’ we had real contact with Russian surface ships, Russian helicopters and Russian jets,” said Carlos Sardiello, the captain of the USS Mount Whitney. “All I can say is that their behaviour followed international law, they acted professionally and safely and maintained a safe distance throughout their contacts.”

However, US officers had a different story about the Russian naval frigate Jaroslav Mudry. According to US officials, on 17 June, the Russian ship performed dangerous maneuvers near the USS Harry S. Truman carrier group in the Mediterranean. The Russian warship performed turns near the USS Gravely to cut off its path and hinder the aircraft carrier’s operations. On Thursday, the same ship was spotted again in the Mediterranean near another US carrier group.

The Russian Baltic fleet has grown famous for similar provocations. Over the past few years, Russian ships in the Baltic have been behaving very aggressively, entering Lithuania and Latvia’s exclusive economic zones and chasing civilian ships. On several occasions, Sweden and Finland have hunted what they believed to be Russian submarines that had entered their waters.

There were even suspicions that Russian troops might have set foot in Lithuania on the shore of Juodkrantė after being deployed from a submarine. Russian jets have also recently made unsafe passes near US ships and surveillance aircraft in and over the Baltic sea, leading to a range international diplomatic incidents.

Despite all of these incidents, which experts say could not have happened without the approval of Russia’s highest military and political leaders, the leaders of the Baltic fleet were let go. This wave of firings, however, is not due to the fact that the leaders were too aggressive, but because the aggression was nothing more than a harmless bubble.

The under-preparedness of the Russian Baltic fleet has been known for some time.

What’s interesting is that the Russian armed forces, famous for their carelessness and corruption, have long ignored such problems. Falsified reports on the fulfillment of requirements was more like a public secret. Now, however, Russia is threatening to sack officers. Why?

According to Washington-based analytical center Atlantic Council analyst Magnus Nordenman, these actions show that Russia has taken a serious stance on the modernisation and reform of its naval forces.

“Such strict measures and unexpected, unannounced exercises are not just a signal to NATO. They are actually a way to test the preparedness of Russia’s military forces,” said Nordenman.

NATO’s presence in the Baltic sea, which Russia has long considered its own, is increasing. The Kremlin could justify the changes in the Baltic fleet as a necessary part of its response to the Alliance’s actions.

“Russia’s Baltic fleet has always received less attention than others. Perhaps these purges are a sign that everythng will change now,” said Nordenman.

Some sources say that the fleet’s leaders are being replaced because the officers had falsified the document they had been sending back to Moscow.

For example, the fleet reported to Russia’s defence minister that it was operating normally and at the highest level of military preparedness despite the fact that it could not meet many of the requirements that had been set for it.

Indeed, the country’s leaders believe that the Baltic fleet had become something of a laughing stock. Despite the appearance of Russian naval ships in Lithuania and Latvia’s exclusive economic zones, Russian ships have been leaving the Baltic base less often than the Kremlin would have liked.

Viktor Chirkov, who became the leader of the Russian navy this year, has a negative view of the state of the Baltic fleet. The Leonid Soboliov and Sergey Kolbasiov mine-clearing ships failed to find a single mine during their exercises last year, but their reports indicated that their tasks had been completed.

Former Russian navy officers have complained that Lithuanian and Estonian mine-clearing ships were more modern and were more capable at finding and removing mines in the Baltic Sea.

Russia has been put on edge by NATO’s Baltops 2016, in which Alliance ships and aircraft perfected their mine-laying and mine-clearing abilities. In contrast, during one large exercise, a Russian deployment ship broke down while Russian President Vladimir Putin was watching.

The Black Sea fleet, whose ships have been derided as “museum displays,” have recently performed intense combat operations in Syria, transporting troops and materiel, protecting Russian bases in Syria and spying on NATO ships and bases. A Russian flotilla on the Caspian sea even launched Kalibr winged rockets at targets in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Steregushchy, Sobrazitelny, Boikiy and Stoikiy corvettes, among the most modern in the Russian fleet, lack modern rockets and, during the past nine years, have failed to sail out beyond the Baltic, plagued by problems malfunctions blamed on manufacturers’ errors and unsuitable ship maintenance.

However, unexpected Russian military exercises have been a headache for NATO for some time. It was after a similar cycle of exercises in 2014 that Ukraine was invaded.

The leaders of the Baltic fleet tried to hide information about fires that had broken out on their ships. Accidents on submarines as well as corrupt deals on the construction of military facilities were also hidden from Moscow.

Intelligence officers also being squeezed

In tandem, Russian intelligence forces are also being purged. When FSB economic surveillance service chief Yuriy Yakovlev, his influential deputy, and “K” department head Viktor Voronin were fired, experts noted that such a significant shakeup in Russian intelligence had not been seen for a long time.

Under Putin, the FSS has more freedom to act than it did even in the Soviet Union and this organisation pays very close attention to Russian oligarchs. Those who fall out of favour with Putin can be pressured, punished or framed with compromising materials.

For example, on 24 June, a liberally-minded governor named Nikita Belych was arrested in the Kirovsk region. The FSB’s agents were joined by journalists from a Kremlin-controlled TV channel who said that there was undeniable evidence that the governor had received a €400,000 bribe. He was the third governor in six months to get bogged down in a corruption scandal.

The Economist said these arrests were a signal to other oligarchs ahead of the approaching elections this autumn.

It is believed that many more purges will be seen in Russia in the short term, and the purge of the FSB indicates that the Kremlin is seeking pursuing specific goals.

Such public arrests draw attention away from international events like the arrest in Spain of Russian citizens associated with the Kremlin who are suspected of having ties with Columbian drug cartels.

Meanwhile, FSB internal changes remain largely unnoticed, with its highest positions being occupied by aggressive Putin loyalists.

US diplomats have seen the results of the agency’s new approach. As the Washington Post reports, Russian intelligence officers have followed and provoked US diplomats and their family members. A US military attache found a dead dog in his home, and another official found human feces on their carpet.

The new aggression of Russia’s intelligence agents is being linked to a wave of purges that occurred last year, during which Putin appointed Vladislav Menshikov to the FSB’s counter-intelligence service.

Until then, he had led the FSB’s most secretive division – the special operations division, which answers directly to the president. Prior to that, he was the head of the Almaz Antei company, which produces anti-aircraft systems.

It is believed that Putin gave Menshikov great freedom of action and that his only order boded ill: “the spirit of counter-intelligence must be returned”.

What does this advice mean for the already increasingly active Russian FSB? Russia’s oligarchs and the countries in which the organisation operates in– Lithuania included – may soon find out.

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