Russia's Submarine Strategy—How Putin Plans to Rule Beneath the Waves

  • NATO members are raising alarm over Russia's underwater capabilities.
  • Russia is ramping up production of submarines that can reach critical targets in Europe and the U.S.
  • In one respect, Russia's current submarine activity is as dangerous as it was in the Cold War, one expert has told Newsweek.
  • So, just how much of a threat does Vladimir Putin's submarine fleet pose?

As war rages in Ukraine, both on land and in the air, alarm is growing over a Russian threat that is far less visible—but may be far more dangerous to the West.

Over the past several years, Moscow has been producing a series of submarines that have the capability to reach the most critical targets in the U.S. or continental Europe, and now NATO members are increasingly sounding the alarm over the activities of Vladimir Putin's submarine fleet.

The Russian Navy commands one of the most diverse submarine fleets in the world. Some are capable of carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, which Moscow considers key to its strategic deterrent.

Russian Submarines Illustration
A Newsweek illustration of Russian submarines at the Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus. Getty/Newsweek

Experts also say that, in the unlikely case of war, Russia's fleet will be used as one of the tools in the country's escalation management toolkit. In other words, the threat from Moscow's submarines armed with conventional weapons will allow it to deter Western adversaries from bringing their advantages in other areas into play.

Russia has been working to improve its submarine fleet since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin said in December that the country would be building more nuclear-powered submarines, "which will ensure Russia's security for decades to come."

Last week, Alexei Rakhmanov, the head of Saint Petersburg-based United Shipbuilding Corporation, said the Russian Navy will be replenished with two new nuclear-powered submarines by the end of the year.

The Threat to Underwater Cables

There are growing fears among NATO members that Putin could use his fleet to target underwater cables and critical infrastructure that are vital to global communication systems.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on January 20 he wanted his country to "acquire a capacity to control the seabed" to depths of 19,600 feet, to protect "critical underwater infrastructure."

Russia sees its economic future, its national security, and its ability to influence other nations as linked to its strength at sea, according to the Russia Maritime Studies Institute (RMSI), which conducts research on Russian military and economic issues linked to the world's oceans.

Michael Peterson, RMSI director, told Newsweek that potential attacks to underwater critical infrastructure around the world present a "legitimate and serious threat."

"Russia for at least a decade has been developing very significant seabed warfare capabilities. Most of those are resident in what's called GUGI, that is Russia's Main Directorate of Deep-Sea Research," he said.

Peterson said that the organization reports to Russia's defense ministry and draws on Russian naval personnel to deploy with its ships and submarines.

"Those people who are drawn out of the Russian Navy are the cream of the crop, the absolute best sailors that the Russian Navy has. And that's because the mission is so dangerous and so complex and so critical to Russian security," Peterson said.

The organization has a number of assets at its disposal, including a submarine called Belgorod that is capable of launching a nuclear-powered torpedo.

"A number of other submarines are capable of either placing listening devices or explosives on things like deep sea cables. If there are ways to tap into information in those cables they are capable of doing that, if they want to, they can place sensors on the ocean floor," Peterson said.

"There are all kinds of capabilities that this directorate has that allow it to either conduct espionage, conduct escalation management activities, or to simply fight a war and impose costs on the adversary."

"You can imagine what would happen if transatlantic internet cables were cut by the Russians—that would have enormous financial implications and would also deeply restrict communications between the United States and continental Europe. Those capabilities are pretty significant," Peterson added.

NATO Weakness

Last year, Admiral Tony Radakin, the head of the U.K.'s armed forces, told The Times of London that undersea cables that transmit internet data are "the world's real information system" and it could be considered an "act of war" should Russia attempt to damage them.

"This is a relatively new activity," said Peterson. "This is one of those areas in which Russia thinks it has an advantage."

Undersea cables, especially undersea fiber optic cables, are critical pieces of fixed infrastructure that are extremely difficult to defend, he explained.

"Because they have the capability to conduct advanced deep-sea warfare, this is an asymmetric advantage for Russia."

Russia is always seeking to "exploit asymmetries," he said. "If you have a piece of fixed infrastructure that is very difficult to defend, that Russia has the capability of attacking, then they will go after it.

"That's why this has become a really important piece of potential real estate in a future conflict between Russia and NATO. This is a way for Russia to impose costs in an asymmetric way. And that is very difficult for NATO to defend.

"That is a fundamental part of Russian warfighting, it's this ability to impose cost on their adversary in order to undercut the political will to fight."

 Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline
In this photo provided by Swedish Coast Guard, the release of gas emanating from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the Baltic Sea on September 28, 2022. A fourth leak was detected in the undersea gas pipelines linking Russia to Europe, after explosions were reported in suspected sabotage. Swedish Coast Guard/Getty Images

Njord Wegge, a professor at the Norwegian Defense University College, and co-author of "The Russian Arctic Threat," a report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Newsweek that Norway has significantly ramped up patrols in the North Sea.

"The very significant sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea was spectacular," Wegge said. "Russia has stopped all their deliveries to Europe, more or less. Norway is by far the biggest exporter of gas, at least. So, of course, in case of a conflict, those underwater installations would be vulnerable."

"This is reflected in the way in which the Norwegian Home Guard, for example, is protecting them," he added.

"We have had NATO vessels, for example, from the U.K., patrolling in the North Sea. It seems to have been put higher on the awareness scale that we have to protect these installations."

NATO-Russia Conflict

Putin has repeatedly accused NATO of directly participating in his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which he launched on February 24, 2022. With those threats come renewed fears that the military alliance could be dragged into the conflict.

According to Peterson, any improbable but potential war by Russia against NATO is likely to focus in on ground warfare.

"However, Russian strategy makes a great deal of room for conflict in the air and maritime domains, and that is where I think that Russia hopes to impose the most strategic cost against any potential adversary."

Russia's intent, based on its strategic writings, is to impose costs using air assets and naval assets against fixed critical infrastructure, Peterson said, noting that the ongoing war in Ukraine is a good indicator of what the world is likely to see in a conflict against NATO.

"The Ukraine war has shown us that despite some weaknesses, there is certainly the capability to do so," he explained. "They are using long-range precision strike assets from the air force and from the navy, to destroy power generation plants, and so forth."

"The Ukraine war has validated the navy's ability to fill an important part of Russian war-fighting strategy, and it has indicated that the navy is a pretty capable force, despite the loss of of certain ships.

"So that from from the perspective of a strategic campaign against critical infrastructure, the navy is effective, and can be so over the long term."

According to Peterson, Russia's current submarine activity is as dangerous as Cold War levels in terms of sheer volume.

"We have indications that nuclear powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along Europe periphery, in ways that mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War."

Newsweek has contacted Russia's Defense Ministry for comment.