ABOARD THE CARRIER ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA — Relations between the United States and Russia have seen a number of ups and downs since Russian President Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000. Both sides have their lists of grievances, and at various points have contributed in some way to the sorry state of their relationship.
But Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea from neighboring Ukraine was the decisive moment, sparking five years of consistent tension between Moscow and the West. Since then, the Kremlin has gone all-in on projecting an image of new strength — and part of that has been a rebirth of Russian naval activity across the board.
On April 23, Defense News landed aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in the Mediterranean Sea for an exclusive interview with Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman. The two shared their views on Russia’s resurgent Navy, and how the two individuals coordinate military and diplomatic messaging.
Huntsman’s visit to the Lincoln did not go unnoticed by Moscow. In a U.S. Navy release, he was quoted as saying American aircraft carriers represent “100,000 tons of international diplomacy.” This comment drew flak from the Russian Foreign Ministry and the state media apparatus.
The Russian Navy is modernizing, but we’ve seen a few setbacks in recent years — among them the cutting off of engine turbine deliveries from Ukraine, which has put a lot of Russian surface fleet projects on hold. In terms of great power competition with Russia, from your perspective on the water, what are you most concerned about?
Adm. James Foggo: The Russian Navy has definitely modernized. They have put some of their capital into faster, leaner, more agile and smaller warships — the Admiral Grigorovich- and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates, as well as the Steregushchy-class corvettes. Gorshkov is out participating in China’s fleet review this week. Russia is working on problems with their aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and they have never stopped putting money into the undersea domain, and their submarine force is very capable.
So to tell you the truth, I respect the Russian Navy for the capability that they have, but nothing comes close to this: a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, two at the same time in the Med. We are not here to do anything but deter and defend, and while we are at it, we have seen an increased presence of Russian naval forces in the Med, particularly in the eastern Med, and the USS Abraham Lincoln will experience that while they are here. And I would expect nothing short of professional conduct from both navies.
About two years ago, the Kremlin sent the Admiral Kuznetsov with a battlegroup that included the battlecruiser Peter the Great through the English Channel, into the Med and onto Syria. It was, in a way, Putin’s Great White Fleet moment. Russians were shown on television that Russia was again a great naval power, deploying an American-style carrier strike group. What did you see?
Foggo: The Russians want what we have right here on the deck of this ship, they want a powerful carrier strike group. What I saw with Kuznetsov: She was ordered in 1981 — the year I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy — so we are talking 38 years ago. She’s a [very short-takeoff-and-landing] carrier. She does not have the incredible capability of the steam catapult like the Lincoln, and nobody has anything like electromagnetic-assisted launch that is on the brand-new Ford-class carriers. So when you do an apples-to-apples comparison, there is no comparison.
The Russians wanted to prove with that deployment that they could get underway for a long period of time, and they did that. But as they came around [northern Europe and the English Channel] they were blowing some pretty nasty black smoke, so I think the engineering system on that ship is in dire need of upgrade. And today you saw cycling air operations — launching and recovering aircraft. We do that 24/7, including at night. These guys in the Lincoln air wing are proficient, same with the [carrier John C.] Stennis.
The Russians didn’t do that with Kuznetsov. They basically drove the air wing down to Syria and offloaded them, so it was more like a fly-on/fly-off type of ship. So there is no comparison, and I am very happy the U.S. Navy has got two of these fantastic carriers in the Med right now to send a very strong message to all of our adversaries, and also to our friends.
Last year you spoke at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, where you addressed the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. You said it was not a situation in which the U.S. could perform a freedom of navigation operation in support of Ukraine. After those remarks, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels attempting to transit the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. Did that change your views? What can the U.S. do in the region to assist Ukraine in any future clash there?
Foggo: I was disappointed with the Russian reaction to the Ukrainian Navy’s attempt to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov. Three ships have been impounded, 24 sailors are being treated inappropriately in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. They’re being treated like common criminals, but they are uniformed members of a military force, so they are guaranteed some proper respect and treatment under the Geneva Conventions. So that is point one.
Point two: The body of water that we are talking about, the Sea of Azov, if I am not mistaken, is governed by a memorandum of agreement between Ukraine and Russia from about 2003. Now, things changed when Russia illegally invaded Crimea in 2014, but that agreement still stands. And the two signatories of that agreement are supposed to control standards of behavior on the maritime domain, and in the air in and around the Sea of Azov. So this is not a place I would consider international waters where I would sail a NATO warship.
However, we have a big presence in the Black Sea and have always had one. Between NATO and the U.S. Navy, we are running about 260 days of presence in the Black Sea. The USS Ross is there right now, and she is conducting a port visit in Batumi, Georgia — I was just there myself and participated in the NATO-Georgia exercise. We do the Breeze and Sea Breeze exercises with the Romanians, the Bulgarians and the Ukrainians.
I think it is time to kind of pause and see what happens now as a result of the recent presidential elections in Ukraine. Since things like the memorandum of understanding from 2003 exist for the Sea of Azov, let’s see how the new president forms a government and gets back to the negotiation table with Russia on matters of importance.
What knowledge and insights have you gained about Russia over your past two years as ambassador to Moscow that you can bring to Adm. Foggo and his staff that they might not have otherwise known?
Ambassador Jon Huntsman: Well, there’s nothing quite like being on the ground and working across the negotiating table on a day-to-day basis, whether its things like North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, the multitude of issues where we are trying to find collaboration with Russia — but also the issues where we have huge disagreements. In Moscow, we are able to pick up perceptions that are possible to get anywhere else: how the system works internally and what the trends are likely to be going forward, because they are obviously going to impact the strategic dynamic in a broader context.
So this [Huntsman’s visit to the Lincoln and meetings with Foggo] is a pretty good example of the integration you seek between diplomats and our men and women in uniform. And it is good that we are doing it more and more, this is always something you aspire to. So we have been consulting with each other on a pretty regular basis — with [U.S. European Command] and now [U.S. Naval Forces Europe] — and it makes each side a little better and stronger.
How does working with the Navy help you in your diplomatic role in Moscow? What knowledge does the service bring that you do not have?
Huntsman: They can help us understand the strategic overlay, how all the component parts are moving, what you are able to identify, interpret and analyze from outside Russia. All of this allows us to get a better sense of where Russia chooses to deploy its resources, how it strategically sees the region, where they see their priorities versus areas that are less of a priority — and, quite frankly, it allows us to see how they respond to some of our deployments. So this is all very helpful for us, for me as chief of mission. This is why chiefs of mission come out here and do this kind of thing, particularly when you are from Russia because a lot of what we are doing here is being watched and analyzed. We are watching and analyzing, too, and it is best if we do it together with our colleagues in uniform.
How do you, as ambassador to Russia, ensure Moscow doesn’t see the dual-carrier operation about to start here in the Med as nefarious?
Huntsman: This is what countries do, they exercise. Russia does their exercises, too. It is better when countries are transparent about what they are doing. We are very proud of the 70-year history of NATO, probably the most important collective security organization that has ever existed. And in order to maintain it, to keep it fully lubricated and operational, you’ve got to get out and do this kind of thing.
As you see just right next to us, we have a Spanish ship, and others will participate along the way. This is to be expected, this kind of collaboration. It sends a very important message of deterrence, which is part of our overall strategy in the region, but it also reassures our NATO partners that we are all in this together, that we share common values and a common view of geography. And that can only be achieved when you are out here doing this kind of thing.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.