Surface Forces: Saving Slava


May 30, 2020: Russia has finally completed the refurbishment of one of its oldest large surface warships, the 12,000 ton Moskva. This was the first of the Slava class cruisers and entered service in 1982. Three more were launched and two entered service in 1986 and 1989. The remaining one was launched in 1990 and was nearly complete when work was halted in 1991 because this ship, renamed the Ukrayina (Ukraine) because the shipyard where the work was being done was in the newly independent nation of Ukraine, now belonged to Ukraine. There was no money to complete work on the Ukrayina.

Work on nearly all unfinished Russian Navy warships was halted in the early 1990s because Russia was broke. That, plus nationalism and long-suppressed separatism, was the main reason the Soviet Union disintegrated into 14 new nations, the largest being Russia and the second largest was Ukraine. The dissolution deal had all the new nations taking ownership of any Soviet assets, including military and economic ones, belonging to the new nation the assets were now in.

The Ukrainian Navy initially consisted of nearly 70 former Soviet Black Sea fleet warships. The problem was that most of the officers on these new ships were Russians who did not want to change their nationality. The rest of the Soviet military had the same problem but that was solved by allowing the Russian officers and troops to transfer to Russia, where most of them were demobilized. Most of the former Soviet land, air force and strategic rocket (ICBM) units were disbanded and Russia, with the help of the United States, bought and dismantled the nuclear weapons based in Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus as part of a post-Cold War nuclear disarmament treaty. This agreement led to a sharp reduction in American and former Soviet ICBMs, and nuclear warheads in general. Russia went along with this because they feared Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Belarus would hold on to the nukes as insurance against future Russian aggression. Many people in these three nations favored doing this but Russia signed agreements guaranteeing their safety against any future aggression. Russia violated this treaty in 2014 when it seized Crimea and is still fighting to annex part of eastern Ukraine (Donbas), an effort that was stalled because Ukraine rallied its forces and halted the annexation process. That conflict resulted in heavy economic sanctions by the West. These sanctions will only be lifted if Russia leaves Crimea and Donbas, something Russia has so far refused to do. With the takeover of Crimea Russia took back 54 of the 67 remaining Soviet era Black Sea fleet warships.

The 1997 treaty with Ukraine that settled the Black Sea Fleet problems involved leaving a lot of Russian officers still operating Black Sea Fleet ships. While now classified as Ukrainians, many of these Russian officers and technical specialists still considered themselves Russian and this helped with the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014. The Black Sea fleet ships that were not repossessed by Russia were those in other Ukrainian ports. Crimea had always contained most of the naval bases and shipyards that supported the Black Sea fleet. One of the ships the Russians did not get was the fourth Slava class cruiser, which was still 95 percent and rusting away in a Ukrainian port. Even after 2014 the Russians were willing to buy back the fourth Slava, and complete it. Ukraine was tempted but refused because Ukrainian troops were still fighting, and drying, to hold onto the Donbas. In 2017 Ukraine decided to scrap the Ukrayina because Ukraine never had the money to complete the ship and really didn’t need it because until 2014 they had the largest fleet in the Black Sea. Russia also realized they could not afford to complete the Ukrayina, which had deteriorated greatly since work was abandoned in 1991.

The other three Slavas were worth refurbishing but even that was a financial strain. The Slava (now Moskva) was the flagship of the Black Sea fleet in 1991 but was not in Ukraine at the time and the largely Russian crew declared allegiance to Russia and managed to get away with it. Most of the former Soviet Black Sea fleet ships were unable to do that and became part of the Ukrainian Navy. The Soviets had planned to build ten Slavas and all were to be built in shipyards that were Ukrainian after 1991. Four Slavas were already built or under construction but even before 1991, Russia realized it could not afford to build that many and work on the fifth, unlaunched, Slava was halted in 1990 and the partially completed hull was scrapped.

Although the first Slava was only nine years old in 1991, it already needed refurbishment. Towards the end of the Soviet Union work on new ships declined in quality and the Slava was an example of that. The Slava was scheduled for refurbishment in 1991 in a Russian controlled shipyard but work was stalled because Russia was still broke and the Russian military budget had been cut by over 80 percent. There was not even enough money to operate or maintain a lot of the warships that Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia was in possession of most of those ships because, except for the Black Sea fleet, the other named fleets (Northern in north Russia, Pacific in the Russian Far East, and the Baltic Fleet) were based in ports still a part of Russia. Most of the refurbishment on Slava was completed by 2000 and it was renamed Moskva because the city of Moscow had raised money to complete the work. The Moskva then became the flagship of what was left of the pre-1991 Russian Black Sea fleet. Slava wasn’t the only Soviet Black Sea ship that was not in a Ukrainian port in 1991. Parts of the Black Sea coast were still part of post-1991 Russia and the refurbed Moskva was the most powerful vessel of its  new Black Sea fleet, the smallest fleet in the Russian Navy. The Ukrainian Navy was much larger and that continued to annoy the Russians. The rest of the refurb work that was not completed in 2000 was now to be completed starting in 2016. Once more lack of money delayed work and it was not finished until 2019.

The last Slava to enter service, in 1989, was stationed in the Pacific where it spent most of the 1990s tied up in port because all the budget could afford was a skeleton crew and enough fuel to keep essential equipment in working order. This Slava was returned to service, after some refurbishment, in 2008. The second Slava, which entered service in 1986, completed its refurbishment in 2016. At the moment one Slava is based in the Baltic, one in the Black Sea (with frequent trips to the Mediterranean) and the third in the Pacific.

These 11,500 ton ships look impressive, despite their elderly weapons and electronics. Each carries a crew of 485, two 130mm cannon, sixteen P-500 anti-ship missiles, 64 S-300PMU long-range anti-aircraft missiles, 48 short-range OSA-M anti-aircraft missiles, six 30mm anti-missile autocannon, two launchers for rocket-powered depth charges, ten 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes and a helicopter. The refurbishments were necessary to upgrade engines and other mechanical components, as well as missiles and electronics. This work takes two or three years.

The refurbishment of the larger Kirov class nuclear battlecruisers and non-nuclear aircraft carrier takes longer. These refurbs are expensive and don’t do much to modernize these 1980s era warships. But these ships mainly serve as a symbol of fading Russian naval might. This means a lot for many Russians because for over two decades, from the late 1960s to 1991 Russia was a major naval power. That was never the case before and won’t be again as long as the U.S. and China maintain their fleets.

The Slavas are likely to be refurbed again because their replacements, the Lebed class cruisers, were recently canceled and the larger and older Kirov class battlecruisers are fading fast. So is the tradition of the Russian fleet operating large surface warships.




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