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The Soviet Navy (Russian: Военно-морской флот СССР, Voyenno-morskoy flot SSSR, literally "Naval military forces of the USSR") was the naval arm of the Soviet armed forces. Often referred to as the Red Fleet, the Soviet Navy would have been instrumental in any perceived Warsaw Pact role in an all-out war with NATO when it would have to stop the naval convoys bringing reinforcements over the Atlantic to the Western European theatre. Such a conflict never occurred, but the Soviet Navy still saw considerable action during the Cold War. The Soviet Navy was divided into several major fleets Northern Fleet, the Pacific Ocean Fleet, the Black Sea Fleet, and the Baltic Fleet . The Caspian Flotilla was a semi-independent formation administratively under the Black Sea Fleet command while the Soviet Indian Ocean Squadron drew its units from and was under the jurisdiction of the Pacific Ocean Fleet. Other components included the Naval Aviation, Naval Infantry (their equivalent of marines) and coastal artillery. The Soviet Navy was reformed into the Russian Navy after the end of the Cold War in 1991.
See the separate article on the Imperial Russian Navy for more information prior to 1917.
Russians have not had a strong maritime tradition, at least in the same sense that other European powers such as the British and French enjoyed. Largely due to geography, Russia simply did not have the same amount of access to the high seas, and what access the nation did have was often constrained by seasonal ice. In addition, Russia's vast size and central placement on Eurasia allowed overland trade routes to many neighbors, thus negating the necessity of a navy to protect seaborne trade.
The Soviet Navy was formed in 1917 out of the ashes of the Imperial Russian Navy. Many vessels continued to serve after the October Revolution, albeit under different names. In fact, the first ship of the Soviet Navy could be considered to be the rebellious Imperial Russian cruiser Aurora, whose crew joined the bolsheviks. A previous bolshevik uprising in the fleet had occurred in 1905 involving Potemkin, an Imperial Russian battleship.
The Soviet Navy, then referred to as the "Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet" (Russian: Рабоче-Крестьянский Красный флот, Raboche-Krest'yansky Krasny Flot or RKKF) existed in a dilapidated state during the interwar years, possessing a few obsolescent battleships but no aircraft carriers. As the country's attentions were largely directed internally, the Navy did not see much in the way of funding or training. A telling indicator of the perceived threat of the Navy was that the Soviets were not invited to participate in the Washington Naval Treaty, which served to cap size and capabilities of the most powerful navies.
The Great Patriotic War
The Winter War (which was largely an extension of the Great Patriotic War) in 1939 saw some minor action on the Baltic Sea, mainly artillery duels between Finnish forts and Soviet cruisers and battleships.
When Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Soviets began to realize that a Navy was more important, after all. Much of the Soviet Navy during World War II was comprised of ex-U.S. Navy Lend-Lease destroyers. They were critical in defending convoys from Kriegsmarine U-boats. Unfortunately for the Soviets, much of their fleet on the Baltic Sea was blocked in Leningrad and Kronstadt by Finnish and German minefields during 1941–1944 and heavily maimed by mines and air attacks. Some units survived on the Black Sea, defending Sevastopol against siege.
After the war, the Soviets concluded that they must be able to compete with the West at all costs. They embarked upon a program to match the West, if not qualitatively, then at least quantitatively. Soviet shipbuilding kept yards busy constructing submarines based upon World War II Kriegsmarine designs, and were launched with great frequency in the immediate post-war years. Afterwards, through a combination of indigenous research and technology "borrowed" from Nazi Germany and the Western nations, the Soviets gradually improved their submarine designs, though always staying a generation behind NATO countries, primarily in noise dampening and sonar technology.
The Soviets were quick to equip their surface fleet with missiles of various sorts. In fact, it became a hallmark of Soviet design to place gigantic missiles onto relatively small vessels - and fast missile boats - where, in the West, such a move would never have been considered tactically feasible. Nevertheless the Soviet Navy also possessed several very large guided missile cruisers with awesome firepower, such as those of the Kirov class and the Slava class cruisers.
In 1968 and 1969 the Soviet helicopter carriers Moskva and Leningrad appeared, followed by the first of four aircraft carriers of the Kiev class in 1973. The Soviets attempted to compete with large American supercarriers by constructing Project OREL , but this was cancelled on the drawing board due to changing priorities. In the 1980s the Soviet Navy acquired its first true aircraft carrier, Tbilisi (subsequently renamed Admiral Kuznetsov). In another sign of the Soviet Navy's desire to be unique, the Kiev class and Admiral Kuznetsov carriers possessed their own offensive missile component in addition to the organic air arm. In the latter half of the 1980s, the Soviets attempted yet again to construct a supercarrier, Ulyanovsk, and the vessel was mostly completed, when the end of the Cold War forced the vessel to be scrapped.
Despite these efforts, the Soviet Navy was still short of a large aircraft carrier fleet, as the U.S. Navy possessed, therefore the Soviet Navy was unique in deploying large numbers of strategic bombers in a maritime role by the Aviatsiya Voenno-Morskogo Flota (AV-MF, or Naval Aviation). Strategic bombers such as the Tupolev Tu-16 'Badger' and Tu-22M 'Backfire' were deployed with high-speed anti-shipping missiles. The primary role of these aircraft were to intercept NATO supply convoys traveling the sea lines of communication, acting as part of Operation REFORGER, en route to Europe from North America.
The large Soviet attack submarine force was geared towards the same role, but also targeted American aircraft carrier battle groups. In addition, the Soviets possessed numerous purpose-built guided missile submarines, such as the Oscar class, as well as multitudes of ballistic missile submarines, including the largest submarines in the world, the Typhoon class.
The Soviets encountered issues with safety, particularly with nuclear-powered vessels. They suffered several incidents with nuclear-powered submarines during the course of the Cold War. This included famous examples such as the K-219, and Komsomolets, which were lost to fire, or more ominous examples such as K-19, which leaked radiation, resulting in the death of several crewmembers. Inadequate Soviet nuclear safety and damage control techniques were typically to blame. The Soviets often blamed collision with U.S. submarines, the assertation of which may hold some truth. This may not be known for some time, as the U.S. Navy has a policy of speaking about accidents unless they result in deaths or involve a nuclear incident.
Nevertheless, in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy was still operating many of their first-generation missile submarines. The reason for this was that Soviet submarines were less precise in missile targeting; in addition, it was perceived that many of them were being shadowed by quieter Western attack submarines, and would be picked off at an early stage in any conflict. This forced the Soviets to adhere to the philosophy of "safety in numbers."
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy went neglected once again, and was eventually divided among several former Soviet republics. The Black Sea Fleet, in particular, spent several years in limbo before an agreement was reached to divide it between Russia and Ukraine.
Commanders-in-Chief of the Soviet Naval Forces
- Vasili Mikhailovich Altfater (October, 1918 — April, 1919)
- Yevgeny Andreyevich Berens (May, 1919 — February, 1920)
- Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Nemits (February, 1920 — December, 1921)
- Eduard Samoilovich Pantserzhansky (December, 1921 — December, 1924)
- Vyacheslav Ivanovich Zof (December, 1924 — August, 1926)
- Romuald Adamovich Muklevich (August, 1926 — July, 1931)
- Vladimir Mitrofanovich Orlov (July, 1931 — July, 1937)
- Mikhail Vladimirovich Viktorov (August, 1937 — January, 1938)
- P.A. Smirnov (January — August, 1938)
- Mikhail Petrovich Frinovsky (September, 1938 — April, 1939)
- Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov (April, 1939 — January, 1947)
- Ivan Stepanovich Yumashev (January, 1947 — July, 1951)
- Nikolai Gerasimovich Kuznetsov - (July, 1951 — January, 1956), second term
- Sergey Georgyevich Gorshkov - (January, 1956 - December, 1985). Considered the officer most responsible for reforming the Soviet Navy
- Vladimir Nikolayevich Chernavin - (1985 - 1992)
- Sontag, Sherry; Drew, Christopher; Drew, Annette Lawrence (1998). Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. Harper. ISBN 0-06-103004-X.
- Nilsen, Thomas; Kudrik, Igor; Nikitin, Aleksandr (1996). Report 2:1996: The Russian Northern Fleet. Oslo/St.Petersburg: Bellona Foundation. ISBN 82-993138-5-6. Chapter 8, "Nuclear submarine accidents".
- Oberg, James (1988). Uncovering Soviet Disasters. New York, NY: Random House. ISBN 0394560957.
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