Fleets: Imperial Russia
Russia’s Fleets

Though its ruling class did not appreciate their debt to Woodrow Wilson, the American president’s negotiated end to the First Great War saved the Russian Empire from dissolution and civil war. Russia desperately needed peace on any terms, yet Tsar Nikolai II accepted American mediation only under pressure from his allies.

Wilson’s Peace called for plebiscites in which the inhabitants of disputed territories would determine their own future in a popular vote. The results stripped Russia of many of her borderlands. Poland, including German and Austrian lands, became an independent kingdom. The western Ukrainian oblasts joined Austria-Hungary. Azerbaijan went to Turkey and Bessarabia to Romania. Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia voted for independence.

Russian nationalists seethed over the treaty terms, and every diplomat involved in the negotiations from the Russian side would be assassinated over the following decade. Nikolai himself, in fear for his life, abdicated in favor of his son Alexei and sought exile in French Tahiti along with his wife Alexandra and her spiritual advisor Grigori Rasputin. The happy threesome eventually changed their names and were forgotten by the wider world.

Over the next two decades the Russian economy grew exponentially, as cheap labor and subsidized exports helped fuel massive growth in heavy industry. Russian negotiators had won the Empire great power standing during the Vienna naval limitations talks, even though the dire economic situation prevented the Navy from laying down new ships.

While other nations completed full classes of battleships in the years between Wilson’s Peace and the Vienna Agreement, Russian shipyards sat idle. Navy commander Alexander Kolchak, alerted by a preliminary draft of the treaty, saw that ships already under construction would not count against the limits and ordered additional keels laid down even though no money, labor or materials existed to continue the projects.

The Imperial Navy finally began its recovery in the mid-1920’s, some years after all of its rivals. It had a core of fairly obsolescent ships left over from the Great War, and some more ships of outdated design on the slipways. Grand Duchess Tatiana (right) as regent had directed resources away from the fleet to the army. Once her younger brother Alexei II came into his majority, he wished to see modern new battleships to display his empire’s prestige.

Construction resumed on the ships laid down by Kolchak, and planning began for new classes of battleships and the supporting cruisers and destroyers. Finally, the Russian Empire began to build a fleet worthy of its great power status; the Grand Duchess warned her brother that he risked Russia’s fragile finances on a prestige project but Alexei would not be deterred. Russia would be a naval power.

In 1932, the Tsar ordered that the previous standard of two fleets, one in the Black Sea and one in the Baltic, be expanded to four, with full-sized fleets deployed in the Arctic and Pacific Oceans as well. Kolchak protested that this would spread Russian forces too thinly; Alexei had never liked the unpleasant admiral and fired him, replacing him with the energetic Alexei Schastny. The Tsar understood the magnitude of his order and granted Schastny the necessary funds and resources. New dockyards, repair facilities, fuel depots and barracks had to be built in remote locations, with coastal defenses to protect them.

Tsar Alexei had no real purpose for his fleet, beyond displaying the power of Russia and greatness of his reign. Schastny gave it strategic direction, laying out the principles that would guide it in the Second Great War.

Note: The real Alexei Schastny was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918; among the charges leveled by Leon Trotsky was the accusation that Schastny had committed a heroic act (navigating the Baltic Fleet through heavy ice) for the purpose of gaining popularity which could be turned against the Soviet state.

Coast-defense forces including minefields and submarines would suffice to protect the Russian homeland, Schastny wrote. The fleet’s purpose was to expand Russian power beyond those coastal zones, and to protect the ever-growing trade which powered Russia’s economic miracle. Each of Russia’s four coasts faced a threat from potential enemies: sea lanes leading to St. Petersburg wound through the German-dominated Baltic. Turkish control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits sealed off the Black Sea. The German base at Spitzbergen threatened sea lanes leading to the Arctic ports, while merchant traffic heading to Vladivostok had to traverse narrow chokepoints controlled by the Japanese.

To address those difficulties, Schastny recommended that the Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets all develop strong amphibious forces to seize and hold the choke points in their respective theaters. The Navy should develop specialized landing craft, and take advantage of promising new developments in helicopter design. These machines could deposit assault troops behind an enemy’s beach defenses, unhinging them before the first landing craft even touched the sand.

The invasion forces would have to be protected, and that required strong battle fleets in each of the four sectors including anti-submarine forces. Mine warfare had become a Russian specialty in the Russo-Japanese War, carried into the Great War, and Schastny’s memoranda didn’t neglect this branch, either. With few ports and naval bases, Russia could ill afford to lose any of them. Thick minefields supported by heavy coast-defense guns and light torpedo forces would shield Russian bases, and offensive minefields would interfere with enemy movements in their own waters.

A new Russian coast defense ship hits the water at Russo-Baltic Shipbuilding.

As new helicopters large and powerful enough to each transport half a platoon of troops and their equipment entered testing, the Imperial Navy began to build dedicated helicopter carriers to operate them. These large, through-deck ships had multiple roles, ferrying elite air-assault marines to their landing zones but also deploying their squadrons in anti-submarine and mine-hunting missions.

The Baltic Fleet remained the most powerful of the four, with a core of 11 battleships and two battle cruisers, plus five older battleships converted into helicopter assault ships. While the Pacific Fleet had more battleships on its roster, the Baltic Fleet had a higher proportion of modern fast battleships and older modernized ships armed with 16-inch guns. The fleet also had a very large amphibious and mine warfare contingents.

In wartime, the Baltic Fleet would face whatever the Imperial German Navy assigned to the Baltic, which could range anywhere from light forces to an overwhelming battle fleet, plus the Swedish Navy and the tiny flotillas of the newly-independent Baltic states. Bottled up in the Gulf of Finland by heavy coast-artillery batteries, expected to be supported by thick minefields, the fleet would first have to secure its passage by taking the Estonian and Finnish artillery positions on either coastline and the Åland Islands at the mouth of the Gulf.

Once the fleet had a secure passage into the central basin of the Baltic Sea, it would be expected to interrupt sea traffic between the Swedish iron ore port at Lulea at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia and German ports. They would also threaten the central Swedish coast including Stockholm, and cut off sea communications between Germany, Sweden and their minor allies Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Eventually the target would be Denmark and the straits leading out of the Baltic Sea.

Russian planning acknowledged that that stage would likely never arrive; the German High Seas Fleet could always deploy additional heavy surface forces to block it. But that would entail diverting those ships from the Atlantic naval war, and the threat of such a development would therefore serve the broader pursuit of victory.

The newly-established Arctic Fleet would be part of the North Atlantic naval war. Though smaller than the others, it would have a very active role in any war against Germany. Toward that end, it had more modern ships than the other three fleets, with no re-conditioned vessels of Great War vintage, and none of the old battleships converted to helicopter assault ships and found in those forces.

Instead, it was built around fast battleships and new battle cruisers, supported by a large cruiser force. These ships are intended to break into the Atlantic to interfere with German commercial traffic between Europe and the United States. The Arctic Fleet would serve as Russia’s contribution to her long-standing alliance with France, meant to cooperate with the Marine Nationale’s Atlantic Fleet against the Germans.

The Pacific Fleet kept its main base in Vladivostok, with a naval shipyard and smaller base at Nikolayevsk at the mouth of the Amur River and a smaller base at Petropavlovsk on the east coast of Kamchatka. The fleet had four modern fast battleships, ten older modernized battleships and four older battle cruisers re-constructed as fast battleships. The four oldest battleships had been rebuilt as helicopter assault ships, much like those of the Baltic and Black Sea fleets.

Across the Sea of Japan, this fleet faced a much larger potential enemy force. Russia planned to fight the next war alongside allies, which would divide Japanese forces. The Russian Pacific Fleet would present a constant threat to the home islands, and keep the Imperial Japanese Navy from deploying its full force elsewhere. To maintain that threat, the Pacific Fleet had a significant amphibious warfare capability that would be used once the balance of forces swung in Russia’s favor.

Grand Duchess Tatiana’s decision to deny great power status to Russia’s ally France greatly hampered that strategy. With the Anglo-Japanese Alliance still in place, Japan would not face a significant threat from some other quarter unless Russia were allied with the United States. While the Americans had a deeply hostile relationship with the Japanese, they also maintained a determined isolationism in the years following Woodrow Wilson’s term.

Russia’s final fleet faced the Empire’s ancient enemy across the Black Sea. Ottoman Turkey had built up her fleet in the years after the First Great War with purchases of over-aged German battleships and battle cruisers, rebuilding them at enormous expense. Tsar Alexei insisted on superiority of numbers, even though most Russian battleships were larger and more capable than their Turkish counterparts. Eleven battleships formed the core of the Black Sea Fleet, including four modern fast battleships, six ships completed in the years after the Great War, and one ship laid down during the war and completed afterwards to a new design as a fast battleship.

The fleet has three older dreadnoughts rebuilt as helicopter assault ships, and a significant amphibious warfare capability. In the event of open war with the Turks the fleet’s primary task would be to force its way across the Black Sea and land troops on either side of the Bosporus, and facilitate the capture of Constantinople. Afterwards the Turkish Straits would be cleared, giving the Russians access to the Mediterranean.

The Turks could be expected to resist as bitterly as they had at Gallipoli in 1915, and Schastny’s operational outline conceded that the Turkish fleet would have to be destroyed as it would not abandon the defense of Constantinople. The Turks could be expected to deploy minefields, submarines and torpedo craft to support the defense.

Alexei’s decision to field four separate and roughly equal fleets meant that Russia would not be a great power in any one theater, but a mid-ranked one in four widely separated areas. The Russians would have to press the limits of the naval treaty as far as possible without inviting diplomatic or economic conflict the Empire was not prepared to conduct.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.