The Russian Navy vs Somali pirates: a useful reminder

On May 6, Russian Naval Infantry marines from the destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov successfully stormed the Russian tanker Moscow University, which had been hijacked by Somali pirates. After a 22-minute operation, the crew (who had barricaded themselves in the engine room) were freed unharmed, one pirate was dead and the other ten captured. The marines apparently suffered no casualties. Controversially, after talk of taking them back to Moscow for trial, the pirates were abandoned on the high seas in one of their boats, stripped of weapons and navigation equipment. They have since disappeared, presumed dead, 300 nautical miles from the shore.

On one level, this is a rare bit of good news in the ongoing struggle against the unpredictable, uncoordinated but undeniably effective pirates of the Somali coast. Given the risks and costs in arming or escorting the vast numbers of ships passing through the waters at risk, such operations at least offer the prospect of some deterrent effect. However, the operation is also noteworthy as a reminder of what it says more generally about Russian forces and approaches:

  • The Russian military can be highly effective and professional. It is easy to look at the hamfisted brutality of Chechnya or even the blundering victory in Georgia (as if there had ever been any doubt which side would win in that conflict) and draw the lesson that Russia’s forces are incapable of anything requiring professionalism, efficiency and precision. For many units, this may be the case, but it is also clear that there are forces with much greater capability. The marines of the Marshal Shaposhnikov, probably from the Pacific Fleet’s 165th Naval Infantry Brigade, assaulted the tanker by rappelling down from helicopters and carried out their mission quickly and effectively, without taking losses. While it is possible that the Shaposhnikov had embarked special forces from the Pacific Fleet’s 263rd Detached Spetsnaz Battalion, it is more likely that the Naval Infantry — who, like the Airborne Forces and other similar units are a cut above the ordinary Russian grunt but are still largely made up of conscripts — were just doing what they were trained to do, and doing it well.
  • Russian forces operate to different rules of engagement than the West’s. It is not just a matter of the unorthodox treatment of the captured pirates but also how the Russians launched their no-holds-barred assault. Not only did the Marshal Shaposhnikov fire shots from both heavy machine-guns and 30mm cannon but the marines freely used their smallarms in a battle on a tanker carrying 86,000 tons of crude oil, a cargo sufficiently flammable that crew are not even allowed to smoke on board ship. While there is no question but that Moscow wanted to rescue both crew and tanker, but there was it seems also a greater tolerance of risk than might be found in Western navies.
  • Russia is serious about retaining some global role. In the grand scheme of things, one Liberian-flagged tanker counts for relatively little, especially when set against the cost of maintaining and deploying major assets such as the Marshal Shaposhnikov so far from Russian waters. However, this — and Moscow’s eagerness to mount a high-profile assault — also reflect Russia’s renewed desire to demonstrate not just the capacity for meaningful power-projection well outside its national waters but also the will to act directly and unilaterally in a manner as befits a great power. Somali pirates, in this respect, simply gave the Kremlin the opportunity to flex its muscles.
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