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As Russia Plans New Caspian Assault Ship, Some Wonder: Assault Whom?

The Murena amphibious assault ship, due to enter the Caspian Flotilla in 2017. (photo: Almaz Shipbuilding, Khabarovsk)

Russia's plans to introduce a new amphibious assault ship into its Caspian Flotilla has raised questions among just which of its neighbors' shores Russia envisages assaulting. 

The new ship will join the Caspian Flotilla next year, according to a report by the Ministry of Defense-run TV Zvezda. The ship is designed to carry marine assault teams, including 140 troops and one tank or two armored personnel carriers, up to a beach. 

"There is a valid reason for strengthening the Caspian Flotilla with this vessel," TV Zvezda reported. It quoted military analyst Alexander Mozgovoy: "The region is extremely unstable. There are both our North Caucasus republics, where terrorist groups appear quite often, and also the nearby states."

Russian military blogger Andrey Shipilov picked up the story and wrote a post entitled "Russia prepares for an invasion of the countries of the Caspian." He notes: "The equipment is purely offensive, the only function of which is to seize coastal territories. And just as it is written in the story, it's very necessary on the sea now; the only open question is which state's territory is the target of this necessity?"

Shipilov's speculation focuses mainly on Azerbaijan, due to its ties with Turkey and Russia's alliance with Armenia, and so the story has been picked up in Azerbaijan's unofficial and quasi-official media. Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan also share the Caspian with Russia and all, along with Russia, have been steadily building up their naval forces on the sea. 

It seems unlikely that Russia is planning any specific invasion, but it is curious that the Caspian seems to be the first place that Russia plans to deploy the newly produced ship. And while speculation about what weapons system is intended for what foe is usually pointless, the fact that the Caspian is a closed sea -- meaning there are only four states as potential targets -- and the fact that this is a uniquely offensive vessel makes the speculation in this case a little more pointed.

The Murena-class ship, which is produced in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, was a Soviet-era air-cushioned landing craft used primarily by border guards on the Amur River separating the USSR from China. It was discontinued from Russian service in the 1990s but South Korea operates three that it bought in 2004 (and may be interested in more). Russia recently started offering the Murena for export but it's not clear how many the Russian armed forces intend to buy, or where else it plans to deploy them. 

The addition of the Murena is part of a modernization plan that has already seen 80 percent of the vessels of the Caspian Flotilla new constructions, a number which will reach 90 percent by 2020, said the flotilla's commander, Vice Admiral Oleg Osipov.

As Russia Plans New Caspian Assault Ship, Some Wonder: Assault Whom?

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