Navies Evolve But Trade And Technology Are Part Of The DNA

Karen GelijnsRussian naval commanders welcome Vice Admiral Borsboom aboard the historic cruiser Avrora.

Trade, technology and the sea have always been closely linked. And so it was appropriate that the Commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Vice Admiral Matthieu Borsboom, should have opened the Russian maritime equipment exhibition, NEVA-2013.

The Commander was leading one of several Dutch naval visits to St. Petersburg this year, in the context of navy-to-navy talks and the Russian-Dutch year.

The exhibition brings together Russian and international technology, with the aim of renewing Russia's sea-based and inland waterway industries — from shipbuilding and shipyards, equipping fleets and ports, to expanding the marine support services for both trade and offshore energy sectors.

Vice Admiral Borsboom said the Dutch admiralties and their successor, the Royal Netherlands Navy, had been central to the development of trade and technology.

 "The Dutch people did three things: used the soils along the river delta to develop agriculture; used the rivers as the means of transportation; and went overseas," said admiral Borsboom.

"The navy has been a part of that triple DNA from the very beginning. The combination of security, trade and diplomacy is still in the genes of the navy, so to speak. It does same things that it did 500 years ago."

Today security, diplomacy and trade are once again intertwined. Nations have a common interest in securing the seas and the Royal Netherlands Navy collaborates closely with the EU, NATO and, not least, Russia.

"Because of globalization countries understand that we are dependent on each other. That's why navies work together to achieve the same fundamental goal, which is securing the freedom of the sea, what we call, "mare liberum," said Borsboom.

The relationship between Russia and The Netherlands is a long one. The first Dutch money found in Russia dates from the 12th century, evidence that the two countries were already trading actively. Later tsar Peter I stayed in The Netherlands to investigate how the Dutch did business, what ships they used and how they built and operated them.

It was the basis of a long relationship, which the Cold War may have cooled but failed to interrupt: Dutch ships continued to make regular naval visits to St. Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was during Soviet times.

"This has always been a very special relationship even though some generations didn't pay much attention to it but now it has been revived. What we are doing now is operationalizing these relations."

On behalf of their ministers of defense, admiral Borsboom and the Russian Admiral Victor Chirkov signed a letter of intent in March, which formalized the relationship. This created an agenda for regular joint naval activities and staff-to-staff discussions, said Borsboom.

"Besides our current collaboration in counter piracy, we are looking at broadening our future collaboration in the fields like submarine rescue exercises and hydrographic surveys. Also the Russian navy has shown interest in our maintenance and logistics programs," he explained.

Six months ago the admiral visited the Russian port of Murmansk and, further north, the closed city of Severomorsk. This was evidence of greater transparency, he said. "In Severomorsk I was able to visit the nuclear cruiser, Peter the Great, and one of the nuclear submarines. This kind of transparency is very important for partnership."

The Russian navy discussed developments in the Arctic, which are important to The Netherlands as a maritime trade nation. "The development of the Arctic is not a matter of choice because it is already happening. The route is already clearing out and the ice is melting. It's up to the Arctic countries to find ways how to cope with this new opportunity and the responsibility of securing safe transit", said Borsboom.

A Chinese freighter was the first cargo ship to use the Northeastern Passage, or Northern Sea Route, in September, as melting ice opened a shorter trade connection between Europe and Asia.

The first Russian ships were based on the best English and Dutch plans, so it could be said that the Royal Netherlands Navy is somewhat of a father to the Russian navy. Nowadays this paternal instinct can provoke some insights into the development of the Russian fleet, which went through some changes after the breakup of Soviet Union.

The challenge for navies is that fleets are shrinking due to financial issues but the demands are not. There are more demands than navies can deliver, and there is lack of capacity, resources and assets, Borsboom said.

"Another collective issue is that it is becomes harder and harder, even in countries with a large population, to convince people to go to sea. Because of the high-tech, innovative surroundings we need highly skilled people, but then you have to convince them to be away from home for 250 days per year."

Some of Russia's problems are connected with its geographic outlines. "St. Petersburg is very oriented to the sea but there are also lands in Russia which are not, so you have to make clear to the population how important it is to have this maritime orientation because it's bringing you prosperity. The complexity of logistics in your country is beyond our imagination, because in our country we can fly from one side to the other in 30 minutes," said the admiral.

The Royal Netherlands Navy is not directly advising the Russian navy. But the maritime sector (which consists of the navy, the maritime industry and the maritime expertise centers) is sharing its expertise. On how to improve ports, for instance. "The main idea is that you can't improve a port without improving the infrastructure and logistics. That's why Rotterdam is such a success," said Borsboom.

He said the navy could only be successful if it is ready to interact with all other players. "I always say it is a triple 'A': we have to be active, adaptive, and affordable," he said. Activity has to do with relevance, adaptability with acting on the challenges of a changing world, and affordability with the reasonable spending of tax money. And the Russian navy faces the same challenge. "The only reason why we can celebrate our 525th anniversary proudly is because we've been adaptive all the time. "

Borsboom has been in the navy for 35 years and Commander since 2010. He worked in Afghanistan where he was responsible for the operations concerning governance, development and elections in the country.

It's a far cry from his plan as a youngster to become a biochemist, which he gave up to join the navy. He is married and has two daughters and a son; all three are in the Royal Netherlands Navy.

 "When I asked my children what was their motivation to enter the navy, they said: good education, high responsibility at very young age and, of course, adventures and sporty side of life. I had the same motivation 35 years ago."

While in St. Petersburg, Borsboom opened another exhibition, Willem II and Anna Pavlovna, at the Hermitage. He also met veterans of the Great War.

In this bilateral year, the commemorations flowed both ways. A celebration of waterborne ties took a Don Cossack choir all the way "from the Volga to the Maas". The choir sang aboard HNLMS Friesland, in Rotterdam, as part of the World Port Days 2013 exhibition in September.

Russia - Holland 2013
Russia - Holland 2013
The Moscow Times is releasing its new "Russia - The Netherlands 2013" supplement, dedicated to economic and cultural cooperation between the two nations. The current edition is published in partnership with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
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