The Kuznetsov Smokescreen: Russia’s Peculiar Naval Taskforce to Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 173

Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, headed to Syria (Source: Poder Naval)

The Russian aerospace forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskye Sily—VKS) continue to bomb the Syrian opposition, as Russia’s Iranian-led allies carry on land attacks against the rebel-controlled half of Aleppo. But meanwhile, Russia’s two largest warships—the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and nuclear battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy—have reached the Mediterranean. The Kuznetsov and Pyotr Velikiy, accompanied by two guided-missile frigates and support vessels, departed Severomorsk—the main naval base of the Russian Northern Fleet on the Barents Sea—on October 15 and sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar on October 26. The Kuznetsov was belching dark smoke on the way like a coal-driven World War I battleship. The pro-Kremlin press spun the Kuznetsov smoke as a deliberate demonstration of Russian might: The ship was deliberately producing lots of smoke to send the Brits and other pro-American Europeans an ominous signal—“I am coming” (, October 24).

The Kuznetsov voyage was indeed noticed in the West, and fears were expressed that its strike fighters could be used to bomb Aleppo. The Spanish authorities reportedly made a decision last month to allow three ships of the Kuznetsov carrier group to refuel and resupply in Ceuta—a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco opposite Gibraltar—from October 28 to November 2. The nuclear vessel Pyotr Velikiy does not need refueling and could stay out at sea. Ceuta, an overseas Spanish territory not covered by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) defense obligations, is a popular stopover port for Russian naval ships going in and out of the Mediterranean (see EDM, September 2, 2015). Since 2011, there were reportedly some 60 such visits, and these have a sizeable positive impact on the local economy. The news that the Kuznetsov could make a stopover in a Spanish port on its way to possibly bomb Syrian towns, caused public dismay across Europe; thus, the visit was promptly canceled. The Ministry of Defense in Moscow announced it had decided to sail past Ceuta, apparently to avoid the humiliation of being officially rejected. The Russian government blamed “the [United States] and NATO” for having pressured Madrid to reconsider. The defense ministry declared that the Kuznetsov in fact does not need a port stopover and can be refueled at sea. It was also reported that the Kuznetsov carrier group could end up docking on Malta or in Algiers, as alternatives to Ceuta (, October 26; Kommersant, October 27).

On October 27, the Maltese government itself announced it would ban the Kuznetsov carrier group ships from docking. The island country’s authorities did not confirm or deny whether Moscow had asked to dock there (Interfax, October 27). Reportedly, on October 27, the Kuznetsov carrier group stopped in international waters, off the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. Apparently, the Russian vessels were being refueled by military tanker Osipov, which is accompanying the carrier group (Interfax, October 27). Algeria may have also spurned the Kuznetsov. Its bloody bombing campaign in Syria seems to be costing Moscow more and more international damage—not only in the West, but possibly within the Sunni-dominated Muslim and Arab world as well.

The Kuznetsov carrier group has been moving to its presumed destination off the Syrian coast at a remarkably slow pace of less than ten nautical miles per hour, on average, from Severomorsk to Gibraltar (, October 26). This, together with the thick smoke bellowing from the lead ship is an indicator of serious engine trouble. A limited speed capability, even if it does not develop into a total breakdown, could severely impede the Kuznetsov’s operations: For successful jet takeoff with maximum payload, the carrier must be moving at maximum speed. The Kuznetsov was never really designed to play the role of a US-type carrier, which can rapidly send out jets to attack enemy land or sea targets. Furthermore, the Russian carrier currently steaming across the Mediterranean was not designed for long-distance voyages. The Kuznetsov lacks a catapult, and its standard Su-33 (also known as Su-27K) jet fighters take off the deck using a jump ramp and thrust without much ordinance or fuel, armed with only air-to-air missiles for aerial combat. The Su-33 is not equipped for precision ground or sea attacks and cannot be of much use in bombing Aleppo or anything in Syria. Russia built just over 20 Su-33s in the 1990s. Further production was long ago terminated, and the Kuznetsov today carries only about 10 Su-33 leftovers. The depleted Kuznetsov air wing has reportedly been boosted by four new MiG-29K/KUB carrier jets, developed by Russia for India. The Russian navy plans to refit the Kuznetsov with an entire MiG-29K air wing, after the carrier returns from its present voyage. A couple of new Ka-52K attack helicopters may also be onboard the Kuznetsov, in addition to several other support helicopters (TASS, July 2).

The Ka-52K and the MiG-29K are designed to attack land targets. They could be used against the Syrian opposition, but their numbers aboard are minuscule and incomparable with the firepower of the VKS forces already deployed in Syria. On top of that, the MiG-29Ks’ payloads would be limited by the lack of a catapult and the low speed of the Kuznetsov. So what is the Kuznetsov actually doing in the Mediterranean together with the Pyotr Velikiy?

During a possible global showdown, the Kuznetsov’s logical place is in the Barents Sea, where its jet fighters would be tasked with defending the crown jewels of the Russian navy—the strategic ballistic missile-carrying nuclear submarines against aerial attack by US (NATO) anti-sub aircraft. Operating close to its home base in the Barents Sea, the Kuznetsov’s faulty engines would be less of a problem. In turn, under this kind of scenario, the high-speed, ocean-going nuclear battle cruiser Pyotr Velikiy would presumably be deployed somewhere far off—secluded in the fjords of Greenland or Patagonia—preparing for a sudden suicide solo dash attack of a high-priority transatlantic US troop convoy or carrier group in the mid-ocean and using its nuclear-capable Granit heavy supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. The Pyotr Velikiy has 20 Granit launch-tubes, and the Kuznetsov has 12. Granit missiles may be used against land targets, but Russian retired admirals insist they would be inaccurate, too expensive and ineffective without a nuclear warhead (, October 20).

The main reason behind the Kuznetsov and Pyotr Velikiy’s Mediterranean deployment, therefore seems to be to show off; and it appears to be working. Of course, up to now, the deployment has produced mostly negative PR, but maybe the Kremlin believes all publicity is good publicity.