The saga of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, has lurched from one embarrassing episode to another. The vessel (technically classified as a “heavy aircraft cruiser” to be able to adhere to Montreux Convention restrictions on aircraft carriers passing through the Turkish Straits) is currently undergoing repairs and retrofitting (see EDM, November 1, 2018). It will not be replaced with a more modern carrier for at least another 15 years—and quite possibly never. The situation brings to mind Richard Hough’s classic 1958 study, The Fleet That Had to Die, about the failure and destruction of the Russian naval fleet in 1905 at the hands of the Japanese. Like that long-ago event, which culminated in the disaster at the Tsushima Straits, the current history is replete with bold promises of breakthroughs but marred by malfeasance, corruption and incompetence. Not only does all this highlight Russia’s decline as a naval power, it also underscores the problematic natures of the Russian defense establishment and political system.
The Kuznetsov embarrassed Moscow in late 2016, when it was deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean to support Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war. As usual, the carrier had to be accompanied by tug boats in case of mechanical problems. The vessel is not nuclear powered, and a faulty engine resulted in the Kuznetsov spewing a thick, black column of oil smoke as it rounded the European peninsula. Moreover, during the course of the mission, several naval jets ended up crashing into the sea (see EDM, October 27, 2016; November 15, 2016). Last year, the floating drydock that was to be used to refit it sank, damaging the ship. And Russian yards, which have not built an aircraft carrier in decades, are too small to handle the job (see EDM, November 1, 2018). Indeed, one Russian official suggested that a new aircraft carrier ought to be constructed in three different places and then assembled at sea. And now, Russian naval ship builders have, in effect, admitted defeat: the country is unlikely to see a new aircraft carrier (the largest, most complicated and potentially most innovative naval vessel at sea today) any time soon.
At the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg earlier this month, Aleksey Rakhmanov, the head of the United Ship Building Corporation, said that the aging Kuznetsov will remain the only Russian carrier “for a minimum of 15 years” and quite possibly far longer, unless Moscow commits to replacing it before it too has to be scrapped, leaving Russia without one of the key means for projecting power far from its borders (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 6, 2019). Yet, at present, Andrey Riskin of Nezavisimaya Gazeta says in reporting Rakhmanov’s words, there are only preliminary drawings for a single carrier. And this is far from what would be necessary to come up with a realistic plan reflecting the true costs of a replacement. Unless work is done on a crash basis, he continues, “there soon will be no one” to show the Russian flag on the world’s oceans—particularly, given that the Kuznetsov itself may soon be taken out of service and turned into a stationary training center.
Rakhmanov’s remarks were echoed a few days later at a meeting of top Russian naval commanders in Murmansk, where it was confirmed that the Kuznetsov would continue to be refitted as no replacement is in sight (Dsnews.ua, June 11). Given the record of past Russian efforts to update this Soviet-era ship, these brave words may be the last gasp of what, 40 years ago, Moscow had hoped would be a navy that could challenge the United States.
Kyiv-based military expert Mikhail Zhirokhov points out that “the Admiral Kuznetsov is the last rare example of the Soviet Union’s oceanic ambitions.” In the early 1970s, Moscow decided to build five aircraft carriers and did so between 1975 and 1991. They were the Kiev, the Minsk, the Novorossiisk, the Admiral Gorshkov (initially the Kharkov and then renamed again the Baku), and finally the Admiral Kuznetsov (Dsnews.ua, June 11).
Their fates since 1991 have been “sad,” the Ukrainian analyst opines. The Kiev was decommissioned and sold to the Chinese, who use it as an entertainment center. The same fate awaited the Minsk in another Chinese harbor. The Novorossiisk was sold as scrap to South Korea, and the Gorshkov was sold to India, which has had numerous problems with this aging vessel (see EDM, November 30, December 7, 2012). The Gorshkov (rechristened the INS Vikramaditya) remains, but for most of its life, it has been in drydock being refitted more often than it has been at sea. Indeed, its voyage to assist in Russia’s campaign in Syria is likely to be its first and last use as really intended.
Whenever Moscow finds itself unable to do something, of course, some Russian analysts begin to question whether Russia should even try. One such commentator is Viktor Sokirko of Vzglyad, who says that while he favors Russia having an aircraft carrier, the country’s size and location mean that such a vessel is far less necessary than it is to the United States, which is traditionally a naval rather than a land-based power. Moreover, he argues, the cost of such a vessel would mean that Moscow could not build other, more useful ships and weapons systems. And finally, in his view, precision and long-range airpower is making aircraft carriers increasingly vulnerable if a serious conflict breaks out (Vzglyad, June 13).
Other analysts including those within the military, however, say that Moscow’s failure to develop carriers casts a shadow on the entire fleet. Even the small ships Russia plans to build (see EDM, May 4, 2017; August 2, 2018) will not be as up-to-date as they would be if Russia committed to building new carriers in which the most advanced technology could be included and developed. Consequently, the agony of the Kuznetsov, which reflects budgetary and other problems of the Russian military and the Russian state, is likely to cast a far darker shadow on the future of the Russian navy and Russian military power than even the black smoke the Kuznetsov belches out whenever it does put to sea (Army-news.ru, June 13, 2019).