Russia’s Navy is clearly not in the best of places thanks to the war in Ukraine. And to make matters even worse for Putin and company, Moscow’s only aircraft carrier seems to be in serious trouble and may never sail again. Many would consider the aircraft carrier to be the ultimate asset in projecting naval power and a necessary fixture of a modern navy. Yet Russia’s sole carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is a decades-old relic with a reputation for repeated failure.
The Kuznetsov had been laid up for three years awaiting major overhauls since a crane crashed into it and helped sink its initial drydock. Speculation has loomed over the ship’s future, many wondering whether or not it made sense for the Russian government to continue investing in the aging carrier. Indeed, this ship, originally produced in Soviet-era Ukraine, has a bad track record.
Admiral Kuznetsov, History
Despite being launched in 1985, the ship has only been deployed to combat once—in Syria during 2016-2017 to provide air support to Bashar al-Assad.
While operating off the coast, two fighters were lost when they could not arrest their planes upon landing due to faulty arresting wires.
This ultimately led to the rest of the planes stationed on the Kuznetsov to be moved to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria, begging the question of why an aircraft carrier was ever necessary in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first place.
In addition to such problems, the Kuznetsov has over the years had multiple fires killing numerous sailors and an oil leak releasing 300 metric tons of oil off the coast of Ireland. For its technical problems, the carrier is embarrassingly shadowed by a repair ship and tugboats while at sea in the case of a breakdown.
But with the creation of a massive and newly expanded drydock at Russia’s Seymorput Naval Shipyard in the country’s Murmansk region, it appears Putin’s regime has doubled down on its commitment to repair and modernize the Kuznetsov, keeping it in service longer than many expected.
Kuznetsov Needs a Lot of Work
The current expectation is a modernization of the ship’s propulsion systems, sensors, electronics, and part of fighter wing aircraft. Some have also suggested that the Kuznetsov’s P-700 cruise missiles may be replaced with Zircon hypersonic missiles.
However, in part due to the failure of the original drydock, these changes keep getting pushed back. The most recent estimate provided by Russia is that the Kuznetsov will be operational by summer 2023. If it isn’t, it will have to wait until the following season to begin trials—if repairs go past September, seasonal ice will form around Murmansk, making such trials impossible until temperatures warm again. With the new drydock needing at least two-to-three months to just pump out the water to begin on the ship, it is unclear if the carrier will be ready by September of next year.
Making matters worse for the Russian Navy is the ever-present pain of international sanctions imposed as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tightening budgets and persistent supply-chain issues will continue to plague the Russian defense industry.
It is hard, then, to be able to tell with any high degree of accuracy if the Admiral Kuznetsov will, in fact, be able to sail come summer 2023. A history of failures and delays coupled with Russia’s growing economic isolation makes one skeptical.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.