Russia’s only aircraft carrier has a troubled service history. Named for Adm. Nikolai Kuznetsov, the head of the Soviet Navy during the Second World War, the Admiral Kuznetsov has proven to be a significant headache for Russia’s naval leadership. The vessel is expected to be docked for repairs for the foreseeable future.
The Admiral Kuznetsov is the flagship of the Russian Navy, but it is not a new ship. Originally laid down in 1982 and launched in 1985, the carrier officially joined the Soviet Union’s Northern Fleet shortly before the USSR collapsed in 1990. The ship, which features a ramp at the bow to help aircraft take off in the absence of a catapult, relies on an extremely heavy and toxic oil product known as mazut. This fuel produces the thick, black smoke that can be seen in any picture of the Admiral Kuznetsov while it is at sea.
Go Nowhere Without Tugboats
Even at peak performance, the Russian aircraft carrier is significantly hamstrung by a deficient power plant, frequently broken piping, and low morale among the crew, which stems from the ship’s poor living conditions.
Despite its status as the Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov has only participated in one long-range combat mission. It was deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean in 2016 and 2017 to provide air support to the Bashar al-Assad regime. Even then, its participation was likely meant more to make a statement than to serve any practical need. While on these combat missions – as well during a handful of other cruises and exercises in the Mediterranean – the carrier has been accompanied by tugboats as a precaution against breakdowns.
The Admiral Kuznetsov’s Accidental History
To make matters worse, the Admiral Kuznetsov has suffered significant damage from mishaps at sea – and even in drydock. While the Admiral Kuznetsov was in refit in Murmansk in 2018, the PD-50 drydock that was working on it crashed into the aircraft carrier after a power cut caused water to flood into the crane’s ballast tanks.
Russian military officials insisted that the damage to the ship was reversible, and they vowed that the carrier’s modernization and refit process would continue. But this would not be the ship’s last misadventure.
These incidents have further slowed the ship’s refit and have delayed its return to fully operational status.
Structural issues in the Russian shipbuilding industry have also slowed the repairs and refit of the Admiral Kuznetsov. The arrest on charges of embezzlement of the director of the shipyard repairing the carrier indicates systemic issues so deep they can even slow the modernization of the Russian Navy’s flagship. Russia’s ability to repair and refit ships could be further strained by sanctions against Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation, which is responsible for the Admiral Kuznetsov’s repairs and modernization.
When you consider the technical issues plaguing the Admiral Kuznetsov, the history of accidents on the ship, and the obstacles facing Russia’s shipbuilding industry, it is no wonder that Russia’s lone aircraft carrier remains a burden to operate.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.