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There’s a Good Reason Russia Failed to Build a Fleet of Aircraft Carriers

Why Didn’t Russia follow the U.S. Navy and go aircraft carrier crazy? Throughout the Cold War, the United States Navy’s aircraft carriers were used for force projection worldwide. Nearly a dozen and half aircraft carriers played a role during the Korean War, and naval aircraft provided much-needed air support – especially in the early stages of the conflict. The carrier air wings were instrumental in destroying enemy supply depots, bridges, roads, and railways. When the tide turned in November 1950, as Chinese forces pushed Allied units south, U.S. Navy aviators covered the retreat.

More than 250,000 sorties were flown by the U.S. Navy, contributing one-third of the total air effort in the war. The case for Cold War carriers was made, especially as the U.S. Navy began the war with 15 active carriers and ended it with 38 in service.

After the war, even as the United States developed strategic aircraft, concealed intercontinental missiles throughout the Midwest, and launched a fleet of ballistic missile submarines, aircraft carriers played a crucial role in providing a defensive parameter around the United States.

“Control of the seas means security; control of the seas means peace; control of the seas can mean victory,” stated President John F. Kennedy.

In the years that followed, U.S. Navy carrier strike groups have been deployed dozens of times to launch sorties around the globe. Today, the warships continue to allow the U.S. military to maintain force projection that is simply unrivaled.

The question then can be asked why didn’t the Soviet Union – with its goal of spreading communism across the world – build true aircraft carriers? The short answer is that the Soviet Union was always a land-based power like Imperial Russia before it.

Lessons From History and Geography

Simply put, Russia was never really a true naval power, as geography played a role.

Arkhangelsk was the first Russian sea port. Located at the mouth of the Northern Dvina, for nearly a century and a half, it was the only Russian city where foreign merchants were even allowed to sell their goods.

As such, until the late 17th century, Russia simply did not need a navy.

It wasn’t until 1698 that Czar Peter I (Peter the Great) traveled to England to learn about shipbuilding and navigation that there was even a consideration to building a Russian Navy. King William III of England welcomed the opportunity as a way to increase trade with Russia and provided Peter with assistance. When Peter the Great returned to Russia, a large shipbuilding program was established, and in 1703, a fleet was founded in the Baltic Sea. In the early years, Britons often built, maintained, and served on the ships.

Russians – like the Ottomans before them – had to learn how to be a seafaring people.

At issue still was that Russia lacked ports, and this only changed after St. Petersburg was also founded in 1703, and became the new Russian capital. It was another 80 years until the forces of Katherine the Great annexed the Crimean Khanate and captured the Turkish city of Akhtiar. Renamed Sevastopol, it soon became the home of Russia’s fledgling Black Sea Fleet.

Likewise, a Pacific Fleet was founded after the establishment of the far-eastern city of Vladivostok in 1859.

Yet, throughout the 19th century, Russia never became a major naval power due to the fact that it lacked a true warm water port with access to the open sea. Even with control of the Baltic States, Russia’s warships had to traverse the Danish Straits to reach the North Sea, while the Black Sea Fleet was essentially hedged in by the Turkish control of the Bosporus Straits. Little had changed even in the Soviet era.

Whereas the United States Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy had easy access to the seas, the Soviets lacked any ports that were largely ice-free year round and didn’t require passage near a NATO member nation. In addition, the Soviet Union largely lacked friendly ports around the globe.

Poor Naval History

Even as Russia prepares for its Naval Day Celebrations on July 31, it should be remembered that the Russian Navy has suffered some of the worst defeats in military maritime history. Russia had sought to become a naval powerhouse at the end of the 19th century, and its fleet was among the largest in the world. Yet, it was a true paper tiger.

In fact, the Russian Navy was devastated and nearly destroyed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. That included the Baltic Fleet, which had sailed halfway around the world only to be sunk in the Battle of the Tsushima Strait in May 1905.  As Russia recovered from that war, its navy was smaller and far less prepared for the First World War.

Yet, the Russian Navy played a crucial role during the war – namely in bringing down the Provisional Government. The October Revolution unofficially began when the Russian Imperial Navy cruiser Avrora, and her predominantly Bolshevik crew, refused to take to sea and instead fired the shot that initiated the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Navy was essentially a shell of the former Russian Imperial Navy, but it steady grew in size and played a crucial role during the Second World War – also known as the Great Patriotic War. After that war, it was renamed the Naval Fleet of the USSR, and its main objectives during the Cold War were interceptions of NATO convoys and the targeting of U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, which were largely viewed as a national security threat that could launch an attack quickly and deeply into Soviet territory.

Countering the Carriers

While there were efforts to develop aircraft cruisers, the Soviet Union instead underwent a rapid modernization in the 1960s and 1970s that focused on submarines, as well as guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. Moscow saw the threat that the carriers presented, but Soviet military planners faced the reality of its limited resources and the high cost of building and maintain carriers.

As noted previously, the Soviets lacked the overseas bases to support the warships. Without foreign port facilities or the ability to resupply a carrier strike group at sea, Moscow could have truly employed the warships as effectively as the United States Navy.

It was only after Leonid Brezhnev came to power that the Soviet Union finally began to consider aircraft carriers once more. It eventually launched a total of two Moskva-class helicopter carriers, one in 1965 followed by another in 1968. The first Soviet aircraft carrier to support fighter jets, the Kiev-class, was only launched in 1975. It was a race that was already long lost, as the United States Navy’s carrier efforts dated back to 1910.

The one serious attempt to build a carrier comparable to the American standards began as “Project Orel” in the 1970s, but it was scuttled over costs and disagreements within the Kremlin over the Soviet military’s strategic priorities. Only in the 1980s did Moscow finally move forward with a new class of “aircraft cruisers.”

Yet, just a single flattop was completed. Launched as the Leonid Brezhnev, and later as the Tbilsishe was renamed Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As of July 2022 that aircraft cruiser is currently undergoing a refit, during which time she has suffered a number of misfortunes. Her sister vessel Varyag was sold to China by cash-strapped Ukraine and refurbished as the Type 001 Liaoning.

When – and even if – Admiral Kuznetsov returns to service is anyone’s guess, but as Russia is now engaged in a seemingly unwinnable war in Ukraine, it is clear once again that Moscow will never be a true naval power. More importantly, it is also a regional nation with little need for aircraft carriers.

A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.