Russian Carrier Limping Towards the Syrian Coast


Marek Czajkowski

ZBN Analysis No. 8 (14) / 2016

8 November, 2016


One of the headlines (and a common ridicule) of recent weeks was the passage of the Russian carrier battle group from the Barents Sea all the way to the Eastern Mediterranean. Indeed, several vessels, including so called heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruiser (тяжёлый авианесущий крейсер) Admiral Kuznietsov and guided missile cruiser Pyotr Veliky with some escort and auxiliary ships, sailed from the main base of the Russian North Fleet bound for the Middle East. However, the significance of this force, from the point of view of combat capabilities compared to declared tasks, is at least questionable. Nevertheless they are coming, so the question, often asked, is: why?

First of all, we must explain, why it is commonly agreed that new Russian maritime assets in the region are not going to be of any sensible combat use from the point of view of the military goals of whole Russian operation in Syria. The main arguments for such assessment are as follows.

Firstly, the Russian task force lacks ground attack capabilities, necessary to fight anti-Assad insurgents. Kuznietsov is equipped with only 10 Su-33s fighter jets that are essentially air combat assets and are not designed to carry precision strike munitions, and merely 4 newer, more versatile MiG-29s. What is more, all those planes have to take off using their own engine power assisted only by the speed of the carrier, without catapult as it is being performed aboard American carriers. That is why Russian planes cannot carry full load of ordnance and fuel. Furthermore, both Russian capital ships possess altogether 32 launch containers that may house anti-ship missiles P-700 Granit, known in the West as SS-N-19 (US DoD designation) or Shipwreck (NATO reporting name), but no one knows if they are loaded. It is said that those missiles have ground attack capabilities, but due to their poor accuracy in missions of that sort, they would be rather useless, unless armed with nuclear warheads.

Secondly, the Russian fleet would rather not add up much to A2/AD capabilities of the Russian contingent. It is because the air defense perimeter it can create would not cover any significant part of a potential battleground over Syrian territory and so it might easily be circumvented. Thus, quite sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry of the Russian vessels, which include, among others, long range S-300 Fort (SA-N-20, Gargoyle) missile system, would only apply to self defense of the fleet.

And thirdly, Admiral Kuznietsov has long record of malfunctions, especially of the propulsion system. In her current journey the vessel is being assisted by two ocean-going tugs in case something breaks down again. It has been reported that the battle group was stemming just less than 10 knots, most probably in order not to overstress the engines (partly because of the presence of tugs which are known to be rather slow). Kuznietsov was also photographed while producing vast amount of black smoke through her funnel – it is the sign of rather poor condition of the ship’s propulsion. All this adds up to above mentioned limited offensive capabilities, because low speed of the carrier while launching her planes decreases their available payload even more. Furthermore the presence of civilian firefighting vehicles on the flight deck of the carrier proves that her capabilities as a combat platform are to an extent provisional.

If there is no serious military need to send Russian only carrier to battle, what are the other reasons to do so? Most obviously, it is the need to show military force and political resolve. It is being widely commented that while sending additional ships to the Middle East the Kremlin is stressing its will to stay there as a newly installed power broker. This indeed may be the case, for every asset counts in such situation, especially when it comes to those which are the most powerful of the whole arsenal. Kuznietsov’s battle group roughly quadruples Russian navy’s presence in the region, in terms of sheer tonnage, anti-aircraft and anti-ship capabilities. And this is the political fact. From this perspective, it is also the show of defiance and clear raise of stakes, should the Americans decide to contradict the Russians the way that would lead to open fight – now it would be more costly for the US than before.

As we can see, from the point of view of the Russian Federation's foreign policy and its strategy of Middle Eastern engagement, Kuznietsov’s arrival in the Eastern Mediterranean is entirely a political demonstration. But there is yet another dimension of the political significance of the carrier’s passage south – it is the domestic political front and it seems as important as the external political role of the issue. As it is being commonly argued and well visible from the beginning of the 2014 (and acknowledged in full by the author of this commentary), the current political strategy of the Kremlin revolves around the will to frighten and unite the society around the leaders, as their hitherto legitimacy wanes. There are of course other reasons behind president Putin’s policy of controlled confrontation with the West, but this one is of paramount significance.

While executing such strategy, it is not enough just to frighten people. It is also not enough to convince them that the motherland is endangered and the enemies are massing around it. It is also necessary to show the nation that the leaders are capable enough to defend the country and they have the means to do that. Only then such an operation works at maximum efficiency. And this is one of important reasons behind all bold and adventurous actions undertaken by the Russian military, be it chasing US ships and planes over the Baltic Sea, or long-range raids of strategic bombers, or deploying state-of-the-art weaponry into the area of the Syrian conflict, or deploying tactically and operationally useless, unreliable but otherwise mighty ships. All this issues are being widely covered by the media in Russia, and the narrative is that the country is strong and resourceful and the leaders are able and bold. Even the black smoke over the Kuznietsov’s has been commented as a show of defiance – it is supposed to be generated artificially, exactly to show up. The same with the choice of the route, via the English Channel.

Summing up, Admiral Kuznietsov’s voyage to the Syrian shores is first place a political undertaking, in both external and internal dimensions. But it is also a big gamble. It may happen that the carrier breaks down again and will be towed back to the port, experience some other serious glitch or even get battle damage (for example plane crash on landing). On the internal political front, the official propaganda would surely attempt a face-saving counteraction, with some success perhaps. But on the international arena it would be much more difficult to avoid loss of prestige and the weakening of the Russian position instead of strengthening it.

Photo credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire via