Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the long-troubled Admiral Kuznetsov, has long been seen as a bit of an embarrassment for the Kremlin, which fancies itself the world’s alternative to America’s brand of Western geopolitical leadership. Now, however, the Russian government is faced with a far more embarrassing possibility than a simple breakdown: having to tow the damaged carrier halfway around the world in order to reach a dry dock that can make it operational again.
Last October, the dry dock holding the Admiral Kuznetsov caught fire, eventually sinking into the sea and leaving the immobile carrier stranded where it was floating. A large crane that had been attached to the dry dock collapsed onto the carrier’s flight deck during the fire, tearing a large hole and adding to the extensive list of updates and repairs that had already seen repeated delays, thanks to Russia’s struggling economy and recent emphasis on the development of new missile technologies.
The only other dry dock Russia has access to that could support the effort to bring the Admiral back to life is the PD-41 dry dock, located in far eastern Russia. In order to reach that dry dock from where the carrier currently sits, it would need to sail out of the Kola Bay and through the Norwegian Sea, the North and South Atlantic, around the southern tip of Africa, across the Indian Ocean and then through both the North and South Pacific. Only then could the massive ship be hoisted back up out of the water where repairs could once again commence. There’s just one problem: the carrier’s propellers were removed before the last dry dock sank, meaning the ship cannot travel anywhere under its own power.
As a result, Russia may choose to use ocean-going tug boats to slowly drag the damaged vessel the thousands of miles it would take to reach the other dry dock, a spectacle that would be sure to catch the world’s attention as the Admiral Kuznetsov is already a frequent butt of foreign military jokes. Or, Russia can opt to simply do away with the carrier altogether, scrapping it for steel that could be used in other defensive enterprises.
Doing so would mean Russia, a nation that purports to be a global military power, would have no aircraft carriers to speak of. While this would dramatically limit the nation’s theoretical force projection capabilities, the truth is, losing the carrier would do little in terms of changing what Russia is actually capable of doing. The carrier last saw action in 2016 in support of Pro-Assad forces in Syria. That deployment proved embarrassing for the Russian military, with its support mission marred by losing two aircraft as they attempted to land on the ship’s flight deck. When its rotation was over, the Admiral skulked back to Russian waters, spewing black smoke and accompanied by an ocean-going tugboat — just in case the old carrier couldn’t manage the trip under its own power.
So the question really boils down to this — which would be more embarrassing to the Russian government: parading their zombie carrier around the globe for repairs, or putting it down for good and losing their status among nations with formidable sea-based force projection capabilities?