Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the long-troubled Admiral Kuznetsov, 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 it’s 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.
In many ways, Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov is a carrier in name alone. While most nations use their aircraft carriers as a formidable means of force projection, Russia’s carrier is more of a battlefield liability, even earning the moniker “ship of shame” from UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon. Russia has continued to maintain the vessel as part of its surface fleet, however, because having an aircraft carrier on the books keeps Russia in the exclusive fraternity of nations with large carriers as their disposal. With Russia’s reliance on massive nuclear doomsday weapons and headline-grabbing infantry robots, the perception of Moscow’s might around the world is a carefully crafted house of cards that relies on sleight of hand and big-ticket pieces of hardware — even ones as troubled as the Admiral Kuznetsov.
Russia’s carrier has been in dry dock since its last deployment, undergoing a long overdue systems overhaul that has seen its budget repeatedly slashed in the past few years. Russia’s stagnating economy and the international sanctions put into place following their military annexation of Crimea in 2014 have forced Putin to prioritize military programs in terms of bang-for-the-buck. As a result, funding has been drained from Russia’s surface fleet in favor of reallocation toward a larger and more capable submarine force.
Despite this reshuffling of finances, the Admiral Kuznetsov was still slated to return to service in 2021… that is, until the dry dock it was housed in sank with the carrier on board last month. While the Russian flagship survived the incident, two massive cranes collapsed on its flight deck, tearing a 200-square-foot hole in the top of the ship and setting repair efforts back by months. Now, however, it seems those repairs may never begin. Russia doesn’t have any more dry docks that are large enough to house the broken down carrier.
“We have alternatives actually for all the ships except for [the aircraft carrier] Admiral Kuznetsov,” Alexei Rakhmanov, head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation told Russian state media. “As for the ships of the first rank … the Admiral Kuznetsov, [the loss of the PD-50 floating dock] creates certain inconveniences.”
Inconvenience is right. Russia has no suitable replacement for the massive floating dry dock, meaning their carrier can’t even begin repairs or continue its overhaul until a new dock is constructed or the old one has been recovered from the depths. While the latter is already being considered, the best estimates suggest it would take Russia six months to a year to recover their sunken dry dock, and the cost and equipment required would almost certainly mean Russia would need the assistance of the international community.
Russia may be hard pressed to find many Naval powers in the world that would be eager to help them get their aircraft carrier back up and running. So, for now and into the foreseeable future, it would seem that Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is dead in the water.