MOSCOW — The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s lone, rather geriatric aircraft carrier, steamed through the English Channel toward the Mediterranean Sea on Friday in the Kremlin’s latest attempt to reassert its lost superpower status.
Belching thick black smoke, the Soviet-era warship, previously known more as a threat to its crew than anything else, led a battle group of eight vessels, including an oceangoing tug thattraditionally accompanies the carrier, which has a reputation for breaking down. The flotilla is expected to deploy off Syria in late October to bolster the military operations propping up President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s main Arab ally.
If the 15 warplanes on board the Admiral Kuznetsov join the bombardment of Syria, the carrier will have its first active combat role since it was launched more than three decades ago as part of a last gasp by the fading Soviet Union to challenge American naval power.
That is seemingly the intent of the carrier’s current mission — the latest move by President Vladimir V. Putin to flex Russian military muscle abroad and project power anywhere in the world by dispatching a floating air base.Continue reading the main story
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“It is part of Russia signaling that it is back on the world stage, that it is once again a maritime power,” said Magnus Nordenman, the director of the trans-Atlantic security initiative at the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington.
In addition, the battle group adds to Russia’s military leverage in diplomatic negotiations with the United States and other Western powers over the future of Syria. Russia has also repeatedly used the Syrian war as a kind of infomercial for its weapons sales.
For the moment, Russia has suspended combat operations in Aleppo, Syria, to give rebel fighters and civilians a chance to escape the siege. Driving the opposition from Aleppo would pave the way for Mr. Assad to rule over some manner of rump state; there is little optimism for a permanent truce.
“The deployment is mainly intended to park an 800-pound gorilla off Syria’s coast to intimidate all comers,” said Cliff Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.
“If — or when — diplomacy fails, the will to defend eastern Aleppo will be diminished,” he said.
Many military analysts see the Admiral Kuznetsov as merely a 200-pound gorilla, and consider it a gamble to play gunboat diplomacy with a lumbering tub fit for the scrap heap. The latest excursion is only the eighth long-distance mission for the aircraft carrier, which has been something of a lemon from the start.
“I would sum up its history as ‘tortured,’” Mr. Nordenman said.
The carrier underwent repairs from 1996 to 1998, from 2001 to 2004, and in 2008, and its deck and electronic plant were replaced in the past two years, according to Russian news reports.
It is expected back in dry dock after the Syria deployment because its propulsion system needs to be replaced.
Whenever it went to sea over the years, the Admiral Kuznetsov was prone to accidents.
The United States Navy came to its aid during one Mediterranean training exercise in 1996, when the machinery used to distill fresh water from seawater malfunctioned, leaving its crew of nearly 2,000 sailors with a severe shortage of fresh water. The carrier polluted the Irish Sea at one point with a gigantic oil spill, and a fire on board killed a crew member in 2009.
The technology used to launch airplanes is considered obsolete. Most modern carriers fling their fighter jets skyward with a kind of catapult, allowing them to carry a full contingent of fuel and weapons. Planes launched from the Admiral Kuznetsov wobble aloft from a sort of ski jump, forcing them to take off without a full load.
The warship will hug the Syrian coastline, allowing planes to perform bombing runs and return to the ship’s deck before running out of fuel, according to an unidentified source cited by the Tass news agency.
The deployment will include the first of the new MiG-29K/KUB fighters, a modernized version of that MiG jet, and the Su-33a, as well as 15 helicopters, according to Tass. “This is a potent force,” said Prokhor Tebin, a Russian who writes a blog about the country’s navy.
The carrier deployment is the latest in a series of stepped-up Russian naval maneuvers.
Since 2015, the intensity of Russian submarine patrols has increased by almost 50 percent. Russian warplanes have buzzed several United States Navy ships and flown patrols that skirt territorial waters. And Russian submarines and spy planes are operating close to crucial undersea cables that carry almost all internet communications globally.
Russian submarines launched cruise missiles last year for the first time in a war, hitting targets in Syria. Though the defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, recently acknowledged that the war had revealed some unspecified “defects” in the production of military hardware, the Kremlin made a show this month of deploying nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles capable of reaching European capitals from Kaliningrad, Russia’s enclave on the Baltic Sea.
Before a long recession forced cutbacks in the military budget for the coming three years, the Kremlin had announced an extensive military modernization campaign including new intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as air defense systems, aircraft and tanks.
Around $80 billion of a projected $321 billion to be spent from 2011 to 2020 was earmarked to rebuild the Russian Navy. Even so, Russia was not expected to catch up to the United States, which has 10 nuclear-powered carriers, each capable of carrying 60 aircraft and with decades of experience in combat.
“Russia need not be America’s military or economic equal to pose a real challenge to Western interests,” Anna Borshchevskaya wrote in an analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Still, Mr. Shoigu recently reminded senior military officials that Soviet naval power in the Mediterranean helped stop the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and also served then to deter “enemies.”
The aim of deploying the Admiral Kuznetsov may be psychological as much as anything else. “This will force Europe to cooperate with Russia more,” said Vladimir V. Yevseyev, a military expert and deputy head of the Institute of CIS Countries in Moscow.
One analyst joked that even though the ship was practically old enough to have been deployed in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, its deployment prompted yet more concern about Mr. Putin’s inclination to do something rash out of a sense of weakness rather than strength.
As a precaution, the British defense secretary, Michael Fallon, announced that the Royal Navy would shadow the Admiral Kuznetsov battle group, and other NATO nations dispatched ships as well.
Although the situation is not exactly parallel to the naval rivalry of the Cold War, Mr. Nordenman acknowledged the potential for conflict. “If you can fire cruise missiles off Syria, you can fire them off Norway or England or the U.S.,” he said.