Why Russia’s only aircraft carrier can’t attack Ukraine?

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Where is Russia‘s Cursed Aircraft Carrier?: Earlier this month, the satirical Twitter account @Sputnik_Not – clearly a reference to the Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik News – posted an image of a Ukrainian farmer in a tractor towing away the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier. The photo wasn’t real; it was just one of several doctored images that made the rounds on social media in recent weeks that showed Ukrainians towing away rockets, jets, and even a submarine.

Such posts were likely in response to the very real news that a farmer had in fact used a tractor to “steal” a Russian tank. Why not the Admiral Kuznetsov?

“Ukrainian farmer goes all in,” said the caption for the March 10 tweet, which showed the aircraft carrier in the background.

A farmer might not have towed the warship away, but that might have been the most it’s moved in years.

The Soviet-era carrier, which is now the flagship of the Russian Navy, was taken out of service in 2018 for a refit. It has been undergoing modernization at the 35th Ship Repair Plant in Murmansk, and was initially scheduled to return to duty by 2020.

Then the problems began – and some in Russia have whispered that the warship is cursed. And there is even a chance it may never sail again.

Multitude of Misfortunes

In November of 2018, Admiral Kuznetsov was damaged when a 70-ton floating crane fell on the flight deck, killing one worker and injuring four more. A fire broke out in the engine room during a welding accident in December 2019 resulting in the death of two people, while 14 suffered injuries from fire and smoke inhalation.

The actual drydock, which was vital to the ongoing repairs, was also damaged during a power outage and further delayed the progress. It is now unlikely the flagship will be able to even begin post-repair sea trials until the middle of next year at the earliest.

Corruption Issues

In addition to a number of unfortunate accidents, corruption in Russia has also contributed to the lack of progress on the carrier’s refit.

It was a year ago, in March 2021 that Yevgeny Zudin, general director of Shipyard No. 10 in Polyarny, was arrested under suspicion of the theft of forty-five million rubles (approximately $600,000 USD) that had been allocated to the repair of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet warship.

Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier
Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier

Shipyard No. 10 (10 Order of the Red Banner of Labor Shipyard) is part of Zvezdockha yard in Severodvinsk, a subsidiary of United Shipbuilding Corporation. The shipyard had been subcontracted by the Zvezdochka ship repair center for several stages of cleaning work in October 2018. The work was reportedly completed in July 2019 and the shipyard had billed the Russian military for twenty-three thousand man-hours worth of work instead of the thirteen thousand man-hours of work that was actually conducted.

Russia’s Only Carrier

Despite the problems with the refit, Russia has remained committed to bringing the carrier back into service. It lacks the money to build a new carrier – but at this point that might have been a better investment.

Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov is currently the Russian Navy’s largest warship and the only aircraft carrier. If or when it returns to service, it can carry twenty-six aircraft and twenty-four helicopters on the flight deck and in the under-deck hangar. Russia’s flagship displaces 58,000 tons, and it has a length of 304.5 meters. Unlike the U.S. Navy’s carriers, it does not utilize a catapult to launch aircraft and instead is equipped with a ski-jump ramp.

It is a conventionally powered ship, and has a full-speed capacity of 200,000 horsepower and can reach a speed of up to 30 knots. Apart from its air wing, the Admiral Kuznetsov is also armed with anti-ship and air defense missile systems. It operates with a crew of 1,300 while the air group’s personnel numbers 660 men.

Built during the final decade of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, the aircraft carrier was only launched in 1985 and commissioned in 1991. Due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the carrier sat idle for four years until it became the flagship of the Russian Navy in 1995.

It technically wasn’t designed as a carrier either.

During construction Admiral Kuznetsov was officially designated as an aircraft-carrying cruiser. That designation allowed it to transit the Turkish-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits under the Monteux Convention, which unofficially prohibits aircraft carriers from conducting such transits.

Turkey has now closed the waterway to Russian warships, but in this case, it wouldn’t matter as its carrier is a long time away from returning to service. Perhaps it could use some help from some Ukrainian tractors to get it underway.

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