The aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, flagship of the Russian fleet, entered the Mediterranean over the weekend, with a long stream of ridicule from the western media in its wake. Russia’s only aircraft carrier, a leftover from the days of Soviet power, carries a long history of mishaps, at sea and in port, and diesel engines which were built for Russia’s cold waters – as shown by the column of black smoke raising above it. It needs frequent refueling and resupplies and has never been operationally tested. And yet, there is significance to the deployment of Admiral Kuzentsov to the eastern Mediterranean, even though its contribution to the Russian war effort in Syria is likely to be minimal. It is nevertheless a potent symbol of the Kremlin’s intentions to continue influencing events in the region.
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Admiral Kuzentsov and the aircraft it carries won’t change the balance of power in the Syrian arena in any major way. The Russians already have air-superiority above the wartorn country, thanks to its land-based aircraft there. The Su-33 and Mig-29s on Admiral Kuznetsov are fighter-jets modified for ship-borne operations and do not have sufficient range or payload for long sorties. If the U.S. administration changes its non-interventionist policy, what seems likely if Hillary Clinton, who supports a no-fly zone over Syria, is the next president, the Russian naval air squadron will be concerned mainly with defending its base – the aircraft carrier. Some of the warships accompanying Admiral Kuznetsov carry air-defense missiles, but these are not as efficient anyway as the S-300 and S-400 batteries Russia has already deployed to Syria, and will be mainly used for self-defense.
Russia’s fleet is inferior to a potential rival American force on two crucial points. Most of its technology is still very old and its personnel and equipment are not conditioned or proven in carrying out long-term operations far from their home-ports. Should the U.S., which has the ships, planes and expertise for these missions, and its allies, impose a no-fly zone over Syria and deploy a large force to enforce it, Admiral Kuznetsov and the other Russian ships will become sitting targets of Syria’s shore. So why did President Vladimir Putin send them there?
Aircraft carriers are strategic assets of major powers. Like nuclear weapons, which have not been used in over seven decades, they do not necessarily always have practical use, but they reflect a military capability that only a few nations hold. Deploying an aircraft carrier group to a faraway hotspot represents a global power’s strategic interests and is the most tangible manifestation of “power projection." By sending Admiral Kuznetsov to the Mediterranean, Putin is saying to the world, but first of all to his own citizens, that Russia once again has super-power aspirations. According to a report last week in the Moscow Times, there is disagreement within the Russian defense establishment over the need for investing billions in aircraft carriers. Traditionally, the role of the Russian fleet is to protect the homelands sea approaches, not operate far from its borders. By this strategy, an aircraft carrier is an expensive and superfluous status symbol. The decision to continue operating Admiral Kuznetsov and to deploy it to the Mediterranean is a victory for those in Moscow who are in favor of maintaining all the super-power trappings, even if their tactical and strategic use are limited.
An aircraft carrier needs long months in port for repairs and refitting between each period at sea. It needs also thousands of experienced seamen and aircrew to operate. This is an investment over decades in training and professional development. The only country that has the capability to send a carrier group anywhere in the world a short notice is the United States with its ten Nimitz-class “super-carriers." Each of these can carry an air-wing of ninety aircraft, including up to sixty F-18 fighter-jets, as well as electronic-warfare, command and control, transport, air-refueling and search and rescue aircraft. The U.S. also has nine smaller carriers, carrying mainly helicopters and vertical take-off and landing aircraft. It has been operating carriers around the world since Word War Two. No other nation has anything that comes close and Russia’s single carrier, like those operated by a handful of other countries, is much smaller, and can only carry out much more limited missions, with less availability.
The U.S. does not currently have a carrier in the Mediterranean. If the administration, or the next one, decides to act more forcefully in Syria, it could deploy the Eisenhower from the Persian Gulf or the George Washington from the Caribbean in a few days. It could even choose to deploy two or three carriers. France’s Charles De Gaulle is already in the eastern Mediterranean. Of all the non-American carriers, this is the largest and most sophisticated, with two squadrons of the Rafale M fighter-jet onboard. The Charles De Gaulle and its aircraft are also the only carrier group fully interoperable with the U.S. Navy, with both Rafale and F-18s capable of landing both on American and French carriers. In case of a carrier-based showdown with the Russians over a no-fly zone over Syria between a joint U.S.-French force, along with the British operating from Cyprus, the superiority of the western coalition is clear in every parameter.
For now though, Russia has one clear advantage. They are the only ones who have chosen a side in the war between the Assad regime and the rebels in Syria and are operating there. Putin has proved he is willing to follow through with his global aspirations. The sail of Admiral Kuznetsov is further proof. But Russian power is limited and effective mainly in the vacuum created by the west’s non-intervention in Syria. If tested in a showdown, it is unlikely to prove as capable. The old smoky carrier perfectly highlights these limits.