Flexing a (weak) military muscle in Syria: The voyage of the Admiral Kuznetsov

As the Syrian ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russian Federation remains unsteady, the Russian military has introduced a potential new element to its operations to support the Assad regime -- a naval flotilla lead by the 30-year old flagship aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov.  The carrier comes from Russia’s Northern Fleet, and has traveled around Europe, towards the Mediterranean, spewing thick black smoke along the way, and leaving a trail of memes from the Kremlin’s cyber critics and Twitter trolls.

NATO allies have understandably expressed concern that the impending arrival of the naval flotilla may “increase Russia's ability and be a platform for air strikes against Syria," according to NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Both Spain and Malta refused to refuel the flotilla on its journey, and the British media kept close tabs on the ships as they were escorted through the British Channel.  

So, should the West be worried about the impending Kuznetsov journey?

The verdict is split. The Kuznetsov will most likely not add to the current humanitarian crisis or be a critical addition in the effectiveness of Russian military strikes in Syria.

First and foremost, the Kuznetsov is hardly a menacing presence when evaluated on its military capabilities. Despite the importance of Syria in Russia’s global political agenda, the Kuznetsov-led flotilla does not meet Russia’s increasingly heightened standards for modernized military platforms. Russia’s State Rearmament Program to 2020 has prioritized the technical and organizational modernization of Russia’s military, but theKuznetsov has been largely left on the sidelines. Russia’s Navy is slated to receive almost a quarter of the State Rearmament Program funds (approximately $80 billion) primarily for ship building, but allocations to improve the antiquated Kuznetsov have been minimal and there are no plans (or funds) for Russia to acquire a new aircraft carrier in the near future.

Ministry of Defense sources stated in May that the Kuznetsov will undergo modernization focused on the aircraft carrier’s flight deck in 2017, but for now, the flagship of the Northern Fleet remains a symbol of Russia’s struggling military might. The Kuznetsov, since its launch in 1985, has only been deployed five times, and never in a direct combat mission. Its previous voyages have been marred by mishaps, and the technology onboard, particularly the ski-jump style ramp to launch aircraft is hardly state of the art. The 15 aircraft that accompany Admiral Kuznetsov are not able to take off with a full tank of fuel and full load of equipment due to this ramp style, limiting their ability to effectively participate in combat missions. Adding to the challenges, the ship’s bulky size makes it difficult and impractical to dock the flotilla at Russia’s Tartus port.

Here’s where there may be cause for concern:

The flotilla is part of Russia’s offensive military posture in the Middle East, despite not having significant capacity to back up its own threat. The important lesson of the Kuznetsov deployment is not if or how it will engage in Russia’s operations in Syria, but what signal it sends to the international community about Russia’s intentions in the Middle East.

Power projection is a wartime tactic, and an increasingly popular one used by Russia to assert its position as a resurgent great power. By forward deploying the naval flotilla led by Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia is signaling its ability to send military hardware to various parts of the world, and its commitment to remain involved in the conflict. The Kuznetsov is not the deployment of a nation that is looking for a way out of the Syrian war. Whether or not the Kuznetsov is useful militarily, the flotilla is a signal of Russia’s will to commit resources to Syria. The deployment, according to Russian sources, also limits any increased NATO military commitments. By stationing the Kuznetsov in Syrian waters before a NATO aircraft carrier, NATO could be deterred from sending a strong naval presence, for fear of direct clashes and escalation with Russia.  

While the Obama administration continues to limit US engagement in Syria, Russia is slowly ratcheting up its military presence, albeit with a practically defunct aircraft carrier. Any aircraft carrier deployment is an expensive venture, and in the case of the Kuznetsov, potentially accident prone as well.  

But Russia sees a favorable risk-reward scenario. Admiral Kuznetsov and its fleet of ships may not be the most impressive array of hardware in the Russian military. In fact, pundits have painted the flotilla as one of the embarrassments of the Russian military. But we have to be mindful of whyRussia is deploying these ships. The Kuznetsov anchors Russia’s military presence in Syria, and that psychological tactic may be an important consideration as the next US president decides how to proceed in Syria.

Mari is a recent graduate from Wellesley College in Political Science and Russian, and has spent time living and working in St. Petersburg, as well as Kiev. Her work primarily focuses on Russian and Eurasian security issues. She is the Staff Assistant to Dr. Gary Samore, the Executive Director of Research at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center.