Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier Nightmare Is Here To Stay

Russia's Admiral Kuznetsov Aircraft Carrier Nightmare Is Here To Stay

Admiral Kuznetsov has been plagued by a series of unfortunate incidents throughout its service history that have largely left what Russia calls a heavy cruiser immobile


Summary: The Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's sole aircraft carrier, has been plagued with numerous operational challenges and mishaps throughout its service history.

Aircraft Carrier


-Notoriously problematic, the carrier has faced issues ranging from mechanical failures and construction defects to severe accidents including fires and a crane crash. Not active in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Kuznetsov remains sidelined due to these persistent maintenance problems.

-Efforts to modernize or supplement the Russian carrier fleet with new ships have been hampered by economic sanctions and manufacturing difficulties.

-As a result, Russia's naval capabilities remain compromised, with the Kuznetsov often emitting thick black smoke due to its conventional mazut fuel system, further highlighting its outdated technology and operational inefficiency.

Admiral Kuznetsov: A Chronicle of Russia's Troubled Aircraft Carrier

Russia’s sole aircraft carrier is widely considered to be a massive failure.

Admiral Kuznetsov has been plagued by a series of unfortunate incidents throughout its service history that have largely left what Russia calls a heavy cruiser immobile.

From fires and falling cranes to shoddy construction and black fumes, the Kuznetsov is notoriously troubled. The warship has notably not participated in Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine in any capacity since the conflict began in February 2022.

While the carrier is sidelined due to constant maintenance issues, the Kremlin is working to develop two Ivan Rogov-class amphibious assault ships which could potentially function as light aircraft carriers for the Russian Air Force.

Aircraft Carrier

However, production and manufacturing issues caused in part by the heavy economic sanctions imposed on the country at the moment indicate that this project will not come to fruition anytime soon. In the meantime, Moscow is forced to rely on its essential defunct Kuznetsov carrier.

The history of the Admiral Kuznetsov

Russia’s oldest and only aircraft carrier was named to honor the revered Soviet Admiral Nikolay Gerasimovich Kuznetsov during the Cold War. Initially, the ship was laid down as “Riga,” followed by a name change to “Leonid Brezhnev” and later “Tbilisi.”

The ship was finally renamed Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza N.G. Kuznetsov before setting sail.  First commissioned in the mid-1980s, the carrier was designed to protect the USSR’s missile-lugging submarines and other warships. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov sailed from the Black Sea to join the Northern Fleet.  

The Russian Navy describes the warship as a “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser,” as it is capable of carrying a dozen Sukhoi Su-27s (designated by NATO as Flanker), 16 Yakovlev Yak 41-M (Freestyle) fixed-wing airframes, in addition to an array of helicopter platforms.

Notably, Kuznetsov is equipped with a Granit anti-ship missile system as an armament, which is fitted on the carrier with 12 surface-to-surface missile launchers. Additionally, Kuznetsov can carry nearly 200 3K95 Kinzhal surface-to-air missiles.

Design flaws

Unlike Western warships which are normally powered by nuclear power or gas turbines, Kuznetsov is conventionally powered by a unique fuel source- mazut. This thick and tarry substance allows enemy ships to detect the aircraft carrier from miles away due to the fumes of black smoke that persistently engulf the ship.

In the past, Russian naval officials have noted that the failure to preheat the fuel source prior to entering the combustion chamber may play a part in the heavy smoke trail associated with the cruiser.

Incidents and mishaps:

Kuznetsov’s weak fuel source and shoddy construction are not the only inhibitors of the carrier’s success. When the ship first deployed in 2016 to Syria, two airframes were lost due to faulty arresting wiring on deck.

Since the carrier was forced to relocate to shore following this incident, it was rendered a useless asset during the deployment. Two years later, a fire ignited by a welding incident in the ship’s engine room resulted in the death of two workers and sent 14 others to the hospital.

The same year, a floating crane crashed into Kuznetsov’s deck in an incident that killed one worker and injured four others.

In 2022, a fire reportedly broke out onboard the carrier, sparking an evacuation of roughly 20 people. According to Russian state-run media outlets, the heavy cruiser was undergoing repairs in the northwestern region of Murmansk when the incident occurred. Even a crime of embezzlement relating to the shipyard came to light over the last few years.

It seems like Kuznetsov cannot catch a break, and the hefty cruise is certainly not aiding Russia’s naval fleet amidst the ongoing war with Ukraine. Recently, Russian state-run news outlet TASS claimed that, “According to the adjusted plan, factory sea trials of the aircraft carrier should begin in the spring of 2024,” adding that “If the tests pass without glitches, then the ship can be handed over to the fleet at the end of 2024.

Aircraft Carrier

If something goes wrong during the tests, then a shift to 2025 is inevitable.” However, Moscow’s worsening economic woes and inability to sustain its troops with up-to-date and well-maintained military equipment on the frontlines in Ukraine suggest that this timeline is wishful thinking at best.

About the Author: Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin

All images are Creative Commons.