Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier Is Junk. So Why Is Moscow Sticking With It?

Russia's Only Aircraft Carrier Is Junk. So Why Is Moscow Sticking With It?

The Admiral Kuznetsov will likely sail smokily on into the future, tugboats in tow.

Here's What You Need to Know: Plans are still underway to keep the ship afloat.

The Admiral Kuznetsov is Russia’s only aircraft carrier. It’s suffered many mishaps — its dry dock sank in 2018, and an adjacent 70-ton crane came crashing into the deck, killing four and leaving a giant crater in the flight deck. In late 2019 the ship caught fire during repair work. In short — there are many problems. But the Admiral Kuznetsov will sail on.

Cursed Ship?

The non-nuclear aircraft carrier (technically classified as a heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser, in order to legally navigated the Turkish Straits) has a reputation for being very unreliable. Part of the problem lies with its steam turbines and boilers. When deployed, the Kuznetsov is accompanied by a tugboat support ship in case of a breakdown that prevents it from reaching port under its own power.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Peter Roberts, a naval expert at the Royal United Services Institute explained the perception of cursed ships in naval culture. “In naval folklore, there’s something called an unlucky ship and Kuznetsov is undoubtedly an unlucky ship.” Part of the problem stems from the blueprints, partly from pure chance. “Kuznetsov is one of those that has things going wrong through design and just through luck.” In any case, not a ship you’d want to be on.

Water, Water, Every Where Nor a Drop to Drink

After Admiral Kuznetsov’s 2017 deployment to Syria, it was escorted through the English Channel by elements of the Royal Navy. While steaming through the channel, heavy black smoke was seen billowing out of the aircraft carrier’s smokestacks.

The ship was widely derided on social media as a grave danger — to the environment.

Bombs Away

In 2018, the Admiral Kuznetsov was undergoing repairs and maintenance, when the dry dock it was berthed on, the PD-50, sank. As the dock sank, a 70-ton crane also collapsed onto the ship, gauging a massive hole in its hull.

The PD-50 was one of, if not the, largest floating dry docks in the world. Without it, the Admiral Kuznetsov will have to use a non-floating dry dock — that is, one that is not mobile, but based on land. While not ideal, it’s not necessarily the end of the Admiral Kuznetsov just yet.

Apparently plans are underway to re-float the PD-50, although it that is possible remains to be seen. What is a near certainty, however, is that the Admiral Kuznetsov will most likely not meet its a major overhaul of its propulsion system, originally planned to be complete in 2021.


Most recently, the Admiral Kuznetsov was in Murmansk, docked for repairs. A fire, allegedly caused by hot metal from welding falling onto an oily cloth, which then caused electrical wiring to catch fire, burned “an area of 600 sq m and took about 20 hours to bring under control.” While not an enormous blaze, the fire caused an outsized $1-1.5 billion in damages and two deaths.

One source suggested that the high cost of repairs for the fire may have been due repair material other components also going up in flames, as these parts may have been sitting on the deck awaiting installation.

Uncertain Future

If Russia actually has the need for an aircraft carrier, if continued money for repairs could be better used elsewhere is debatable. What is however sure, is that despite the myriad setback experienced by the unlucky ship, the Admiral Kuznetsov will likely sail smokily on into the future, tugboats in tow.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

This article first appeared in 2020.

Image: Wikimedia Commons