20 April 2017
The Voyage of the Admiral Kuznetsov, and the Unveiling of the Paper Tiger
Recent Russian military operations have given the appearance that the proverbial bear in the north is growing larger and stronger by the year. For obvious reasons, these movements bother those in the Western world. Fearing the reemergence of a Soviet style Russia, marked by expansion and aggression, we read headlines and wargame the worst possible situations, linking annexations and decade old fly-overs with a desire to initiate a third world war. While it’s wise to constantly assess and reassess the tactics of our neighbors, it appears that many of these concerns are wildly overstated. We must only look towards the recent deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier to Syria to see that there is a paper tiger in our midst, and even the best propaganda can occasionally backfire. Despite the public image of the failed venture, it can be argued that the Russian commanders knew exactly what they were doing. While the Kuznetsov’s Mediterranean deployment might have had the goal of improving Russian capabilities, it’s failures were far reaching and highly public. The voyage gave NATO intelligence forces an inside look into the current capabilities of Russian force projection, and it appears to indicate a sad state of readiness
On November 15th, 2016, Russia’s largest aircraft carrying cruiser, the Admiral Kuznetsov, began combat operations in the Mediterranean Sea against Syrian rebel and Islamic State targets. The Admiral’s voyage was plagued by troubles from the very beginning, and became something of a running joke as it made its way towards the Mediterranean Sea. Belching black smoke, covered in filth, and accompanied the whole journey by a tug boat just in case of break down, the carrier had very little in common with a similar United States Navy deployment.
Marking the first naval combat deployment for Russia since the end of the cold war, the intentions of this voyage were clear. Russia wished to show its power as a reemerging state, rivaling operations of Western powers. Along with their aggressions in Eastern Europe; undergoing questionable annexations, trying to dismantle adversarial governments, and even attempting failed coup d’états, a naval projection of force was the logical next step. Western military power is typically marked by full spectrum domination, indicating competence and ability on land, sea, and air. Naval power is the keystone in a full spectrum capable force, and its prohibitive cost prevents many rising powers from making that final leap. The Admiral Kuznetsov had recently completed a large refit procedure, one of many it has had to undergo in the last ten years, and this was a chance to theoretically show off its capabilities. What emerged from behind the curtain, however, was an unintended blunder, which left analysts shocked. The operation was an international embarrassment, resulting in the loss of two Russian jets due to poor maintenance practices and training, and minimal damage inflicted on Syrian rebel and ISIS targets. However, it’s hard to believe that this voyage was only indicative of Russia’s, (lack of), naval readiness, but rather that it was an unintentional slip up which showed the world the true state of Russia’s overall power. Power which up until now has been assumed to be immense and reemerging, and soon to be a threat to all Western/NATO nations, if public opinion and political rhetoric is to be believed.
Lack of success in the naval realm isn’t exactly surprising, given Russia’s lack of operational experience in the field. Institutional knowledge is key to effective operation of naval vessels, and in many cases this knowledge is only gained by conducting the operations themselves. Maintenance, standard operating procedures, manpower planning, etc… are all learned and developed from firsthand experience conducting naval maneuvers, and this fact is likely one of the driving motivations behind Russia’s recent push to the sea. We will likely see future operations being conducted in the region, but the question is what lessons will be retained from their previous failures?
Historically speaking, technology and naval doctrine aside, we need to look towards Russia’s overarching propaganda themes to properly evaluate the nature and severity of the Admiral Kuznetsov circus. How far behind the curtain did the Kuznetsov blunder allow us to see? Russia has long been known for its tightly controlled public image. Much of this image control can be linked to a reemergence of Soviet era propaganda techniques, brought back to life under the Putin regime. It’s hardly shocking that a former KGB/FSB agent would appreciate the benefits that a tightly controlled propaganda machine can provide, especially when driving the public opinion of his own nation. RT News, (formerly Russia Today), offered drastically different reporting on the Admiral’s voyage than Western outlets, as to be expected of a Putin controlled entity. Glossing over any mechanical failures that the carrier encountered, RT’s articles overstated the effects of the carrier’s air sorties, and then focused on the American position, highlighting its stance that we often “turn a blind eye” to extremist groups, and essentially painting a picture that the Russian forces are an intermediary, seeking to bring peace to the region. The total lack of coverage towards the failures of the voyage gives us an interesting side by side, when compared to traditional Western entities. From an internal distribution standpoint, Russian media efforts to gloss over the Navy’s failures were likely a very successful venture, however in a world connected by the internet, the truth quickly came to light.
To fully understand and appreciate the failure of the Kuznetsov’s journey, we must compare it to similar operations by the United States Navy, from both a technological and tactical standpoint. In comparing vessels alone, the Admiral Kuznetsov can carry approximately 40 aircraft compared to a US carrier’s 90. Furthermore, due to the design of the Kuznetsov, which relies on a ramped runway, the aircraft it can carry aren’t able to take off while armed with a full payload of explosive ordnance, severely limiting its capabilities to a primarily defensive role, not the offensive abilities which are required to support ground operations. US carriers, on the other hand, utilize a steam catapult mechanism, which allows the aircraft it carries to deploy with a full payload of ordnance, giving them the ability to fly far from the carrier itself and engage chosen targets seemingly at will. United States Naval deployments to the region have also had wildly different levels of success when it comes to actually engaging targets, as to be expected. Furthermore, the US Navy has yet to lose an aircraft due to ground fires in the conflict zone, let alone mechanical issues. United States Carrier Groups are also able to operate nearly autonomously, without the constant tug boat escort that the Kuznetsov required in case of major break down. US Navy carriers are powered by large nuclear reactors, which essentially remove the need to refuel, which is another stark contrast to the conventionally powered Kutznetsov.
Of the 40 planes that the Kuznetsov could have carried, it deployed with only ten, due to maintenance and cost restrictions placed on the carrier group by Russian commanders. In the grand scheme of things, as the United States Naval Institute pointed out in its piece on the deployment, the Admiral effected very little in the region by arriving. No meaningful operations were conducted by the Kuznetsov, as the bulk of the Russian air sorties in the area were being fulfilled by land based squadrons of fighters and bombers. Even if the Kuznetsov deployment’s goal was to self-evaluate capabilities, the complete lack of operational success indicates that very little information could have been gleaned while at sea, which seems to counter the argument that the deployment was a learning move. Additionally, these facts further support the idea that the whole operation wasn’t an actual regional necessity to support Russian missions, but rather a large multimillion dollar PR move, seeking to put Russia in the spotlight by flexing its perceived capabilities. A PR move which, based on open sources, failed dramatically.
Failed PR moves aren’t necessarily detrimental to internal Russian public opinion, however. As mentioned by the Washington Post article on Russian media censorship, independent journalism isn’t a profitable field in Putin’s Russia. Broadly interpreted laws, such as one from 2002 intended to combat terrorism, “[targeted] speech, publications, groups, and ideas deemed ‘extremist’, a broadly defined notion interpreted subjectively by officials.”. Even if the truth of the Kuznetsov’s failed journey were to reach the Russian media, sharing that truth could potentially mean jail time, or in the case of reporter and activist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, death. This suppression of independent journalism and free speech, while shocking and horrible to those unused to it, benefits the Kremlin.
If the results were less than spectacular, why would Russia attempt such an endeavor in the first place? Evidence seems to show that they primarily intended to impress their own population. Another mechanism of the neo-Soviet propaganda machine is to focus on public opinion at home first, and worry about opinions abroad later. Putin has been confronted with an issue; ALL his operations outside of Syria have ended in stalemates or outright failures. From Georgia, to the Ukraine, to an unstable Chechnya, even the failed coup d’état in Montenegro that is now being pinned on Russian agents, not a single recent operation has ended in the type of overwhelming and clear cut success that Putin must have hoped for. The record high approval ratings that Putin has so far gained must be maintained somehow, and a drawn-out Afghanistan-esque conflict will not help, as that’s arguably one of the things that helped cripple the Soviet Union just before its collapse. While some of the ongoing conflicts in Eastern Europe might aid the Russians in more subtle ways, such as keeping a clear land route open through Crimea to their major naval base in Sevastapol for example, clear victories would benefit Putin’s overall image. Thus, the operations in Syria were his only remaining avenue.
Operations in Syria have a distinct advantage over conflicts in the near-abroad, in that there is simply more physical separation between the conflict zone and the Russian populace. In any of the nations that contained Russian minorities, (Ukraine, Georgia, etc…), news of military successes and failures can be passed on to relatives in Moscow quite easily by word of mouth, bypassing and undermining the highly filtered Russian media. This is Syria’s primary advantage. Russian successes or failures can be reported on at will by government friendly media agencies, (RT, NTV, Channel One, etc…), and negative pieces from Western journalists can easily be brushed off as simply holding a strong anti-Russian bias. The Admiral Kuznetsov’s journey is simply another seemingly masterful brush stroke for the Russian populace at home to admire. With whitewashed reporting on the ground conflict already in the forefront, they now get to see the deployment of a vessel that, for all they know, shows the reemergence of their nation as a true rival power. True capabilities and shortcomings aren’t likely something you will see disclosed in an Kremlin approved RT piece.
This isn’t to say that the drawn-out conflicts of the near-abroad don’t benefit Russia, they absolutely do, but not on the propaganda front. While mounting casualties in the Donbass region continue to erode the Russian will to fight, Putin has managed to create the perfect training environment for his military, which carries over to the Kuznetsov’s voyage. While the West has been at war for the past 16 years, testing and developing new military technologies and tactics, Russia has been stuck with 1970’s and 1980’s era technology. Creating his own wars has given Putin the opportunity to push modern technology to the battlefield, and essentially play catch up with the Western militaries, conducting real world research and development that otherwise isn’t possible. We’ve seen this with many of their recently released military technologies, such as the Armata tank chassis, which was developed after seeing their older platforms fail when confronted by Western antitank armaments, provided to anti-Russian forces by US agencies, in a move that mirrors the Stinger missiles that we provided to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. While their land based forces are quickly gaining ground, Russian Naval technology has been hampered largely in part due to the extreme financial requirements for maintaining naval vessels, which are far costlier to maintain and improve than ground based equipment. Russia’s climate doesn’t help matters any, as its lack of a warm water port limits its ability to conduct its own ship overhauls. This lack of suitable infrastructure necessitates that the Russian Navy is relegated to contracting major ship overhauls to third parties, which is a huge financial burden, and directly hinders their ability to project a large and constantly ready naval force, as most Western powers can.
Another piece of the puzzle to consider, is that perhaps this move to the sea indicates a sort of self-awareness. Knowing their weaknesses, and seeking to expand their abilities to combat a near-peer Western force, the operation could have been initiated solely to determine what weaknesses they had, and iron those weaknesses out in low intensity conflict zones. Again though, the overall failure of the operation makes this deployment appear to have been a wasted venture. With very little operational success, and plagued by difficulties the entire way, it seems that not very many lessons could have been learned that they couldn’t have ascertained before committing both the Kuznetsov, and their public image to the venture. Regardless of the intentions, when faced with Western critics and unfettered media coverage, the voyage still appears to be a massive public relations blunder.
Another interesting point to consider if we follow the train of thought that this was an evaluation as opposed to a true deployment, is that not only does the Syrian conflict allow Putin to test new equipment, but it also provides the Kremlin with the ability to downplay the stalemates in other areas as well. This would further fuel the theory that the Soviet-esque propaganda machine lives on. From the USNI article on the deployment: “First, the propaganda campaign: About a year ago Russian propaganda began heavily emphasizing the Syrian war, in domestic television, over the Ukraine war. That has mostly remained the case since then. The war in Syria emphasizes Putin’s role in fighting terrorism, and his propaganda machine emphasizes that Russia is making real progress against ISIS, unlike the West, and sometimes it even intimates that the West is behind ISIS. Therefore activity in Syria can be spun as part of Putin’s efforts to keep Russia safe from terrorists and Western powers.” In essence, the Syrian conflict is the perfect excuse to push the often-ineffective campaign in the Ukraine to the wayside, and allows the Kremlin to maximize coverage of the “Western threat” to the Russian way of life, and downplay its own operational shortcomings. The Russian populace sees heavily scrubbed reports of the Syrian conflict, with the Western powers assumed to be the bogeyman, and are inclined to rally around the proverbial flag, further supporting Putin’s goals. By maintaining the coverage of the “new” war, the propaganda machine can keep rolling, and Putin’s approval ratings remain high, regardless of the truth on the ground.
While the very public failure of the Admiral Kuznetsov’s mission might not effect Putin’s opinion polls, it’s still a very important glimpse inside at the cogs of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Furthermore, it might also indicate a change in future Russian operations. Again, while internal Russian opinions might be unchanged due to the biased coverage of the operation, Russian commanders are likely left embarrassed by the underwhelming display of their previously untested and underdeveloped technology.
Learning from these mistakes, in the future, we will likely see a change in the way Russian naval operations are conducted. In an attempt to mitigate any potential media fallout, future Russian probes will likely be far smaller, and will be conducted with significantly less fanfare than the sailing of the Admiral Kuznetsov. If the size, duration, and media coverage of the future voyages is suppressed, the West will be forced to revert to Cold War era methods of intelligence gathering, relying on spies, informants, and other operatives in order to gain an inside look into Russian naval capability. This is the most troubling aspect of the failed journey, as it indicates a true reemergence of a Cold War style conflict, focused on covert intelligence gathering and proxy wars as opposed to exploiting open source information, which has been the more recent standard operating procedure.
Additionally, we might see a major boost in Russian military spending. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks military spending across the globe, Russian defense spending is at an all-time high since the end of the Soviet Union, but has begun to taper off since 2012, presumably aligning with the slowing of success in Eastern European entanglements. With growing support from both the population and the parties within the Duma, and burned by the embarrassment of recent operations, it’s reasonable to assume that we might see Russian defense spending increasing in order to double down on any potential lessons learned. With the public relations successes in the Syrian conflict zone, Putin will perhaps begin to push for further spending and improvements within various Russian military programs.
Accompanying increased military spending will likely be a shift in how the Russian forces are organized. Currently, only 25% of Russian forces are full time, professional soldiers and sailors. The bulk of Russian armed forces consist of poorly trained conscripts, which is another factor at play when considering poor maintenance and training. If military spending is boosted, and Russia decides that it absolutely wants to become an equivalent power to near peer Western forces, the system of conscription will have to go away in favor of more professional soldiers and sailors. A plethora of second and third order effects would follow such a decision, however. The increased amounts of training and expenditure would lead to further Western interest, and would escalate current tensions which already appear to be at a high point. As with any arms race, the impacts of ramped up Russian training and expenditure would be seen in the West as well, as NATO forces would seek to match and surpass any advances the Russians make.
Leaving wargames behind us, the biggest takeaway from the Kuznetsov blunder is that Russia isn’t quite the heavy military hitter that they make themselves out to be. World War is the media buzz phrase of the day, but that’s all it would appear to be. While the Russian forces likely did gain valuable information from the failed operation, those positive effects were far outweighed by the negative consequences that the voyage unintentionally spurred. While the Russian populace may have appreciated the image of their nation’s flag steaming into a conflict zone, as a tangible visual representation of Putin’s Plan, we in the West should also appreciate the venture, as it gave us a solid glimpse at the dismal capabilities of the Paper Tiger in the East.
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