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Russia talks tough, but its navy is in disrepair

by David Gilbert
Nov 15 2016, 11:22am

A Russian fighter jet crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on Monday while trying to land on the country’s one remaining aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. The incident was an embarrassment for the Kremlin, and despite recent muscular gestures is “further evidence of the limitations of the country’s naval power,” according to Russian military expert Bettina Renz.

The crashed Soviet-era MiG-29K was one of three fighter jets on its way to Syria when it encountered mechanical issues that required its immediate return to the aircraft carrier.

The pilot of the aircraft ejected and was unharmed in the incident, the ministry said. “The health of the pilot is not in danger. The pilot is ready to carry out orders,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the incident took place several miles from the Admiral Kuznetsov warship, which took up a position off the coast of Syria, along with a flotilla of warships, in advance of Tuesday’s renewed assault on Aleppo and other rebel-held territories in the country. Tuesday’s mission was the first time the Admiral Kuznetsov was involved in combat.

Renz, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, told VICE News that the presence of the flotilla in the eastern Mediterranean was all about “showing off, or swaggering” rather than having strategic importance in the war in Syria, where Russia is allied with government forces.

“Russia is keen to show off its naval capabilities and to make these look stronger than they actually are,” Renz said.

Dr. Katarzyna Zysk, an expert on the Russian military, agrees it’s a show of strength and doubts the Kremlin’s claim that the flotilla will add significant support to the Syrian attack: “The naval group’s contribution to the war in Syria is likely to be limited,” Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies in Oslo, told VICE News.

Why? Partly, because Russia’s navy is in disrepair.

According to Renz, while Russia’s armed forces and in particular its air force has been upgraded significantly in recent years, the navy has been neglected. “The problem is that the Russian defense industry isn’t really in a position to produce the ships required for a modern blue-water navy.”

The MiG-29K, for example, was originally developed in the ’80s as a carrier-based aircraft, and while the one that crashed would have been recently upgraded, it points to the weakened state of Russia’s naval infrastructure.

Adding to the problems for Russia’s navy is that there are very few carrier-trained pilots, according to Michael Kofman, a Russian specialist at the Centre for Naval Analyses. “In fact, there are more planes than pilots, and most of the planes on board are not made for ground attack,” Kofman told the Guardian.

Among the main reasons for Russia’s weak navy, which hasn’t seen many major updates since the Soviet era, are the sanctions put in place by the U.S. and the EU in 2014 in response to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. The sanctions have limited Russia’s ability to purchase the type of technology it needs to build a modern navy, including a good portion of vital electronic components.

Zysk points out that in 2010, the Kremlin announced the Admiral Kuznetsov was slated for a major overhaul to last from 2012 to 2017. That overhaul never happened. “The primary role of Kuznetsov’s presence [in the eastern Mediterranean] is to enhance Russia’s international visibility and demonstrate power projection capability, which is a quality of a great power,” Zysk.

Russia’s posturing and showmanship may seem somewhat of a sideshow in the ongoing Syrian conflict, but in the current geopolitical climate, experts worry the showmanship could get out of hand.

“While this could escalate into a serious conflict under the best of circumstances, I am particularly worried about what might happen in such an event once Donald Trump has been sworn into office,” Renz said.