(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on
international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.
He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of
the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan,
non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington.
Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters. Since
2016, he he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and
the UK Labour Party. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Peter Apps
Oct 19 Somewhere in the autumn gales and rain
squalls of the North Sea, Russia's only aircraft carrier is
heading south to war.
According to Russia's TASS news agency, the Admiral
Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and seven more vessels sailed
Saturday from the Northern Fleet's Arctic headquarters of
Severomorsk. It's the eighth time the ship and its escorts have
made the journey to the Mediterranean, a trip that has become a
key part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy to
reassert Moscow's naval strength and reach.
This deployment, though, is very different. Moscow has spent
considerable resources over the last decade developing the
ability to conduct operations from the carrier, launched in the
dying days of the Soviet Union. But unlike its U.S., French,
British and Italian counterparts, it has never used the ship in
anger. That's about to change. Perhaps within as little as two
weeks, its SU-33 and MiG-29 jets will be slamming ordinance into
downtown Aleppo and other parts of Syria.
On one level, the Kremlin has no particular need to use
carrier-mounted aircraft. If it wanted to increase the number of
aircraft operating over Syria, it could simply send more
ground-based jets to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's
Sending the carrier and its escorts is in many ways a much
more expensive and complex way of achieving the same thing. Nor
is it without risk - in the past, Russia's warships have
sometimes shown an alarming tendency to break down, often
traveling with their own oceangoing tugs.
Moscow clearly wishes to show that it can emulate Washington
by sending a task force thousands of miles and then conducting
weeks or months of military activity - an exercise that will
highlight Russia's renewed military capability. It will further
complicate the political calculus for the United States and
others when it comes to finding a way forward in Syria. And, of
course, it offers a neat opportunity to remind a host of
countries in northern Europe that Moscow cannot be ignored.
On previous passages through the North Sea, the carrier has
deliberately operated jets and aircraft close by Norwegian oil
platforms, an act of intimidation that forced nearby civilian
helicopters to be grounded. This time, there are reports the
carrier may conduct bombing exercises in international waters
north of Scotland.
Royal Navy warships will shadow the Russians as they pass
down the coast and through the English Channel, a move that will
likely attract considerable media coverage on both sides.
Russia's senior naval commanders will be hoping this
deployment strengthens their hand in face-offs between branches
of the military. Until now, most of the glory in recent military
campaigns - Ukraine in the last two years, Georgia in 2008,
Chechnya, or now Syria - has gone to ground and air forces. Now
they can showcase themselves - as well as building the necessary
skills and capabilities to develop a truly enduring carrier
With Russia maintaining a permanent naval presence off Syria
since 2013, the United States and its allies were already
keeping track of exactly what the refurbished Russian Navy could
and couldn't do. China, too, will also unquestionably be
interested - its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, was
originally the Soviet Varyag, sister ship to the Kuznetsov.
Both Moscow and Beijing have plowed considerable resources
into weaponry to take out U.S. carriers - indeed, developing
such technology has been at least as important to them as
getting their own aircraft carriers operational. U.S. officials,
however, say that latest generation of anti-ship ballistic and
cruise missiles remain largely unproven.
The United States and its allies have their own tools to
take out enemy carriers - and, decades more experience
practicing such tactics. The U.S. Navy might be spread thin
across the globe, but it could still put together enough combat
power - be it in submarines, surface warships or land-based
aircraft - to do the job.
It wouldn't be easy. The main focus of the Kuznetsov battle
group may be hitting targets on the ground in Syria, but it is
also relatively capable of defending itself against maritime
foes. The carrier is also reported to be carrying up to a dozen
antisubmarine helicopters, making it much harder for any NATO
submarine to sneak in close. According to Russian media, the
group also contains the battle cruiser Peter the Great as well
as two anti-submarine warships. They too could be sunk - but
would almost certainly take NATO warships with them.
Russia's sailors might be new to carrier strike operations,
but they are also the only navy to have fought with anti-ship
missiles since Britain went to war in the Falklands in 1982.
During the 2008 war with Georgia, a selection of Russian
warships and Georgian counterparts are believed to have tangled
in brief but bloodied battle, the details of which remain
largely opaque. What is clear, however, is that casualties on
both sides were high, at least in proportion to the number of
relatively small ships involved.
All of this feeds back into the battle on the ground that
counts - that for the future of Syria in general, and Aleppo in
particular. Already, the United States knows that halting the
onslaught of Russian and Syrian forces might well take military
action - at the very least, shooting down a handful of aircraft
or targeting airbases.
Now it might also mean a cataclysmic offshore battle with
the pride of the Russian Navy. Which, of course, is why it
almost certainly won't happen, under this administration or the
A Russian carrier conducting strike operations in the
Mediterranean doesn't just reassert Moscow's power, it further
complicates the world's geopolitics. And that's precisely what
Vladimir Putin wants.