Is Russia Retiring the Kuznetsov? Likely Not Yet

Latest photos of Russia’s only aircraft carrier raised questions about its rumored retirement

(Source: @LAndriukaitis/DFRLab via Google Maps, background; Roman Saponkov/archive, inset)

Photos of the Russian navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the “Admiral Kuznetsov,” surfaced on April 20, 2019, clearly showing that repair work had been completed on its main deck.

The only Soviet-era Russian aircraft carrier has been mocked for its inefficiency for some time, especially after its deployment to Syria. The ship, often referred to as the pride of the country’s navy, was scheduled to undergo renovations in 2018 and to remain in service, yet the process was disrupted due to an accident while in dry dock.

On October 29, 2018, a crane from the dry dock crashed into and punctured the ship’s main deck. On February 7, 2019, the DFRLab confirmed the damage using open-source analysis. The cause of the incident remains unknown, as the Novaya Gazeta media outlet contested the official statement of the Russian government. While the government stated that electrical failure caused the incident, Novaya Gazeta claimed that the ship had suffered an accident while responding to a U.S. aircraft carrier operating near the coast of Norway.

The hole on the main deck, which Business Insider reported as measuring 4 by 5 meters, had kept the Kuznetsov at the dock for months. On April 8, the first reports of the possible retirement of the Russian aircraft carrier by the Russian navy appeared in Western media.

These reports were based on a story by Russian media outlet Izvestia, citing an anonymous Russian military source. According to the source, “Not everyone considers the continuation of repair to be appropriate. There are different opinions.” The source continued, stating that some in the navy favored scrapping the carrier altogether in order to invest the funds in other navy assets instead. Reports of the Kuznetsov’s possible retirement also received some coverage in the Western media, which highlighted the Russian military’s struggle to maintain an operational and modern aircraft carrier in its fleet.

On April 20, the latest images of the Kuznetsov surfaced on Russian social media network VKontakte (VK). The main deck of the ship had undergone significant repairs, indicating that navy officials had decided to keep the ship in commission. Scrapping the Kuznetsov, which Russian media often refers to as the pride of the country’s navy, would likely deal a significant blow to morale and diminish Russia’s position as a regional naval superpower.

Open-Source Confirmation

Two photos of the Kuznetsov appeared on the VK profile of Roman Saponkov on April 20, 2019. These photos showed the Kuznetsov docked in its permanent position, at which it was last seen on October 29. At that time, it still had a crane attached to the deck. In the recent photos, however, the color of the main deck was rust brown, and no holes nor cranes were visible. These photos suggested that the surface of the deck was under repair.

https://vk.com/roman_saponkov?z=photo216034_456246272%2Fwall216034_89184

The geolocation of these images confirmed the ship was docked in exactly the same place as on October 29, 2018. Nonetheless, a mobile crane platform was photographed close to the ship, further suggesting that the ship had undergone repairs.

Geolocation of the surfaced images confirmed that the Kuznetsov was docked in its permanent docking location, where it was last observed with the collapsed crane on the deck. (Source: Roman Saponkov/archive, top; Google Maps, bottom)

The surfaced pictures were of high enough quality that they showed what repairs had been made to the ship. Two large areas, adding up to at least 70 percent of the total main deck area, appeared to be covered in rust-colored metal, likely as a result of repairing the deck surface. The same colored areas appeared in satellite imagery on March 28, 2019, suggesting that the surfaced photos were genuine.

Satellite imagery also showed the brown areas on the ship’s deck, further confirming that the ship had undergone repairs. Neither the surfaced photos nor the satellite imagery showed holes on the deck. (Source: Roman Saponkov/archive, left; Planet.com, bottom right)

By using the daily satellite imagery, the DFRLab assessed the status of the repairs to the ship. Planet.com did not have any images of the area in the period from November 2018 to February 2019, limiting the scope of analysis.

In October 2018, the ship was still in the dry docks while on February 2019, it was in its permanent docking area with a mobile crane platform next to it. Due to the low quality of the image from February 2019, the DFRLab could not determine if the repair process had commenced at that time. The first brown spots, however, were already visible on the main deck. The latest available satellite image from the end of March showed that most of the deck’s surface was already covered in brown.

Comparison of the Kuznetsov in daily satellite imagery. In the image taken in October 2018, the ship was still stationed in the dry docks. By February and March 2019, however, the ship already showed brown colored areas on its deck. (Source: Planet.com)

This progress in what is evidently a large-scale repair job suggests that the Russian Navy has decided to invest in repairing its most prestigious, if not most effective, asset, even at the cost of repairing a large proportion of its flight deck.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab)

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