“Your Warship is a Decrepit Tramp Steamer, Mr Putin. Let’s Compare it to Mine when I’ve Fetched it from the Gulf.” Pt.1

Much hubuff has been made over the last fortnight as a flotilla of Russian warships departed from wherever they were based near Finland (Murmansk?), and cruised down the North Sea, passing perilously close to the White Cliffs as they were spied with binoculars in the Dover Strait (the Channel). Much scary; very tabloid.

This old rust bucket is called Admiral Kuznetsov. I hope she’s paid her carbon tax.


NATO kept a close eye on them as they passed, including, understandably, a very miffed Royal Navy. As RAF Tornadoes overflew and took some pictures to check nothing nefarious was happening, the convoy was shadowed by H.M.S. Duncan and H.M.S. Richmond, an imposing destroyer and a proud frigate of Her Majesty’s own fleet. Beyond that, several other European ships were close-by, and you can bet there were planes on runways at continental airbases, armed and ready to go. As the flotilla left the Channel, they would be met by H.M.S. Dragon, another destroyer. The papers, of course, had a field day, banging on about Putin’s growing nerve and hysterically playing up fears of a standoff between the two forces.

There’s H.M.S. Duncan, shadowing the Kuznetsov and another ship — I’m guessing Peter the Great.


Really though, there was nothing to get worked up about. Putin was just bolstering his ability to commit war crimes in Aleppo, and boffins in Downing Street were drawing up plans for the various ways they could pretend to care. Admiral Kuznetsov and Peter the Great, the two really important ships Vlad decided he wanted in the Mediterranean, along with all of their escorts, happen to be part of Russia’s North Sea Fleet, based — you guessed it — in the North Sea; the Dover Strait was just the fastest way to get there. I’m sure he was rubbing his fingers together at the opportunity to test the waters some more in the West (tee-hee), but this was hardly a deliberate provocation — just a happy accidental one.

It was perfectly right for us to escort them, too, before anyone accuses me of being a Putinbot: they may have been sailing through international waters, but they aren’t allies of the UK, or of NATO, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable if a non-friendly force of that size was allowed to pass so close to British territory without some kind of challenge.

In short, what happened was no cause for alarm, and nor did it justify indifference: it was a major movement of naval forces by one nation that prompted a response by another — interesting dinner conversation, but that is all. If they stopped at Portsmouth and started shelling the docks, I might be slightly more energised. But as I watched the shaky footage of Admiral Kuznetsov ploughing along, and the slightly more stable shots of H.M.S Duncan chugging after her, I was struck by several, somewhat larger topics I wanted to talk about.

The first is the hilariously decrepit state of the Russian Navy, and indeed of the country in general. Poor old Kuznetsov looked like she was burning tractor tires, the amount of smoke coming out of her, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read that the fleet is accompanied by a tugboat, in case she breaks down. Indeed, the “heavy aviation missile cruiser” has been plagued with engineering problems since she was launched from Ukraine in 1985 (might have had something to do with it), including poor quality oil, engine failures, such as one during a manoeuvre she had to be towed back from by our ubiquitous tug, evaporator break-downs, leading to severe water shortages, and — best till last — some quite serious issues with the Sukhoi Su-33 air wing, as the Su-27 fighters they were based on weren’t actually that well fitted for carrier operations; in fact the redesigned planes are so awful that, despite valiant export efforts, nobody bought them except Russia, who only took 24. Much has been made by American Putinbots of Kuznetsov and her “terrifying” P-700 Granit “shipwreck” missiles; I could list all of the ways Granit is an overrated system trumpeted by people who don’t know very much about naval warfare, but I’ll just confine myself to saying they were removed during her mid-life refit, you idiots. At the same time the old Su-33 air wing was (sensibly) replaced with a MIG 29KR wing, though this posed its own problems as they struggled to find carrier-qualified pilots. In case you’re wondering how Peter the Great is getting on, in 2004 Fleet Admiral Vladimir Kuroedov said her nuclear reactor was in an extremely bad condition and “could explode at any moment”; 2 of the other 3 ships in the class are in such a bad way they literally cannot be safely activated.

The refit took 5 years, which is probably just as well considering how much more dangerous she is for the crew than the Motherland’s enemies.

The Russian Navy in general hasn’t fared much better. I implore you to hop on Google to get a comprehensive account of the sorry events that befell the maritime force as the Soviet Union broke up, but it isn’t actually clear how many ships are really active, or even seaworthy: many of them just sit in port permanently, flying an ensign so that their skeleton crews are entitled to be paid, gently rusting. Apparently these are in “reserve,” though this is severely stretching the term.

As far as I can discern, of the 33 frigates, destroyers, cruisers and carriers, 7 are in “reserve,” including 3 of the 4 much-trumpeted nuclear-powered Kirov battlecruisers, with those horrifying Granit missiles (one of them, Admiral Nakhimov, is due to re-enter service in 2018, but I see this as a damning indictment, as the refit began in 2006). The rest are in somewhat questionable condition, as my little assessment of the Kuznetsov (Russia’s only CV, as they sold her sister-ship to the Chinese Navy), should highlight, and spread out over 5 fleets, all over the world — an essential move to defend the coasts of such a large country, I suppose, though I wonder if limited range has anything to do with such a thin deployment . . .

Admiral Nakhimov has spent the last 12 years in dry-dock for her refit, for reasons I leave up to you. I can’t claim credit for the photo, but I thought I’d pick one where these all-important Granit missile bays are shown.

Don’t be fooled by the large numbers you see as you scan the lists for these fleets: most of those hulls are corvettes, minesweepers and submarines, which give the illusion of a much more imposing armada than Vlad’s actually got. I suppose all 81 corvettes, 24 patrol boats, 45 minesweepers and 51 landing craft might together be able to overcome a couple of American destroyers, but I’d put less money on it than I would any of them actually having the range to cross the Bering Strait.

You don’t need to live in Ushuaia or salivate over H.M.S. Conquerer to know that the 54 submarines (excluding SSBNs and special-purpose) might be a little more troublesome; but, again, 7 of these are mothballed (along with 2 SSBNs — good plot for a movie), and the rest are plagued by the same engineering issues and lack of maintenance. 22 of these are not nuclear, which does wonders for their range, I’m sure, and the few remaining Putinbots yet to be red-pilled are advised to research the 2008 K-152 incident.

No. I’m not worried about the crackpot leader of a broken country with a GDP smaller than Italy and a set of tin soldiers built in the Cold War. But for different reasons I’m not exactly complacent either, as will be revealed in the second part of this little naval essay.






6 thoughts on ““Your Warship is a Decrepit Tramp Steamer, Mr Putin. Let’s Compare it to Mine when I’ve Fetched it from the Gulf.” Pt.1

  1. I was not aware that the air wing on the Kuz was changed from the Su-33 to the Mig-29k. Are you confusing the air wing of Vikramaditya with the Kuznetsov?


    • The Kuz had her wing replaced at the same time the Granit missiles were removed: during the mid-life refit. I didn’t know either until I started writing, but there’s an entry in her wikipedia article, and several news websites said she took an unusually long time to get here because they were struggling to find qualified pilots after she left port.


  2. Kuznetsov’s sister ship was not sold to the Indians, the Varyag was sold to the Chinese in 1998 who upgraded her into the Liaoning. Look it up. The Indians bought a Kiev class aircraft carrier “Baku” rebuilt by the Russians to have a skijump among other things. These are blatant mistakes (that are way too easy to look up) that makes me seriously doubt whether this article is true to the facts or not. It is true that the Russian navy has been plagued by bad to no maintenance and lack of funding. But there are promising plans for the navy and new ships and subs are being built. The fact that they still have an Aircraft Carrier is a major strong point for the Russians as they can still play a role (how big this role is, is another discussion) in the blue water navy scene. It is old yes, but mind you that the Indian Navy used a 55 year old aircraft carrier Viraat until very recently. Being half her age, the Kuznetsov still has some life in her.

    Showing force is something the Russians like to do. Everybody knows this. So do the American and the Chinese. But don’t underestimate them. The recent show of capabilities that the Gepard class frigates and Buyan-M class corvettes did by the launching of 24 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea onto Syrian territory proves this statement.

    One more thing: in 2004 the nuclear reactor of Peter the great was on the point of exploding? That must be a hell of a strong reactor as it has been almost exploding for 12 years. A strange thing to put something that may have been true 12 years ago into this article regarding the current status of the Russian Navy. It seems to me you’re just putting down the Russian Navy just for the sake of putting it down.


    • I genuinely thought I put that the Varyag was sold to the Chinese, but I must have had Baku running through my head at the time. Thanks for the correction, though I wouldn’t call it a serious factual error since the end result is near the same anyway.

      You’re right about the recent attempts at modernisation, and I was wondering when people were going to mention the air force, which is certainly world-class by this stage; but everything I can think of that’s been done so far with the Russian Navy has revolved around submarines and reactivating mothballed battlecruisers, like the Admiral Nakhimov. They’ll start building capital ships eventually, but given the sheer size of the force the recent submarine additions have made little impact thus far, and I’m concerned with the state of the Russian Navy now, as it was only last week it passed through the Channel.
      With regards to the corvettes, the Peter the Great and the capabilities left in old Kuzzy, my point is that both the Kuzzy and Peter the Great are ancient, rickety old ships that don’t really compare with the European and American navies, plagued by maintenance issues. I’m sure she could defend herself and she’ll be an asset in deployment, but there are plenty of fans of Putin that go around glorifying her and elevating her to a ludicrous pedestal, saying how she could take on entire U.S. carrier groups. I wanted to make absolutely clear that this is not the case. And the 2004 remark is just a summary of numerous reactor issues that have stalked the Kirov class right from the outset, and not to be taken literally.
      It’s quite true that I’m putting it down for the sake of putting it down, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a shambles.


      • Hi,

        Thanks for your comment!

        It is indeed discussable if reactivating old battlecruisers is indeed the way to go. It has been clear that the Russians want to go back to the same (or close) level of power projection they had during the time of the Soviet Union. My guess is the Kuz & Peter the Great will stay in play until the Russian have something that can replace them. Being another aircraft carrier, which I believe will not happen soon, or some class of ship that has the same capabilities as the Kirov class. Reactivating them is easier than building new ships. Especially if they don’t have the capacity yet to build ships like these.

        Glorifying them and claiming these ships are the worst nightmare of the US navy and blablabla is just stupid indeed. I don’t want to do that in any way. But I also do not want to trash them just like that. It is as dangerous to overestimate them as it is to underestimate them. They are old, not living up to the standards of the current ships being build, that is correct. We know that and every right minded person should realize that also. Unfortunately that is not the case. But as you said, they would probably still be able to defend herself if necessary.

        Do you have an extensive knowledge about the Russian Air force? I have been following some news but not in that great of depth. The PAK-FA program & the SU-35 sure look promising. Not sure what to always believe with false info roaming the internet everywhere you go. Comparing to the US or British aviation program, how does the Russian air force perform?


  3. both the Kuzzy and Peter the Great are ancient, rickety old ships

    Half of the US carrier fleet were commissioned before the Kusnetsov, as were a majority of the Ticos. The majority of the RN escort fleet is older than Peter the Great. Hull age is not the whole story. Upgrades and maintenance matter too – which depend on the state of the economy and the choices made between guns and butter. 10-15 years ago Russia was in a terrible state, thanks to the impact of $10 oil and its aftermath – but the spike in oil prices and a greater proportion of spending on defence means that they could make a start on repairing the damage of 15-20 years of post-Communist neglect. It’s not a magic wand, a lot of knowledge and experience was lost which will take time to recover, and there’s some real holes eg in naval propulsion and heavy shipbuilding but at the same time I wouldn’t regard all problems in 2004 as continuing through to 2016. Oil >$100 was a big help.

    The thing to remember is that a Kirov packs a huge anti-air punch. The Granits are nice, but over 300 SAMs is more than all the Type 45’s put together. That’s not to say a Kirov is as effective as 6 Darings, but it’s still a heck of a presence. SA-N-20 means that if they wanted to, they could cover airspace all the way from Incirlik to Aleppo, or shut down Akrotiri. Even if they’re not shooting, they gain just from having half-decent radars giving them an air picture. Then you have a salvo of Granits (plus whatever’s in the store ships), and 20-odd Mig-29K’s is a useful capability if properly maintained (something the Indians at least have struggled with) – individually they’re a lot more capable than the Harriers we had in the Falklands.


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