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How Russia’s lone aircraft carrier will change the fight in Syria

The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passes within a few miles of Dover, in the southeast of England as a fleet of Russian warships sail through the North Sea, and the English Channel Friday Oct. 21, 2016. (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
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With the imminent arrival of its lone aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria, Russia is set to bulk up its military campaign ahead of what probably will be a renewed bombing campaign on the besieged city of Aleppo.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, the Russian Navy’s 1,000-foot-long, MiG-carrying flagship, was last seen steaming through the Mediterranean toward the Syrian coast after a mid-sea refueling that — incredibly — was captured by satellite. It is unclear exactly where the carrier, technically known as a “heavy aviation cruiser,” and its accompanying battlegroup actually are in relation to its final destination. The small armada, however, looks like it will arrive within days of the Syrian government’s plan to close a number of humanitarian corridors running out of eastern Aleppo.

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Much has been made of the Kuznetsov’s capabilities and the aging Soviet hulk’s propensity to break down. But even though the carrier isn’t capable of launching the same number of aircraft as, say, a U.S. super carrier, it will be able to bring a number of aircraft over the battlefields of Syria, including multi-role fighters and attack helicopters. And for the Russians, just the fact that they can do that is enough, according to Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA who focuses on the Russian military.

“The Kuznetsov is not necessary for [Russia’s operations in Syria] but it’s to highlight the fact they have that ability,” Gorenburg said.

The Kuznetsov, with its ramped flight deck and lack of a catapult system, can’t launch its jet aircraft — a mixture of MiG 29Ks and Su-33s — fully loaded with weapons and fuel, Gorenburg said. But for the Russians, that isn’t nearly as important as their military being able to field carrier-capable aircraft and training pilots in the extremely difficult task of taking off and landing from a floating runway in the middle of the ocean.

“This show of force, and great power status, is largely for a domestic audience,” said Michael Kofman, a colleague of Gorenburg’s who also focuses on Russian military issues.

The shuttering of the humanitarian corridors — escape routes that have been open for roughly a week — probably will pave the way for a fresh round of Syrian and Russian airstrikes, some of which might be carried out from the Kuznetsov. Earlier this week, some of the opposition groups began a counteroffensive of their own, shunning the corridors and a chance to leave, attacking government-held portions of the city. Fighting has been intense, but there have been few breakthroughs.

Russian military support, namely by way of aircraft and artillery, has been essential for Syrian government-aligned ground forces since Russia began airstrikes in Syria in September of last year. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia’s military objectives had been met in the country and announced a gradual withdrawal. According to satellite imagery and news reports, that withdrawal was only one in name, as Russia reshuffled some of its attack aircraft from its main air base in northern Syria.

Since then, the roughly two dozen Russian aircraft — a mixture of multi-role fighters, bombers and attack helicopters — have operated almost nonstop, lending much needed support to a depleted Syrian army and air force. Despite the influx in muscle, the Syrian government and its myriad supporting militias have been unable to wrest control of the opposition’s main urban stronghold of Aleppo. Instead, the reinvigorated forces have made gains, some sizable, in more rural areas.

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