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An advanced Russian jet just crashed during its debut off the Syrian coast

In this Sept 1, 2012, photo, MiG-29 jets of the Russian aerobatic team Strizhi (Swifts) perform at an air show at a military airport near Belgrade, Serbia. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)

A Russian fighter jet crashed in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to land on Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, which is stationed off the Syrian coast, the Russian Ministry of Defense said Monday in a statement.

The plane went down several miles from the carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, according to the Defense Ministry. The pilot ejected and was recovered.

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“The health of the pilot is not in danger. The pilot is ready to carry out orders,” the Defense Ministry said.

Earlier in the day, Pentagon officials said they had indications that the Russians had lost a plane, and Fox News — quoting intelligence officials — reported that the aircraft, a MiG-29K, went down after appearing to have mechanical issues shortly after takeoff. The Pentagon tracks Russian and Syrian government aircraft activity with airborne sensors and thermal-imaging satellites.

Russian news outlets reported Saturday that Russian jets had begun operating from the Kuznetsov in an effort to bolster Russia’s year-old air campaign over Syria and that they could participate in a final blitz to help Syrian troops retake the city of Aleppo. Videos posted to social media confirmed the reports, with footage showing silhouettes of MiG-29s over Idlib province.

It is unclear why the aircraft crashed; landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier is extremely difficult, even for the best-trained pilots. Russia’s carrier-based air wing is relatively inexperienced compared with its U.S. counterparts, and its deployment to the Syrian coast appears to be a combat operation and a testing ground for some of its capabilities, including the addition of new MiG-29Ks to its inventory.

While land-based versions of the MiG-29 have been around since the 1980s, the MiG-29K underwent limited testing during the Cold War and was built in only modest quantities by Russia in the early 2000s. According to news reports, the MiG-29Ks were added to the Kuznetsov’s carrier wing this summer. Specifically designed to handle the rigors of carrier operations at sea, the MiG-29K boasts modest improvements over some of its older variants.

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Aside from the handful of MiG-29K and MiG-29K/KUBs aboard the Kuznetsov, the Russian carrier also has a contingent of Su-33 air-to-air fighters and a mixture of helicopters that provide search-and-rescue capabilities and help with air traffic control.

As Russia’s lone aircraft carrier and the Russian navy’s flagship, the Kuznetsov is often derided for its age and propensity for mechanical troubles. Its ramped deck and lack of a catapult system mean that jets such as the MiG-29K and Su-33 cannot take off fully loaded with fuel and munitions. The 1,000-foot vessel, a leftover from the Soviet Union, headed toward Syria in October, steaming through the English Channel as a show of force to Western Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

With Aleppo under a daytime cease fire, the United Nations is warning that the ongoing siege and bombardment of the city may constitute war crimes. (Video: Reuters)

Andrew Roth in Moscow contributed to this report.

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