With the bombardment of Aleppo over and the conflict in Syria drawing to a close, Russia has withdrawn the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov from the eastern Mediterranean. She will return to her assigned area of operations with Russia's Northern Fleet, and her battle group, comprised of the cruiser Pyotr Veliky, two destroyers and a number of auxiliaries, will accompany her voyage.
"In accordance with the decision of Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces Vladimir Putin, the Defense Ministry is beginning to reduce the Armed Forces grouping in Syria," Gen. Valery Gerasimov told reporters. "The Russian Armed Forces’ carrier group led by the Admiral Kuznetsov heavy carrier will embark from the Mediterranean to Northern Fleet’s base [on Friday].”
The commander of Russia’s Group of Forces in Syria, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, told Russian state media that the aircraft carrier naval group completed its tasks and it is ready for further operations. While the Kuznetsov has departed, Russia's Northern Fleet is expected to deploy on further voyages to the Mediterranean, the Arctic and the Atlantic throughout 2017.
The Kuznetsov strike group arrived off Syria in early November. Despite repeated Russian promises that she would not be used in the Syrian conflict, she soon launched aircraft in support of the Syrian government's campaign to retake Aleppo.
The campaign presented Russia's first opportunity to test out naval flight operations in combat conditions. The Kuznetsov’s air wings flew over 400 combat sorties in November and December, but the Soviet-era carrier, which has been plagued with maintenance issues over her 22 years in operation, suffered the loss of two fighters due to the failure of the ship's arresting gear. In addition, sources indicate that Russia had to hire retired pilots as contractors in order to fill out the ranks of its naval aviators. Western analysts suggest that given her limitations, Kuznetsov’s presence had little material effect on the broader military campaign.
Overall, Russia's air force flew about 19,000 sorties over Syria and made 71,000 airstrikes. While primarily intended to degrade the capabilities of anti-government rebels, the sustained air operations were also an opportunity to test out advanced weapons systems, which "have proven to be highly efficient," said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in a press conference Thursday. However, not all observers view this opportunity for weapons testing in a positive light. The U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, alleges that an outsized proportion of Russian ordnance found its way to civilian targets, and that Russia's bombardment of noncombatants "may indeed amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.