Armchair historians often wonder why Russia never built an aircraft carrier fleet. The short answer just requires looking at a map.
Russia may be the largest nation in the world today in terms of land mass, and historically even larger in the days of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, but it has also been very much a land power.
Its naval history has been one of the numerous follies from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), when it lost two squadrons that, included eight battleships sunk and two others captured, until the current War in Ukraine, which last year saw the sinking of the Moskva, the largest warship sunk in action since World War.
First World War
After the destruction of the Russian Navy in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia’s naval power was greatly reduced, to the point that it went from being the second-largest Navy in the world to the fourth-largest. However, Tsar Nicholas II saw the need for a naval force and launched a massive ship-building program.
World War I broke out before the program was complete, but Russia continued to have a larger navy than its Central Power adversaries. In reality, the Russian Navy was unable to play such an important role in the war effort. Its size was not the problem, but rather the geography of Russia.
During the conflict, the Russian Baltic Fleet’s operations were limited by the proximity of the German High Seas Fleet, although Russia did achieve a victory in the Battle of the Gulf of Riga in August 1915.
However, the Russian Black Sea Navy dominated that body of water during the War, despite being mostly ineffective elsewhere.
The beginnings of the Soviet era
The Russian Navy remained in port after the February 1917 revolution that led to the collapse of Imperial Russia. The cruiser Aurora fired the first shots of the October Revolution in that year, which led to the Russian Civil War. The Russian Navy was virtually annihilated as a combat force during this conflict.
However, after the Bolshevik victory, the new Soviet Union saw the need to rebuild a navy from scratch. When the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan all began building aircraft carriers in the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet Union instead prioritized battleships, cruisers, and destroyers.
The truth is that the Soviet Navy was entirely unprepared for Germany’s June 1941 surprise attack on the Soviet Union.
It is doubtful that if the Soviets had built aircraft carriers, any of these ships would have played a significant role in the “Great Patriotic War.”
During the Cold War, Moscow saw the need for a large and powerful navy, even though it was still a land power. However, the Soviets focused more on submarines than large surface ships. One factor was that World War II had shown that the era of large-artillery battleships was over, although the US Navy retained its four Iowa-class battleships, which re-entered service in the 1980s.
The failure of the aircraft carriers
Moscow saw the potential capability that aircraft carriers could offer, and there were attempts to develop such flat fighters for power projection around the world.
The Moskva-class helicopter carriers from the 1960s marked the beginning of this trend (not to be confused with the frigate sunk by Ukraine last year). Only two of the originally planned dozen were completed, and despite their name, they couldn’t actually accommodate fixed-wing aircraft.
The Soviets proceeded with their Kiev class, of which three were completed and in service until the early 1990s, and a fourth was reconstructed and sold to India, where it is currently in service as the INS Vikramaditya.
Moscow also produced Project 1143.5 aircraft carriers, including the Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov, currently the only Russian aircraft carrier, and the Varyag, which was under construction when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Ukraine sold it to China and completed it in 2012 as the Type 001 Liaoning.
A supercarrier, the Ulyanovsk, was also being built for the Soviet Navy at the end of the Cold War but was scrapped after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Russia does not need aircraft carriers.
Although some in Moscow still see the potential for an aircraft carrier fleet, the War in Ukraine has once again shown that Russia has never needed such warships.
It has no overseas bases to support them and no ports from which they can operate: the northern port of Murmansk is unsuitable for an aircraft carrier, and the same is true of the Pacific Fleet’s home port of Vladivostok.
Saint Petersburg and even Kaliningrad, on the Baltic Sea, are practically surrounded by NATO member countries, and in case of War, they would be immediately attacked. Any aircraft carrier would be a desirable target.
Sevastopol, on the Black Sea, is even more isolated, and the treaties don’t even allow true aircraft carriers to transit the Bosphorus, which is why the Soviet Union classified its ships as aviation cruisers.
In other words, the short answer to the Russian aircraft carrier question is once again geographic. Russia has always lacked the facilities to build and maintain aircraft carriers, as the current saga over the refit of Admiral Kuznetsov demonstrates.
The last consideration is that Russia may want to project its power around the world, but an aircraft carrier would still be a bad way to do it. Moscow knows this very well.