#PutinAtWar: Admiral Kuznetsov’s Untimely Departure
Open-source imagery confirmed the incident during which Russia’s only aircraft carrier was damaged
Photographs of the Russian Navy’s only aircraft carrier, the “Admiral Kuznetsov,” with a crane on its deck were published online almost a week after a dry dock sank in Murmansk, puncturing the ship’s deck.
Russian state-funded media contradicted open-source and independent reporting as to how the dock sank. In particular, the timelines for the dock’s sinking differ in that the former claims that the dock sank later than indicated by the latter and that the reason for sinking was a technical failure and not a strategic failure.
Russian state-funded media said that the ship moved from its permanent dock into the dry dock on September 20. It stated that Russia then removed the flagship on October 30 and that the dry dock sank as a result of an electrical failure immediately thereafter. This news was reported almost a week after the accident happened and was already reported on Western media.
In contradiction, independent reporting suggested that the Admiral Kuznetsov was removed from the dry dock prematurely and in haste on October 29, as opposed to the Russian state-funded media’s claim of October 30, in order to make a surprise appearance in Norwegian waters as a response to Trident Juncture, a NATO training exercise. This quick removal caused the dry dock to sink that same day and, in doing so, damaged its deck. The Admiral Kuznetsov was then moved back to its permanent docking station immediately after the incident, as photos of the damaged aircraft carrier suggest.
The Russian military is well known for its aggressive posture in the regions bordering its territory, including throughout 2017 when the NATO air-policing mission intercepted around 130 Russian aircraft flying over the Baltic Sea. Additionally, at least two aggressive Russian military maneuvers were recorded during the time of the Trident Juncture exercise in November 2018.
The first news about the accident at the Murmansk 82nd Ship Repair Plant appeared on October 30, the same day as the first official comment.
According to Russian officials, the Russian Navy’s flagship was damaged after the PD-50 floating dry dock, which was holding the ship for repairs, suddenly began sinking due to a failure of the power supply. Reportedly, the power shortage shut down the water pumps, causing the dock to flood and finally submerge in water, injuring four people with a fifth still missing as of November 18, 2018.
The first photo from the incident surfaced on October 30, showing a crane on the deck of the ship. The photo had insufficient geolocation details for verification of the location of the photo.
The new photos provided more background detail and allowed for the geolocation of the ship, which was identified to be in Murmansk.
Timeline and Alternative Causes of the Incident
The latest available Google Maps satellite image, taken on July 28, 2018, showed the aircraft carrier docked in the exact same location as in the surfaced photos. According to Russian state-funded media outlet RIA Novosti, however, the ship was put on the PD-50 dry dock in late September 2018.
The latest available Planet satellite image with the aircraft visible in the dry dock was taken on October 16. The ship silhouette, visible through the cloud coverage, suggested that the ship was still under repair at the PD-50 dry dock, a few kilometers northeast from its latest known location.
Russian state-funded media outlets reported on the incident almost a week after it took place. Both RT and Sputnik presented the official version of events, describing the power shortage as the main cause of the incident. Nonetheless, this version was contested by Novaya Gazeta on November 5.
Journalist Yulia Latynina argued that the incident happened due to the Kremlin’s desire to show force as a response to the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman joining the drills in Norwegian waters. According to Ria.ru, the Admiral Kuznetsov entered the dock in September 2018, for what was supposed to be a two-year modernization and repair docking. Instead, the ship was tugged out prematurely, for which the PD-50 dock was not properly prepared, causing the cranes to collapse and the dock to sink.
Latynina’s article appears to be not too far-fetched, given the Russian military’s preclusion toward demonstrating its own capabilities in the face of NATO activity. On November 2, during NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, Russian Navy Tu-142 (NATO reporting name: Bear F/J) long-range reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft flew unexpectedly close to U.S. Navy USS Mount Whitney command ship. A couple of days later another incident was reported, when, on November 5, Russian Su-27 (NATO reporting name: Flanker) made a high-speed pass dangerously close to a U.S. EP-3 intelligence plane in international airspace over the Black Sea.
Comparison of the surfaced photos and available satellite imagery revealed that the crane hit the rear of the carrier deck. The reported 4-by-5 meter hole, however, was not visible in the photos.
The crane visible in the surfaced pictures closely coincides with the crane visible in the Google Maps satellite imagery from July 28, when the PD-50 dock was still functional.
The Admiral Kuznetsov incident on October 29 was confirmed by open-source evidence and Russian state-funded media coverage. The damage done to the aircraft carrier was visible in the surfaced photos, also exposing the crane on the dock to be visually similar to the ones used in the dry dock.
The official version provided by the Russian military and promoted by the Kremlin-funded media was contradicted by independent Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta, which reported that it was a failed attempt to show force. The arguments and the timeline of the story presented by the Novaya Gazeta seem to match the open-source data. Despite the fact that all the details of the story are not currently available, tugging the Admiral Kuznetsov’s out of the dock prematurely to use it as a show of force remains a likely turn of events.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor significant Russian operations, exercises, and military developments.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.