In late 2016, the Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, CV Kuznetsov embarked upon an operational deployment that would take the vessel and its attendant task group to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea where it subsequently joined the Russian effort to support Syrian Arab Republic government forces in the fight against IS (Islamic State) and other opposition groups that had, since 2011, attempted a complete take-over of Syria throwing the country into turmoil. In addition, the air group would provide a dissuader to a growing threat from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) airpower supporting a number of opposition groups (not under the NATO standard), from extending their operations against Syrian government forces. This was the first combat deployment of the Kuznetsov in that it would launch air strikes on hostile targets.
With Syrian government forces on the verge of a catastrophic collapse due to pressure from IS and other opposition groups, some of the latter being supported militarily and financially by a the western dominated anti-ISIS coalition that was, in an ironic twist, playing a large part in militarily supporting ISIS, by constantly threatening Syrian government forces, forcing the latter to make dispositions accordingly, Russia intervened militarily in the conflict commencing with air operations on 30 September 2015. The Russian intervention, which allowed the Syrian government forces to go on the offensive and retake large swathes of territory from IS and western supported opposition forces, was reduced in tempo in March 2016. However, in late 2016, western backed opposition groups fighting in Aleppo carved out closer cooperation with the extremists of the Al-Qaeda and IS affiliated Al Nusra Front. This led to a stiffening of resistance in Aleppo, the main defence of which was conducted by Al Nusra Front. To the south, IS launched an offensive against Palmyra, which had been liberated by Syrian Government forces backed by Russian airpower in March 2016. The IS offensive, which resulted in the recapture of Palmyra, was designed to take advantage of the tactical situation that saw Syrian Government Forces drawn into the Aleppo battle; the ultimate objective being the collapse of the government offensive against Aleppo as well as the capture of ground in and around Palmyra.
The task group that departed from Northern Fleet bases consisted of the ACHC (Aircraft Carrying Heavy Cruiser) Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov, the Nuclear powered Heavy Missile Cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great), the Large ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) ships Severomorsk and Vice-Admiral Kulakov and four support vessels, including at least two x fuel/replenishment ships. This task group joined an estimated 10 other Russian ships in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, it is possible that one or more SSN (nuclear powered attack submarine) was present in the Eastern Mediterranean, although this is unconfirmed conjecture.
The Kuznetsov brought with her a wealth of capability, much of which was new to the Russian campaign in Syria. This included an in-flight refueling capability for strike aircraft (it is unclear if this was employed) and a rotary winged AEW (Airborne Early Warning) capability courtesy of the Ka-31 helicopter (this capability is assumed and, if present, would have been restricted to fleet protection duties). Enhancements to existing capabilities in the Syrian theatre included an enhanced scout/attack helicopter capability, air defence fighters and multirole strike fighters, as well as additional air defence capability for the naval presence courtesy of her integral air defence system and electronic warfare capabilities. The Russian surface to surface anti-ship capability was significantly enhanced by her twelve P-700 Granit anti-ship cruise missiles, adding to the anti-ship missiles on the Peter the Great and additional Russian surface assets already in theatre – these systems being important politically as at that time misguided voices within western politics were advocating using shipborne surface to air missile systems on western coalition warships in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to engage and shoot down Syrian government and potentially Russian military aircraft. The presence of such a powerful Russian anti-ship capability within her task group being a less than subtle message that Russia was prepared to counter all threats to her air operations over Syria.
The air group consisted of a mix of Ka-27PL ASW and Ka-27PS search and rescue helicopters, Ka-31 AEW helicopters (unconfirmed), Su-33 fleet air defence fighters, MiG-29KR (and possibly KUBR) multidimensional strike fighters and a small group of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. It is known that at least one MiG-29K or KUBR was lost during a landing accident aboard the carrier on 13 November 2016.
Although details of the Kuznetsov group strike operations are sparse, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General of the Army, Valery Geriasimov, confirmed that the Kuznetsov Groups aviation assets had been involved in operations leading to the ‘liberation of Aleppo’. Operations were also, it is understood, flown against IS targets in other parts of Syria. Missions were flown over Syria by Su-33, MiG-29KR/KUBR and the small detachment of Ka-52K scout/attack helicopters. In addition the naval task groupings launched Kalibr cruise missile strikes on opposition targets in Syria on 15/16 November 2016. Details, released by Russia’s Northern Fleet Vice Admiral Nikolay Evmenova in early summer 2017, included a sortie total of 420 by the Kuznetsovs air group. It was noted that 117 of these sorties were flown during the hours of darkness and most of the sortie total was flown in conditions of adverse weather. More than 1,000 targets were struck, these including command facilities, groupings of enemy forces and fixed fortified fire positions.
The implementation, from 00.00 on 30 December 2016, of a shaky ceasefire which, it was hoped, would lead to the projected peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, led to a decision by Vladimir Putin, Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces, to drawdown Russian forces in the Syria region. An obvious starting point was the early termination of the operational deployment of the Kuznetsov Group of the Northern Fleet, this being announced on 6 January 2017. The Kuznetsov group moved into Northern waters off Norway in late January 2017 and returned to Russia several days later.
Aircraft type/codes known to have taken part in the operation include Ka-27PS’s Red 55, Red 57 and Red 60, Ka-27PL Red 47, MiG-29KR(KUBR) Blue 41, Blue 47, Blue 49 and Blue 52, Su-33’s Red 62, Red 66, Red 67, Red 71, Red 76, Red 77, Red 78, Red 84, Red 85 and Red 88.