ABOARD THE CARRIER ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA — A commercial airline pilot has a lot of leeway on landing. Airport runways are long and wide, and the flight crew has time to get things just right before setting the wheels down gently. On an aircraft carrier, this is not the case. One minute you are flying, and the next moment — before your body can work out what it is enduring — you are not.
Defense News experienced a carrier landing firsthand on April 23, hitting the deck of the Abraham Lincoln aboard a U.S. Navy C-2A Greyhound aircraft with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman and Adm. James Foggo, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe. The purpose of the visit was twofold — to kick off a dual-carrier exercise with sister ship John C. Stennis on April 24, and to deliver a sternly worded message to Russia: Stand down.
“Each of the carriers operating in the Mediterranean as this time represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy,” Huntsman said aboard the Lincoln, according to a Navy news release. “Diplomatic communication and dialogue, coupled with the strong defenses these ships provide, demonstrate to Russia that if it truly seeks better relations with the United states, it must cease its destabilizing activities around the world.”
Moscow received the message loud and clear, and though the response was predictable — at least publicly — it may not be the one Huntsman and Foggo were hoping for.
“I would like to believe that American megaphone diplomacy will not turn into megaton diplomacy,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the ministry’s point man on arms control issues, “ because in that case there would be no winners, and American diplomats will regret how they failed to find opportunities for normal, constructive dialogue with partners around the world. We regret the U.S. ambassador in Russia made such a statement.”
In a briefing at the Foreign Ministry on April 25, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova advised Huntsman to study up on his history.
“Throughout its long history, Russia has repeatedly faced threats disguised as recommendations, and each time managed to demonstrate that it is futile,” she said, listing off examples such as France’s Napoleon Bonaparte and Sweden’s Charles XII, Russian news agency Tass reported.
Zakharova suggested the timing of Huntsman’s remarks and visit to the Lincoln was a slight toward Russia, as the country is gearing up to celebrate its victory in World War II on May 9. The U.S. Navy’s explanation for the timing of his visit was that it just happened to occur when the Lincoln and Stennis were crossing paths in the Mediterranean Sea, as they made their way to different regions.
In a video statement published on the U.S. Embassy’s Twitter page on April 25, Huntsman paid tribute to the 74th anniversary of Soviet and American soldiers meeting on the banks of the river Elbe in Germany, saying the event reminds Russians and Americans that, despite tensions between their nations, the world is safer when they commit to dialogue and discussion on areas of disagreement.
Meanwhile, in the Russian media, a political cartoon ran by state-owned RIA Novosti depicted Huntsman as Freddy Krueger, with aircraft carriers for fingers rather than razors. A talk show host on Vesti-FM, a state-owned radio station, said on Twitter that Huntsman “forgot to stomp his foot. Without this, it did not sound convincing enough.” Across the Russian media on April 24th, variations on this theme were abundant.
Much of this reaction is typical of the Russian government and the state-owned media machine that carries the government’s preferred narratives. But there are open questions about the utility of carrier-based messaging, according to Michael Kofman, an expert in the Russian Navy at the CNA think tank in Virginia.
“Military signaling is fraught with misperception,” Kofman said. “Most of the time it simply feeds an iterative cycle where both forces justify the other’s presence or behavior as the rationale for their demonstrative activity. Deterrence or competition are often cited as the catch-all bywords for much of the activity.”
“Moscow is generally indifferent to an American carrier in the Mediterranean, or even two or three” said Mikhail Barabanov, a naval analyst at the Centre the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. “I do not believe it is a ‘signal to Moscow,’ if only because no one in Russia seriously believes in the possibility of a conventional military conflict with the United States.”
Back in the game
“We are not here to do anything but deter and defend,” Foggo told Defense News in an exclusive interview aboard the Lincoln’s flag bridge, “and while we are at it and in the Med, we have seen an increased presence of Russian naval forces, particularly in the eastern Med. And the USS Abraham Lincoln will experience that while they are here. And I would expect nothing short of professional conduct from both navies.”
Russian naval activity in the Mediterranean goes beyond the presence of American carriers. Revival of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — and, by extension, the old Mediterranean flotilla — was one of the key provisions of Russia’s updated naval doctrine in 2015. The annexation of Crimea the year before gave Moscow unhindered access to the key naval base at Sevastopol and opened the door to modernization of that fleet, once prohibited under an agreement with Ukraine.
Crimea also enabled much of what Russia has done in Syria since its surprise intervention in that Middle Eastern conflict in late 2015. Equipment is regularly ferried from Sevastopol, on down through the Bosphorus, into the eastern Mediterranean and then delivered to the Russian naval station at Tartus on the Syrian coast. Meanwhile, Russian warships set up shop in the eastern Mediterranean and have been a regular fixture ever since.
But renewed activity by Russia’s Navy extends beyond the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. The service as a whole has been a key beneficiary of President Vladimir Putin’s military modernization efforts. New submarines — nuclear and conventionally powered — are coming online across all of Russia’s major fleets, as are smaller surface platforms. Russia is again active in the north Atlantic, the Baltic and the Arctic.
“The Russian Navy has definitely modernized. They have put some of their capital into faster, leaner, more agile and smaller warships,” Foggo said, referring to Russia’s Admiral Grigorovich- and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates as well as the Steregushchy-class corvettes. “And they have never stopped putting money into the undersea domain and their submarine force, which is very capable. So, to tell you the truth, I respect the Russian Navy for the capability that they have.”
However, Foggo noted, nothing the Russian Navy can muster compares to the show of force assembled in the Mediterranean. “Nothing comes close to this,” Foggo said, gesturing around the flag bridge of the Lincoln, “a [U.S.] carrier strike group, two at a time in the Med.”
To be sure, Russia has itself tried to pull off an American-style carrier-strike-group operation. In 2016, the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov departed its base at Severomorsk, on Russia’s northern frontier, with a group of escorts that included the powerful battlecruiser Peter the Great. Together they sailed around Scandinavia, down through the English Channel and into the Mediterranean on their way to Syria.
In many ways, it was Putin’s Great White Fleet moment. The strike group was paraded across Russian television, boasting that Moscow was again a great naval power and the Kuznetsov could do anything a ship like the Lincoln can. The reality, however, was a bit underwhelming compared to the story sold to Russian audiences.
The Kuznetsov was even used as a diplomatic tool when returning to Russia from Syria in 2017, stopping off the coast of Libya to pick up the local military leader Khalifa Haftar. There, he was given a tour of the ship by Kuznetsov’s officers and ended the visit with a video conference with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“The Russians want what we have right here on the deck of this ship, they want a powerful carrier strike group. But she does not have the incredible capability of the steam catapult like this ship,” Foggo said, referring to the mechanism installed on American carriers like the Lincoln that accelerate heavily loaded aircraft to takeoff speed in the course of about 300 feet.
“So when you do an apples-to-apples comparison, there is no comparison,” the U.S. Navy officer added.
The cruise was not without its utility, he noted. Russia did prove Kuznetsov could deploy for a prolonged period of time. But the ship’s shortcomings were also put on display. “As they came around, they were blowing some pretty nasty black smoke, so I think the engineering system on that ship is in dire need of upgrade,” Foggo said.
Then there is the case of Kuznetsov’s air wing. Because the ship lacks catapults, its fighters can only take off with a reduced fuel and weapons load. And even then, the jets have to charge the end of the deck at full speed, with the ship sailing into the wind. At the end of the deck there is a large ski ramp to give the planes a little kick into the air. It gets the job done, but it severely limits what the Kuznetsov can put up, and relegates the wing to defensive rather than offensive duties.
To be fair, this is by design. Kuznetsov was never envisioned as a strike carrier, but rather as an “aircraft-carrying heavy guided missile cruiser,” as it is technically designated in Russia. The ship was built with guided-missile tubes and hangar space for a modest air wing. The idea was Kuznetsov would largely act as a guided-missile cruiser, throwing planes up to defend the battle group. This was the greatest obstacle for Moscow’s desire to use it as an American-style strike carrier.
“Today you saw cycling air operations, launching and recovering aircraft,” Foggo said. “We do that 24/7, including at night. ... The Russians didn’t do that. They basically drove the air wing down to Syria and offloaded it, so it was more like a fly-on/fly-off type of ship. So there is no comparison, and I am very happy the United States Navy has got two of these fantastic carriers in the Med right now to send a very strong message to all of our adversaries, and also to all of our friends.”
It’s unlikely Russian leadership would seriously argue the U.S. is not a formidable, much stronger naval power. But Russia’s entire defensive posture on the water is arrayed to keep U.S. carrier strike groups away; beyond surface ships and submarines, Russia has coastal defense cruise missiles, and the country’s Air Force plays a significant role with its bombers such as the Tu-22 and Tu-142, which can be fitted with standoff cruise missiles to hit U.S. ships at range.
“Waving about carriers is a standard attempt at bolstering coercive credibility, but it is of limited utility when dealing with a continental land power,” said CNA’s Kofman. “The Russians are perfectly aware that we can put together two carrier strike groups, but they are able to effectively contest maritime approaches and project power into adjacent seas nonetheless. I wouldn’t expect them to be terribly impressed.”
Huntsman’s arrival on the Lincoln was an unusual move for a U.S. ambassador to Russia. But it is part of a growing relationship between Huntsman and Foggo. “We have been consulting with each other and comparing notes on a pretty regular basis,” Huntsman said. “There is nothing quite like being on the ground and working across the negotiating table on a day to day basis."
“We are able to pick up on perceptions that are impossible to get anywhere else, how the system works internally, and what the trends are likely to be going forward — because they are going to impact obviously the strategic dynamic in a broader context,” Huntsman added. “So this is a pretty good example of the integration you seek between diplomats and our men and women in uniform. And it is a good thing that we are doing that more and more.”
Huntsman also said Foggo’s insights are useful for his work in Moscow, since they bolster his understanding of the strategic situation and Russia’s priorities. It also helps him better comprehend how the Kremlin responds to American deployments, such as the dual-carrier op with Lincoln and Stennis.
“This is all very helpful for us, for me as chief of mission,” Huntsman said, “particularly when you are from Russia because a lot of what we are doing here is being watched and analyzed, and we are watching and analyzing [Russia], and it is best if we do it together with our colleagues in uniform.”
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.