Major fire breaks out on unlucky Russian aircraft carrier

Admiral Kuznetsov, launched in the mid-1980s, has spent most of its 30-year life tied up in port undergoing repairs
Image: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov tied up at a Rosatomflot moorage of the Russian northern port city of Murmansk.
Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov tied up at a Rosatomflot moorage of the Russian northern port city of Murmansk.Alexander Nemenov / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Matthew Bodner

MOSCOW — A major fire broke out aboard Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the beleaguered Admiral Kuznetsov, while undergoing repairs at a dock in the northern port city of Murmansk early Thursday morning.

Russian media outlets reported that fire control teams were struggling to contain and extinguish the blaze, while dramatic videos of the ship surrounded by thick plumes of smoke have proliferated on social media.

In a statement on the Russian social network VKontakte, the Zvezdochka shipyard — where the Admiral Kuznetsov is currently docked undergoing a significant, multi-year overhaul — said that the fire broke out while welding work was being conducted in one of the carrier’s engineering sections.

“At present, fire crews are engaged in extinguishing the fire,” the statement said. “Workers aboard the ship were evacuated. There is currently no information about victims.”

The state-run TASS news agency, citing the Zvezdochka press service, said some 400 military and civilian repair personnel were on board the ship when the fire broke out. They have been evacuated, but the shipyard has not specified the number injured or missing.

Two crew members were injured in the fire, the Associated Press reported, citing the Russian Northern Fleet’s press service.

Admiral Kuznetsov, launched in the mid-1980s, is an unlucky ship. It has spent most of its 30-year life tied up in port undergoing repairs for various mishaps that have occurred on the rare occasions it has gone to sea. And when it does sail, it is always escorted by a tugboat.

Despite the problems with the ship, the Kremlin has in recent years leaned heavily on it to project an image of resurgent Russian naval strength. But problems have continued to arise, limiting the impact of the ship’s image to Russian state media audiences.

The ship was sent on a high-profile deployment to Syria in 2017, passing through the English Channel. During this leg of the voyage, the ship began to billow thick black smoke — prompting former U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon to label it a “ship of shame.”

Once parked off the coast of Syria, Kuznetsov’s air wing took part in Russia’s early aerial campaign in that conflict. However, this was also not without incident: the ship lost two fighter jets to the sea when its arrestor wires — the cables that catch landing planes — snapped.

When the ship returned to Murmansk in 2018, it entered Russia’s largest floating drydock, known as PD-50, for a major overhaul. Even in drydock, ostensibly the safest place for a ship of war, Kuznetsov was unable to avoid trouble.

In October 2018, a power outage caused ballast tanks on the PD-50 drydock to flood and the dock sank — nearly taking Kuznetsov down with it. The crew managed to cast off before losing the ship, but a large construction crane collapsed onto the deck, resulting in significant damage.

Kuznetsov has been docked at the 35th ship repair facility in Murmansk undergoing repairs ever since. It is during these repairs that Thursday’s fire broke out. Russia’s United Shipbuilding Corporation says a full evaluation of the damage will have to wait for the fire to be extinguished.