A Russian warplane has crashed into the eastern Mediterranean as it was coming in to land on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier off the coast of Syria, the Russian defence ministry said on Monday.

The pilot of the MiG-29 jet ejected and his life was not in danger, according to the official account. The ministry attributed the crash to a “technical fault” during an exercise.

The plane was one of four MiG-29 fighter-bombers on the Kuznetsov and its loss undermines what was intended to be a display of Russian naval might in the Mediterranean in support of the Russian war effort in Syria.

“An aviation accident with carrier-based fighter MiG-29K occurred during exercise flights as a result of a technical fault during the approach landing a few kilometers from the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft-carrying cruiser,” ministry officials, quoted by the Sputnik news agency, said.

There are also about a dozen Su-33 fighters onboard that have recently been upgraded so they can carry out better-targeted strikes on targets on the ground. According to Thomas Newdick of Combat Aircraft magazine, who first reported the crash, some of those Su-33 planes carried out airstrikes on Monday, marking the first time aircraft from the Kuznetsov had taken part in bombing in Syria, and the first time the Kuznetsov had been in combat since its launch more than 30 years ago.

Military officials briefed the Moscow press on the day of the US presidential election that a large-scale air offensive was imminent using cruise missiles, carrier- and land-based aircraft, but that onslaught never materialised. Diplomats in Washington suggested the announcement may have been intended to unsettle Americans as they went out to vote.

The loss of the plane is a serious one for the Russia military. The newly built MiG-29KUBR version is one of Russia’s most modern warplanes, and they are in short supply, as are pilots to fly them. Michael Kofman, of the Washington-based Center for Naval Analyses, said that by his estimate, the Kuznetsov now only had three MiG-29s left and only three pilots capable of flying them.

“This is bad publicity for what was supposed to be a show of capability,” Kofman said. “As many Russians feared, this could become an embarrassment.”