Published on: 17.01.2023 – 17:51
One of the deputies and speaker of the Duma of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Sergei Karginov, in early January called on Moscow to buy back from China an aircraft carrier that Beijing acquired shortly after the Union Soviet was toppled. A request that is as strange as it seems useless in connection with the war in Ukraine, but which is a reminder of one of the great weaknesses of the Russian fleet.
Can an aircraft carrier help Russia regain the upper hand in Ukraine? While the idea may seem inappropriate in the context of a conflict that is almost exclusively fought on land, it was pitched to the Duma (Russia’s parliament) by Sergueï Karginov, MP for the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, the ultra-nationalist movement of the late right-wing tribune Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russia’s Ria Novosti news agency reported Jan. 6.
He advocated the purchase of the aircraft carrier Varyag, which was taken over by China 25 years ago and renamed Liaoning. “This boat was to become one of the flagships of the USSR. […] Given the current circumstances, I propose that we retrieve it, that we name it Zhirinovsky in memory of the founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, and that we make it the main weapon of our fleet in the Black Sea,” the MP explained, according to the website Business Insider, Monday , January 16.
One aircraft carrier, one twin, 1001 problems
A strange request, if only because an aircraft carrier doesn’t really belong in the Black Sea. “It’s a type of boat designed primarily to project naval power on the open seas. And even close to shore, it would essentially serve as a floating target for the Ukrainians,” notes Jeff Hawn, a Russian military affairs specialist and outside adviser to the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center.
It is not even certain that such a boat will be able to reach its final destination, because “due to the 1936 Montreux Convention, which states that during a war the belligerents have no right to send combat ships through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea to achieve,” recalls Jeff Hawn.
Under these circumstances, “I don’t think Moscow will be making a request to Beijing to ‘take back’ the aircraft carrier any time soon. On the other hand, Sergei Karginov’s proposal is interesting because it represents a new, thinly veiled criticism of the government, since the state of the fleet and the lack of an aircraft carrier worthy of the name are seen as symptomatic of the poor health of the Russian army.” , sums up Jeff Hawn, a specialist on Russian military issues and an outside consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.
In fact, Russia only has one aircraft carrier from the 1980s, which is in poor condition. Dubbed Kuznetsov, after the admiral of the Soviet fleet of the same name, it has been under repairs since 2018 and “the work took a long time and it was supposed to be completely rebuilt,” claims Jeff Hawn.
In fact, the Kuznetsov ended up there after an accident on a floating dry dock where it had been stored for repairs after a deployment in Syria. “She was sinking and at that moment a crane on the aircraft carrier collapsed leaving a huge hole in the hull,” says Jeff Hawn.
But that’s not all. This aircraft carrier was brought into dry dock for repairs after malfunctions were discovered on departure from Syria. The planes he had carried could not rest on the ship after their deployment “because the military considered it too dangerous for the ship. The planes then had to land on dry land,” notes Jeff Hawn.
Bringing the Kuznetsov case back to the table is tantamount to reminding the Russian leadership that they have no aircraft carriers, the quintessential symbol of a military power’s ability to “project itself anywhere in the world,” Jeff Hawn notes.
A heart of the Chinese fleet
The Chinese ship coveted by the Russian MP is historically Kuznetsov’s twin brother. It was still under construction when the Soviet Union disappeared. Beijing, interested in a model aircraft carrier even if it wasn’t ready, then decided to buy it back… to Ukraine.
In fact, almost 80% of all Soviet shipyards were located in Ukraine, and this is where the Viarag was assembled. A detail of history that could complicate possible Sino-Russian negotiations for his takeover. Kyiv could have a say…
Most importantly, “I would be very surprised if China agreed to resell this ship,” says Jeff Hawn. The Viarag or Liaoning is a “central part of the development of the Chinese fleet,” the specialist continues.
He has actually become what the Kuznetsov could have been. The Chinese disassembled it, examined it, and then kept only the hull to rebuild a more modern and efficient ship.
This made the Liaoning a model for aircraft carriers “Made in China” that are still in use today.
It is difficult to imagine in these conditions that Beijing would agree to part with such a symbol for the modernization of its fleet. Above all, however, the Liaoning itself is “always used for training,” Jeff Hawn assures. On this ship, aircraft pilots learn to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, and officers train to lead a naval strike force organized around such a boat.
So the call to buy this aircraft carrier has everything from the output of a Russian MP lulled by illusions of size. Both about the usefulness of such a ship in connection with the war in Ukraine, and about the ability of Russia to actually recover it.