As Russia’s only aircraft carrier falls apart, some Russians want to undo a shady ship deal with China 25 years ago

Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in Murmansk in May 2022.Semen Vasileyev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  • Russia’s sole aircraft carrier has been sidelined for years and may not see action again.

  • A Russian lawmaker has proposed trying to buy China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier as a replacement.

  • Liaoning began life as a Soviet carrier, but China acquired it in a shady sale in the late 1990s.

Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, is in such bad shape that it may be easier to buy a replacement than to fix it.

In a sign of how low Russia’s military has sunk, a Russian politician has suggested doing so by buying a Soviet-designed carrier that was sold to China 25 years ago.

Admiral Kuznetsov has never been lucky. Launched in 1985, the 60,000-ton vessel has suffered engine breakdowns, multiple fires, and bizarre shipyard accidents. In 2012, it had to be towed to port by a tugboat after losing propulsion off the French coast.

Sidelined for overhaul since 2017, Kuznetsov was damaged in 2018 by a falling dockyard crane that left a 200-square-foot hole in its flight deck. This was followed in December 2019 by a major fire that killed at least one person while the ship was under refit in Murmansk. Most recently, a fire in December caused what the Russian government called “minor” damage.

Kuznetsov is now in such bad shape that it can neither move under its own power nor be towed, for fear that the ship might capsize, according to Ukrainian media.

admiral Kuznetsov

Admiral Kuznetsov off the coast of northern Norway in October 2016.Reuters

“When the diving teams examined the ship’s hull, it was found that the metal structures below the third deck were subjected to significant corrosion,” RBC-Ukraine said, according to a translation. “The holds are completely filled with muddy water, which makes it impossible to examine the ship from the inside in detail.”

At best, the carrier seems unlikely to return to service in 2024 — which was already several years behind schedule.

Meanwhile, Sergey Karginov, a Russian lawmaker who sits on the Duma’s Far East and Arctic committee, has proposed a novel solution: buy the ex-Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag from China.

Varyag, a sister ship to Admiral Kuznetsov, was still under construction when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. When the ships of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet were split between Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainians took possession of Varyag. Ukraine then sold the unfinished vessel for $20 million to a Chinese buyer who claimed it would be converted into a floating casino.

After nearly sinking while being towed to China, Varyag ended up in a naval shipyard where it was outfitted for its original mission. It became Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning towed through Bosphorus Strait

Varyag is towed under the Bosphorus Bridge in November 2001.REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Commissioned in 2012, Liaoning now has an air wing of 40 jets and helicopters. To compound the strange tale, Liaoning carries the J-15 fighter, an unlicensed Chinese copy of Russia’s Su-33 carrier jet.

China acquired an Su-33 prototype from Ukraine and then reverse-engineered it to develop the J-15. In a bit of poetic justice, China’s copies had a habit of crashing, which Russian media gleefully pointed out.

Nevertheless, Liaoning was the nucleus for China’s emerging carrier fleet. Its navy commissioned a second carrier — the 60,000-ton Shandong, built in China — in 2019.

Next was China’s first domestically designed carrier, Fujian, launched in 2022. The 80,000-ton Fujian is closer in size and capabilities to US Navy nuclear-powered carriers.

With China desperately needing carrier-qualified pilots for what may eventually be a fleet of a half-dozen carriers, Liaoning is now relegated to being a training ship.

Karginov, a member of Russia’s right-wing Liberal Democratic Party, suggested the repurchased Liaoning be renamed after party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and be made the new Black Sea Fleet flagship.

liaoning aircraft carrier

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning during a drill in the western Pacific in April 2018.Stringer via Reuters

“The ship was supposed to become one of the main ones in the USSR,” Karginov said, according to a translation of his remarks. “After the collapse of the country, Ukraine preferred to sell it for a few bottles of vodka, at the price of scrap metal.”

Perhaps Karginov is mocking Russia’s military decline, but his idea is no crazier than Russia buying any other carrier.

Historically, Russia has been a continental power whose strength was its massive army (as has China). The Soviets built aircraft-carrying ships, but their role was different from that of US Navy carriers. Russia’s challenge now isn’t projecting naval airpower into the Mediterranean or the Pacific. It’s defeating Ukraine — or at least holding off fierce Ukrainian counterattacks.

Russia’s air and naval power have been remarkably unhelpful so far during the war in Ukraine. Its jets have mostly been relegated to long-range attacks, and its warships have been less active since the sinking of Moskva, the Black Sea Fleet flagship.

A 40-year-old aircraft carrier in the Black Sea won’t provide much value. The money would be better spent on new missiles and drones, which have proven effective in bombarding Ukrainian infrastructure. It’s a little late for Russia to become a carrier power.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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