When the erstwhile Soviet Union disintegrated, Ukraine sold the Kuznetsov-class cruiser carrier to China. More than two decades later, a Russian political party has made a pitch to the Russian government to buy back the aircraft carrier from Beijing.
On January 5, a leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, Sergey Karginov suggested that the Russian government buy back the Soviet aircraft carrier that Ukraine had previously sold to China, RIA Novosti reported.
The Liberal Democratic Party is a right-wing, ultranationalist party that supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Karginov told the media: “The unfinished aircraft carrier Varyag was handed over to Ukraine and then sold to China to convert it into a casino. After China received the ship, it completed its construction and renamed it the Liaoning ship. The ship was originally supposed to become one of the main ships of the USSR.”
He suggested that the Russian government buy the aircraft carrier from China and induct it into service in the name of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the founder of his party who died last year. Zhirinovsky was an ultra-nationalist politician who shared Vladimir Putin’s disdain for Ukraine and other former Soviet countries.
Karginov made a very blunt suggestion saying, “After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine preferred to sell it, in fact, for a price of a few bottles of vodka or price of scrap metal. Given the current situation, I propose that Russia buy this aircraft carrier from China, in the name of Zhirinovsky, the founder of the Liberal Democratic Party, and make it the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.”
The call for inducting the Liaoning carrier into the Black Sea Fleet is significant as the naval force stationed here has been pivotal in launching attacks against Ukraine. The pitch coincidentally comes when Ukraine has said there is currently just one Russian vessel with no Kalibr cruise missile in the Black Sea.
In addition, Ukraine has sporadically launched attacks against Crimea and the Sevastopol Port, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
It may be a far-fetched idea to purchase China’s first-ever aircraft carrier Liaoning. However, it may be worth going back into the history of how China devised a master plan to acquire the vessel from Ukraine and went completely rogue in the process.
How China Acquired Its First Aircraft Carrier?
China launched its first aircraft carrier Liaoning named after a Chinese province in 2012. The vessel was a refurbished Soviet Kuznetsov-class cruiser carrier purchased in an incomplete state.
Due to its potent arsenal of 12 P-700 Granit anti-ship missile systems, Kuznetsov was technically classified as an “aircraft-carrying cruiser.” This technicality was crucial since the Montreux Convention forbade “aircraft carriers” from traveling from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Bosporus Strait if they weighed more than 15,000 tons.
The second ship in its class, the Varyag, was barely two-thirds finished in Ukraine before the fall of the Soviet Union because it lacked weapons and electrical equipment. When work on the project ended in 1992, the cash-strapped Ukrainian government tried everything in its power to sell the 55,000 tons of useless metal decaying in its Mykolaiv shipyard.
The PLA Navy desired the Varyag, and the team was dispatched by Beijing to inspect it and advised to buy it. However, the Chinese leadership was concerned that acquiring a carrier might exacerbate tensions when the country was looking for foreign investors and opening its economy significantly. The People’s Liberation Army hatched a plan to purchase without raising eyebrows in the West.
In 1996, a group of PLA officers led by intelligence chief Gen. Ji Shengde approached Xu Zengping, a former PLA basketball player who had turned into a successful businessman organizing international events. The strategy was to have Xu purchase the carrier under his name, presumably so that it might serve as a casino. This would eliminate any scope of suspicion on the PLA.
Xu traveled to Ukraine in January 1998 and met with the proprietors of the shipyard. He agreed to buy the carrier for $20 million after four days of negotiations during which massive bribes were offered. The payment was made almost a year later with a late fee of $10 million superimposed on the negotiated amount.
The PLA had decided that the PLA Navy would later acquire and assemble the aircraft after the political environment had improved. A two-part news story revealed the plan by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in 2015.
After years of dilly-dallying and several obstructions related to its shipping to China, the carrier finally arrived at the port of Dalian in the province of Liaoning in March 2002. It was placed in a dry dock three years later to enable a thorough refurbishment operation, which included sandblasting away all the rust and restoring and fitting the engines in 2011.
The carrier was tailored to suit China’s requirements and was finally launched in 2012 and is now the mainstay of the PLA Navy. The Russian ultranationalist leader may want the carrier back, but it is doubtful that China would let go of a vessel acquired after several years of struggle and extensive planning.
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