A Russian lawmaker proposes buying a replacement aircraft carrier from China

  • Russia’s only aircraft carrier has been sidelined for years and may not see action again.
  • A Russian lawmaker suggested trying to buy China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier as a replacement.
  • The Liaoning began life as a Soviet carrier but was bought by China in a dubious sale in the late 1990s.

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

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

Admiral Kuznetsov was never lucky. Launched in 1985, the 60,000-ton ship suffered engine failures, multiple fires and bizarre shipyard accidents. In 2012, it had to be towed to port by a tug after it lost power off the French coast.

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

Kuznetsov is now in such a bad condition that he can neither move under his own power nor be towed, for fear that the ship could capsize, according to Ukrainian media.

Admiral Kuznetsov

Admiral Kuznetsov on the coast of northern Norway in October 2016.


“When the diving teams examined the ship’s hull, it was discovered that the metal structures below the third deck were subjected to significant corrosion,” RBC-Ukraine said, according to the translation. “The holds are completely filled with murky water, which prevents a detailed inspection of the ship from the inside.”

At best, it seems unlikely that the carrier will return to service in 2024 — already several years behind schedule.

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

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

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

The Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed through the Bosphorus Strait

Varjag was dragged under the Bosphorus Bridge in November 2001.

REUTERS/Fatih Saribas

Commissioned in 2012, the Liaoning now has an air wing of 40 jets and helicopters. To complicate the strange story, the Liaoning carries the J-15 fighter, an unlicensed Chinese copy of the Russian Su-33 carrier aircraft.

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

Regardless, the Liaoning was the core of China’s nascent carrier fleet. Its navy ordered a second carrier – the 60,000-ton Shandong, built in China – in 2019.

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

With China in desperate need of carrier-qualified pilots for what could eventually be a fleet of half a dozen carriers, the Liaoning has now been demoted as a training ship.

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

aircraft carrier Liaoning

China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier during an exercise in the Western Pacific in April 2018.

Stringer via Reuters

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

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

Historically, Russia was a continental power whose strength was its vast military (as was China). The Soviets built aircraft carriers, but their role was different from that of the US Navy’s carriers. Russia’s challenge now is not to project naval aviation into the Mediterranean or the Pacific. Beats Ukraine — or at least holds off fierce Ukrainian counterattacks.

Russian air and naval power have so far been largely useless during the war in Ukraine. Its jets were mostly aimed at long-range attacks, and warships have been less active since the sinking of the Moscow, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.

A 40-year-old aircraft carrier in the Black Sea will not provide much value. The money would be better spent on new missiles and drones, which have proven effective in bombing Ukrainian infrastructure. It is a bit late for Russia to become a supporting power.

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

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