Can an aircraft carrier help Russia regain the upper hand in Ukraine?

If the idea may seem incongruous in the context of a conflict fought almost exclusively on land, it was nevertheless submitted to the Duma (Russian parliament) by Sergueï Karginov, deputy of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the ultranationalist movement of the late far-right tribune Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported on January 6.

He pleaded to buy the aircraft carrier Varyag, acquired 25 years ago by China and which renamed it Liaoning.

“This boat was to become one of the flagships of the USSR.

[...] Given the current circumstances, I propose that we recover 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”, declared the MP, according to the Business Insider site, Monday, January 16. 

An aircraft carrier, a twin, 1001 problems

A strange request, if only because an aircraft carrier would not really belong in the Black Sea.

“It's a type of boat that is used primarily to project naval power in the open sea.

And also close to the coast, it would essentially serve as a floating target for the Ukrainians”, notes Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military issues and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center. 

It is not even certain that such a boat can reach its final destination because “of the Montreux Convention of 1936 which indicates that the belligerents during a war do not have the right to send combat ships through the Bosphorus Strait to reach the Black Sea”, recalls Jeff Hawn.

Under these circumstances, “I don't think Moscow will file a request with Beijing to 'recover' the aircraft carrier anytime soon.

On the other hand, Sergei Karginov's proposal is interesting because it is a new thinly veiled criticism of the government, as the state of the fleet and the absence of an aircraft carrier worthy of the name are considered symptomatic of the poor health of the 'Russian army,' sums up Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military issues and an outside consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitical research.  

Russia, in fact, has only one aircraft carrier, dating from the 1980s, and which is in poor condition.

Named Kuznetsov, in reference to the admiral of the eponymous Soviet fleet, it has been under repair since 2018 and “the work has taken a long time, and it should actually be completely rebuilt”, maintains Jeff Hawn.

In fact, the Kuznetsov ended up there after an accident on a floating drydock where it had been stored for repairs after a mission in Syria.

"She sank and at that moment a crane collapsed on the aircraft carrier creating a huge hole in the hull," says Jeff Hawn. 

But that's not all.

This aircraft carrier had been placed in dry dock for repair because its exit off Syria had revealed malfunctions.

The planes he had carried could not rest on the ship after their mission “because the military felt it was too dangerous for the ship.

The planes then had to land on dry land,” notes Jeff Hawn.

Putting the Kuznetsov case back on the table is equivalent to reminding Russian leaders that they have no aircraft carriers, the symbol par excellence of the ability of a military power “to project itself anywhere on the globe”. notes Jeff Hawn. 

A centerpiece of the Chinese fleet

The Chinese ship coveted by the Russian deputy is, historically, the twin brother of Kuznetsov.

It was still under construction when the Soviet Union disappeared.

Beijing, interested in a model of aircraft carrier, even unfinished, then decided to buy it back….

to Ukraine. 

Indeed, almost 80% of all Soviet shipyards were in Ukraine, and this is where the Viarag was assembled.

A detail of the story that could complicate possible Sino-Russian negotiations for its takeover.

kyiv could have its say…

Above all, "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”, continues this specialist. 

He has, in effect, become what the Kuznetsov might have been.

The Chinese dismantled it, studied it, then kept only the hull in order to rebuild a more modern and efficient ship.

The Liaoning thus became the model for “made in China” aircraft carriers that are still in use today.

It is difficult to imagine under these conditions that Beijing agrees to part with such a symbol of the modernization of its fleet.

But above all, the Liaoning itself is “always used for training”, assures Jeff Hawn.

It is on this ship that aircraft pilots learn to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, that officers train to operate a naval intervention force organized around such a boat.

The call to buy this aircraft carrier therefore has everything from the output of a Russian deputy who is cradled in illusions of grandeur.

Both about the usefulness of such a ship in the context of the war in Ukraine and about the ability of Russia to actually recover it. 

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