The Chinese businessman who bought a Soviet aircraft carrier

The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is perhaps the most popular warship of the Russian Navy. She is the only vessel of this type of armament there, and in recent years has become known above all for her chronic problems and accidents along her side.

Little is known, however, that he also has a twin. He is not on duty in Russia and appears considerably healthier. And perhaps that is why some believe that it is the ship that the “Admiral Kuznetsov” should have been, and not what it is now.

It is about the Chinese aircraft carrier “Liaoning”, which has a really interesting history.

Sometime in the early 1980s, it first appeared on the drawing boards at the Nevsky Bureau of Planning and Design in the city of Mykolaiv, present-day Ukraine. The idea then is to build two “heavy aircraft carrier cruisers” “Tbilisi” and “Riga”, which will supplement and subsequently replace the four ships of the “Kyiv” class serving at that time.

With the collapse of the USSR, all of the “Kyiv” class were decommissioned. One of the four was scrapped, two others ended up in museums in China, and the last one was reconstructed and sold to India, where it has been in service since 2013 under the name “Vikramadiya”.

Meanwhile, the new system makes the designs for the two new ships a long way from completion. “Tbilisi” is ahead in its development. It was launched in 1985 (under the name “Leonid Brezhnev”) and entered service five years later, a year before the collapse of the USSR. It was fully completed in 1995, when it was renamed “Admiral Kuznetsov”.

His twin, however, has a slightly different fate. “Riga” did not enter service until the final days of the USSR and eventually remained in the port of Nikolaev as the property of the new Ukrainian state.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The British HMS Dragon escorted the “Admiral Kuznetsov” through the English Channel. The Russian ship became famous for its smoking chimney

However, they have neither the means nor the ambition to complete it there. By this time the ship was already known as the “Varyag”, but was nothing more than a half-finished hull.

From Kyiv, inquiries are made to Russia, China and India with the intention of finding a possible buyer in them. Only in Beijing do they show interest and send a commission to evaluate the project. Despite the good recommendations, the government still gave up on the idea because the price was too high at that time.

Thus, “Varyag” was left to literally rot in Nikolaev for years.

The situation changed in 1998, when Ukraine organized an auction for the purchase of the trough. It was won by a dubious Chinese company from Macau, whose representatives say they want to turn the Varyag into a $200 million floating hotel and casino. Even then, however, some concerns arise, as the company does not have a phone number, nor even an office at the address that the buyers indicated. The authorities in Macau have already once refused to issue a permit for a similar hotel-casino to the company in question.

Years later, Hong Kong businessman Xu Zenping, in an interview with the “South China Morning Post”, in all probability tells the true story of the purchase.

According to him, the Chinese navy did not have the funds to purchase the ship, nor the government’s permission to do so. So it was decided to use the false story about the private company and the hotel so as to bypass the political leadership and the navy would get the desired ship or at least some prototype and know-how to use to design and build their own aircraft carrier .

Thus, businessman Sue is tasked with raising the necessary funds and doing everything possible to win the auction, including handing out generous bribes to Ukrainian politicians and the military. He even managed to get over 40 tons of equipment and documentation, which he took to China long before the auction itself.


In the end, the Varyag floating trough ended up in Sue’s hands for $20 million. From there, however, a far more difficult task followed – how to get this thing to the other end of the world.

For this purpose, a Dutch company was hired with a heavy tugboat, which had to pull the trough all the way to China. The first obstacle turned out to be the Bosphorus, where the Turkish authorities refuse permission for passage due to fears that the 300-meter hull is unmanageable and, at the slightest deterioration in atmospheric conditions, will easily clog the narrow strait and threaten all traffic through it.

Thus, the Dutch tug was forced to drive “Varyag” in circles for 16 months.

“Yesterday, today, tomorrow – we’re going in counterclockwise circles,” said Ray Abagatnan, captain of the tugboat Sandy Cape, in a 2001 interview with The Washington Post. “Sometimes another ship comes in to take a picture, and from there they call me on the radio to ask me what it is. A tug towing an aircraft carrier – you don’t see that every day.”

The ship really becomes an attraction and even at one point some unknown helicopter lands on it. By the time the sailors from the tugboat reach the aircraft carrier, the enthusiasts with the helicopter disappear, leaving behind only the inscription “The French were here”.

However, China and Turkey reached an agreement and the authorities allowed the huge ship to pass.

Further, “Varyag” continued to encounter difficulties during a storm off the Greek coast, when the ropes with which it was being towed broke. One sailor died in the accident.

Egypt then refused access through the Suez Canal, as no self-propelled ships were allowed to pass there, and the whole procession had to pass through Gibraltar, past Africa, and the Cape of Good Hope.

The initial plans for a 60-day voyage turned out to be a never-ending journey of 28,000 kilometers that began in June 2000 and ended on March 3, 2002, when the Varyag arrived at the port in the city of Dalian.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Varyag” passes through the Bosphorus

However, for the businessman, this does not mean the end of the suffering. China’s prime minister at the time, Zhu Rongji, refused to support the idea, meaning there was no one to reimburse Xu. There is no official recognition from the government either, the state media never mentions it.

It is still unclear how the only person who signed the contract with the Ukrainian authorities turned the ship over to the Chinese government.

He is silent on the subject, and the two military men at the center of the covert operation are no longer able to say. The man who convinced Xu to participate was Chinese Navy Vice Admiral He Pengfei, who died in 2001. The other important figure was the chief of naval intelligence, Ji Shengde, who, however, was sentenced to life in prison in 2000 on corruption charges.

It took a full 11 years before the ship began its first tests and was then handed over to the navy under the name Liaoning. It becomes the first operational aircraft carrier in China’s history and, at least for the time being, looks far more reliable than its twin Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Liaoning has undergone a number of upgrades to its engines, although it uses the original ones built in Ukraine. It is believed that years after the sale of the hull, the Chinese Navy also purchased them. A new radar system and flight control software were also introduced. It is unclear exactly what the aircraft carrying capacity is.

The role of the United States as a world power is threatened

However, the Liaoning is believed to be primarily a training ship with a more limited operational role – a necessary step to gain experience and know-how for the future. Proof of this is that the finished Chinese version has significantly less armament compared to the original project.

Experience from the Liaoning proved invaluable in the construction of the Shandong, which is the next generation and the first all-Chinese aircraft carrier. It is an improved and significantly larger version with a catapult take-off system, more weapons and increased capacity to handle aircraft and helicopters.

The conventionally powered Fujian (ominously named after the Chinese province opposite Taiwan) will be ready within a few years, and an aircraft carrier, presumably nuclear, is in advanced design.

The article is in bulgaria

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