Ukrainian espionage incident highlights ongoing Russian naval shortcomings

Russia's only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov on its way to Syria in October 2016 to participate in Putin's campaign to defend the dictatorial Assad regime. (Photo: social media)

As much Soviet-era military equipment inherited by Russia, its only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was built in Ukraine. Here on its way to Syria in October 2016 to participate in Putin's campaign to defend the dictatorial Assad regime, the ship was built over 1982-1991 at Ukraine's Mykolayiv South Shipyard. (Photo: social media) 

Op-ed, Russian Aggression

Article by: John C. K. Daly

Russian-Ukrainian relations, increasingly tense since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, plummeted to a new low after Russia’s forcible absorption of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and subsequent invasion of Donbas. On March 18, 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Sevastopol, home of the country’s Black Sea Fleet, and delivered a rousing patriotic speech commemorating the sixth anniversary of Russia’s “reunification” with Crimea (Kremlin.ru, March 18). The following day, likely not coincidentally, Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) agents arrested a Ukrainian from Mykolayiv on espionage charges of seeking information on advanced Ukrainian naval technology to sell to Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) (Ssu.gov.ua, March 19).

It is not surprising that the SSU would uncover a spy for Russia in Mykolayiv, which for decades housed the most advanced shipyards in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, Putin had obliquely addressed the issue of purported Russian espionage in his March 18 Sevastopol address. The Kremlin leader asserted that, after Russia’s acquisition of Crimea, Western powers had been “provoking a spy mania”; however, he insisted, “there has not been nor will there be any [Russian] spying. Unfortunately, we are seeing this, spy mania, in certain partner countries…” (Kremlin.ru, March 18). The recent SSU operation, nevertheless, seems to belie Putin’s pious assertions.

The SSU announcement tersely stated only that the suspect was attempting to sell “classified shipbuilding information” to Russia (Ssu.gov.ua, March 19). Yet, it is possible to deduce what the specific target likely was: notably, Ukraine’s Black Sea shipyards maintain an advantage over those of the Russian Federation in the construction of maritime gas turbine propulsion systems. Russia has been unable to master this high-technology area since Ukraine’s post-2014 ban on advanced military exports to Russia. As such, the technology certainly remains a high reconnaissance priority for Moscow.

While all countries seek some level of economic autarky or self-sufficiency in the production of armaments, the post-Soviet states are particularly vulnerable in this regard. First of all, the former Soviet Union’s centralized economic planning and resource deployment ignored market considerations; and second of all, Soviet industrial production chains were deliberately dispersed among the various constituent republics, which become independent states following 1991. The Soviet Union’s most advanced shipyards were concentrated in Ukraine: thus, all three classes of Soviet aircraft-carrying cruisers were built at the Mykolayiv Communal Shipyard (renamed the Black Sea Shipyard following the fall of the Soviet Union), including the Russian navy’s current flagship, the Admiral Kuznetsov (Fb.ru, November 28, 2017).

On May 20, 2015, a little over a year after Russia forcibly wrested Crimea away from Ukraine, the Ukrainian prime minister at the time, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said that the Cabinet would terminate the May 26, 1993, bilateral agreement on military-technical cooperation with Russia, stating, “The Russian Federation is an aggressor state; the Russian Federation has illegally annexed Crimea; the Russian Federation has conducted military intervention on the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions [Donbas]; the Russian Federation is a danger to the Ukrainian state and its territorial integrity. And that is why the agreement on military-technical cooperation with Russia is being broken by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine” (Ukrayinska Pravda, May 20, 2015).

Even before Ukraine withdrew from bilateral military cooperation, the Russian military was already searching for alternative import-substitution sourcing for some of its most crucial logistical needs. Three months prior to Yatseniuk’s announced termination of the 1993 agreement, then–Russian navy head, Admiral Viktor Chirkov, acknowledged that one consequence of the post-Crimean deterioration in Russian-Ukrainian relations was that the Russian naval forces would no longer be able to acquire maritime gas turbines manufactured by Ukraine’s state-owned enterprise Zoria Research and Production Complex of Gas Turbine Building–Mashproekt, in Mykolayiv. Chirkov commented that, as a result, the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF) would transfer its orders to the Ural Turbine Plant in Ekaterinburg (Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier, February 11, 2015).

Ironically, systemic Ukrainian corruption and mismanagement did what Russian pressure could not to further degrade Ukraine’s shipbuilding capacities. In November 2017, the Mykolayiv shipbuilding complex ceased work due to lack of funding necessary for the minimal maintenance of Ukrainian Navy warships, such as the Ukraina missile cruiser, mothballed quayside in Mykolayiv. These problem derailed naval plans even though, by this time, the shipbuilding enterprise was owned by Ukraine’s state-owned UkrOboronProm aerospace and defense conglomerate (Fb.ru, November 28, 2017).

While maritime gas turbines may well have been the prime target for the Mykolayiv spy, a number of other Ukrainian weaponry innovations could also have been of interest to the FSB—particularly those weapons systems with the potential to erode Russia’s near-monopoly on arms exports to the Middle East. These include an analogue of the Russian Iskander tactical missile system that Kyiv is developing with Saudi money, the Grom-2; a powerful Ukrainian electromagnetic radiation generator to neutralize air-defense radars; high-precision weapons-guidance systems; automatic troop control-and-communications systems Ukraine is researching in conjunction with the United Arab Emirates; as well as licensed production in Jordan of Korsar anti-tank missile systems produced by the Ukrainian company GKKB Luch (Delovaia Stolitsa, March 17, 2020).

The Ukrainian government is taking the espionage charges seriously: the captured Mykolayiv resident is being accused of treason (Gazeta.ua, March 20). While the naval disparity between Russia and Ukraine is vast, Soviet-era military-industrial legacies as well as the fact that these two neighbors share the northern Black Sea coastline mean that the Mykolayiv incident is unlikely to be the last.

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Edited by: A. N.

Source: The Jamestown Foundation Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 45

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